Belfast Telegraph

Co Armagh bookie who beat the bottle to become betting millionaire

By Sara Neill

John Boyle says his journey to success has not finished yet, as the Co Armagh man behind the Irish betting chain Boylesports prepares for a huge move into the UK market. The 58-year-old is an unlikely millionaire who has battled a drink problem and describes his younger self as “a messer”.

The father-of-seven said: “I was a breadman until I was 25, but I lost that job because of over-indulging and drinking. I wasn’t turning up for work or coming home to my family. 

“Those were my hard times. I was unemployed for a year, but I got sober in 1981.”

After a year of being dry, a premises came up for sale in John’s hometown of Markethill. With a £6,000 loan from his father and £12,000 from the bank, John opened his first betting shop in 1982.

He said: “I thought my dad was amazing. He recognised that I had turned a corner and my gratitude will go on for ever.”

The thrill of the bookies began for John when he and his father travelled to England during the late 1970s. The trip left a lasting impression on the 14-year-old, planting a seed that would eventually blossom into a business with an annual turnover in excess of €1bn (£0.7m).

John said: “I remember being taken round these shops and it being very exciting.

“I came home and told my friends that I was going to be a millionaire. I didn’t even know how many noughts were in a million.”

That visit prompted John’s dad to open a betting shop in Camlough and eventually facilitate that loan that would change John’s future.

John spent Saturdays and Grand National days working in his father’s shop, alongside his brother, but the first day at work in his new store brought nerves.

He said: “I was fearful, but I knew how to go in and manage it.

“I had my brother on the telephone, and I probably gave him a sore ear for the first three months because anything that I wanted to know I’d just ring him.”

After seven years in Markethill, John felt he had “served his apprenticeship” and was ready to move onto bigger things.

He said: “I was doing the same job in the same place every day for seven years, six evenings a week. I felt like there was a depression coming on.

“I had to maintain my family so there was no option of not working, but I knew my spirit needed to get out.

“The opportunity to earn more money was a big part of it, too.”

In 1989, the second Boylesports opened, this time in Drogheda, Co Louth, where a more relaxed attitude towards betting licences enabled the chain to flourish.

John said: “I can get a licence and open up anywhere in the south, because there are no restrictions.

“In the north you have to go to court and prove when going into any area that it warrants a new betting shop. It’s very costly and you could invest £30,000 in fees and the answer would be no. But in the south, the answer was always yes.

“At that time, I wouldn’t have had the finance to open in the north.”

Boylesports now has 210 stores across the Republic, and the first bookies in Markethill also remains.

The chain runs a telephone betting service and a betting app, and it manages an impressive online presence, which John said gives “everyone with a smartphone a betting shop in their pocket”.

While he sees online as the next generation of betting, John is also emphatic that betting shops will retain their popularity.

“When we had Goodwood and Galway races, every store was busy, because they’re big into their horse racing in Ireland,” he said. “It’s a social event — there are guys who’ll meet for the big meet.

“And with the football back on, we’ll have the young fellas coming in on a Saturday to do their bet. It’ll be the first time that they’ve met in two months, because with the season off they don’t come in. The shops are where people gather, have a bit of craic and place their bets. I don’t imagine they’ll ever die.”

With 210 existing shops, the plan to bring Boylesports up to 250 stores across Ireland is well under way.

As exclusively revealed in the Belfast Telegraph, the chain has recently acquired two shops in Northern Ireland.

The premises in Newry and Crossmaglen are to be rebranded as Boylesports, and John has his eye out for other opportunities in the region.

The businessman has also expressed an interest in moving into the GB market, with hundreds of stores expected to be up for sale when two major bookies merge.

Ladbrokes and Gala Coral are looking to join forces, but for the deal to pass, the Competition and Markets Authority is expected to demand they shed more than 600 shops.

John’s dream is to have Boylesports recognised as the preferred bidder in the deal, bringing his company up to more than 800 stores across the UK and Ireland. “If you’re not growing, you’re being left behind,” he said.

“Rather than opening one or two stores in the UK, like we did in Ireland, we’re in a position to look at something bigger. This is just another possibility, and we’re putting our name on the books, so if that does happen they know we’re more than interested in doing a deal.”

As Boylesports continues to grow, John remains at the at the forefront of the company, but maintains that, if the right person came along, they could replace him as CEO.

The father-of-seven has four daughters working for his company, and he is determined that since Boylesports started as a family business, it should continue that way.

“I’m here because I’m needed and I enjoy it,” he said. “My intention is I’d be handing Boylesports on to my family. And I’ll work until they are strong enough to take it over.

And when he eventually does retire, John will not venture far from his family home.

He said: “I like Ireland very much and I’m a homebird, so I’d be very happy to retire in Rostrevor.”

This time it's personal

Q:Do you prefer the town or country, and why?

A: I’ve always lived in the country and that’s where I feel most at home. Town is fun to visit, but I prefer the peace and quiet.

Q: How has the betting industry changed since you started out?

A: When I started out, you weren’t allowed to watch a television in a betting shop. That was breaking the law. That meant there was no live pictures from the track. The law has changed, and now people can watch multiple sports live in our stores. Technology has been the biggest change, and it does most of the work for you. You used to have to calculate all the prices. Also, betting shops now are much more comfortable.

Q: How do you foresee it developing in the next decade?

A: Technology will create the greatest developments. I see regulation catching up with changes in technology, so any bet you can currently make on your smartphone will also be allowed in a shop. As the law changes, more opportunities will become available. There will also be many more exciting new virtual products which will greatly increase the entertainment value for customers.

Q: Does the company take any measures to ensure punters gamble in a responsible way?

A: Yes, absolutely. We very much care about those who might have a problem with responsible gambling, which is why, even ahead of the Republic’s Gambling Control Bill, Boylesports implemented all of the provisions related to problem gambling. In fact, many of those requirements have been standard practice at Boylesports for years. For example, we make a voluntary contribution to the Belfast-based Dunlewey Centre, which provides not only a freephone service, but also has 35 counsellors all over the island. Our staff are trained to recognise and address someone who may have a problem. There are leaflets and posters in our shops, and the freephone number is in all our advertisements. Customers can sign a form which excludes them from being able to place bets with us, and we support the call for a central database for self-exclusion.

Q: Are you a betting man yourself? What was your first ever punt?

A: Yes, I enjoy the occasional punt at the races or football. My first ever punt was on the greyhounds at Dundalk.

Q: Have you any career advice for anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur?

A: My experience is that it is possible to live your dream. It requires drive and desire to overcome both your own doubts and the challenges of others. Surround yourself with people who support and encourage you, and that are honest with you. Model yourself after successful people. Above all, keep taking the next step.

Q: What was the last book you read, and what was it like?

AI just finished a short book called Sound Investments by Neville Goddard. It is a wonderfully simple book that makes a lot of sense. It basically says everything in life should be an investment. Most people spend their time, thoughts and money. When we spend our resources, we waste them. But when we invest for a purpose, we get the rewards of a truly satisfying and productive life.

Q: What was your last holiday, and what will be your next one?

A: My last holiday was an eight-day tour around the north and south of Ireland. My next will involve sunshine.

QWhat is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?

A: Elvis is still the King.

Q: What is your favourite sport and/or team? Have you ever played any sports?

A: Football and greyhound racing are my favourites. I was a Chelsea supporter as a kid and my dad trained greyhounds. I played football and basketball.

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