Dianne Thompson: The woman who makes our dreams come true
As chief executive of Camelot, Dianne Thompson oversees the distribution of millions of pounds of Lottery funding every year. Audrey Watson caught up with the high-flying businesswoman during her recent trip to Belfast, where she spoke about the working class upbringing that spurred her on to huge success
The millions of people who play the National Lottery every week may not recognise Dianne Thompson, but Camelot’s chief executive deserves to be a household name. Forget Apprentice star Karren Brady, this tiny (4ft 11) powerhouse is so driven and so successful, she makes the West Ham United vice-chairman look like a part-timer.
Having successfully rescued Gerald Ratner’s jewellery business (now known as Signet) after he dissed his own products in that infamous 1991 speech, the Yorkshire-born mum-of-one joined Camelot as commercial operations director 14 years ago and took over as chief executive in December 2000.
She was no sooner in the top seat than she had to do battle with Richard Branson in the High Court over his 2001 bid to take over the running of the lottery.
Recalls Dianne: “It was a tough battle, but we had to fight it or else it would have been all over for Camelot. Richard Branson was a tough adversary and very popular.
“When we eventually won, he sent me a letter of congratulations and he did say in one public interview that if we had lost, he was going to offer me a job, so that was alright. He didn’t say as what, though — it could have been as a trolley dolly on a plane,” she laughs.
Relaxing over morning coffee in Belfast’s Merchant Hotel, it’s hard to believe I’m sitting opposite one of the most powerful businesswomen in the UK today.
Unlike Brady, there’s nothing at all scary or hard-nosed about Dianne Thompson. She’s friendly, funny and surprisingly knowledgeable about Northern Ireland lottery winners and the good causes in the province that Camelot supports — the reason for her two-day visit.
“I’m seeing former Belfast bus driver Peter [Lavery], who won £10.2m 15 years ago, later today and also heading to the Odyssey to see some of the regeneration projects we are supporting there as well as visiting some local charities that have also benefited,” she explains.
“I wish I had more time here though, as I would really have loved to have got up to the Giant’s Causeway as we are supporting the new visitor centre up there.
“Camelot doesn’t hand the money out. We just raise it, but we do care a lot. One of the big things I get frustrated with is that our players don’t know where the money has gone. Every week, £30m is given to good causes.
“I’ve met lots of NI winners and I love to present the cheques myself if they come over to our head office.
“About 80% of winners opt for no publicity but, obviously, it’s better for us if they go public,” she laughs.
She may be 60 years old, but Dianne admits she is still as driven today as when she first began her business career in the 1970s. She had planned to retire in 2012, but has now changed her mind.
“I was going to exit stage left after we had raised money for the Olympics,” she explains. “But Camelot’s new owners [a Canadian pension fund] have asked me to stay on to 2015.
“I’ve always been really driven,” she says. “I come from a very working-class background. My dad, who is now 85, was a butcher. My mum, who sadly died 26 years ago, worked in a shoe shop. They had nothing and worked really, really hard all their lives.
“My dad passed to go to grammar school, but his family couldn’t afford to let him, so he left school at 13 and went to work.
“It’s only recently that I’ve realised that our weekends started on a Saturday evening when mum and dad got home from work, yet I never felt at all deprived that my weekend was only Saturday evening and Sunday.
“I had a really loving and warm childhood and my parents taught me to believe that if you think you can do something and you try hard enough, you can. And also that nothing comes on a plate to people like us.
“That’s where my work ethic comes from and I’m driven to prove to them that I can be a success.”
Even suffering a broken back two years ago couldn’t slow Dianne down.
“I used to be just over 5ft tall, but the accident made me even shorter,” she laughs.
“I fell down a flight of stairs when I was on holiday in France with my dad. I didn’t realise I’d broken it until I went to my GP when I got home and it was discovered that I’d broken one vertebrae and one disc was pulverised completely.
“They made me a special contraption to wear and my specialist said that the quickest way to get it to heal would be to take 12 weeks off and lie flat, but in my job you can’t do that, so I just made some compromises.
“I didn’t travel anywhere and I worked from home every Wednesday for the first six weeks, standing up all day. Because I’m so short, my work surfaces in the kitchen are the perfect height for me to put my laptop on and I could stand and work and not sit down at all. The rest of the time it was business as usual.”
Often with such successful, driven people, you can sense an underlying sadness or a feeling that a successful career is compensation for emptiness in some other area of their lives — not so with Dianne.
“I have a basic philosophy that life is too short for regrets,” she says. “I really do believe that you have got to keep looking forward and not looking back.
“If I have regrets — there are only two re
ally. One is that my mum died before I had much money. I don’t have that much now, but I have more than I had and have been able to take my dad on some fabulous holidays. “Mum was only 58 when she died and I didn’t have the cash to spoil her like I’ve been able to my dad.
“I also regret that I lost my marriage. My daughter Jo has turned out to be a very balanced, delightful young woman, but she got bullied a little bit at school because I was a single mum, so I’m sad about that.
“But my ex-husband was a great dad and saw Jo every other weekend.
“It was sometimes hard being a single mum, even though I had live-in help until Jo was 12. But I would have gone up the wall if I couldn’t have worked. I was a far better mum because I was out at work.
“It’s tough for women, especially single mothers, in business. I do think you can have it all, but you have to work really hard at it.
“I’m a huge fan of Karren Brady. She seems to have it sussed — the high-powered job, the marriage and kids.
“I do have a social life, not much of one though — only joking. I love theatre, opera, ballet and I love watching old films.
“I’m very, very close to my daughter who is now 26. She works in advertising. She went to university in Brighton and studied business despite me trying to persuade her to do something completely different.”
Does she dream of winning the lottery herself?
“Camelot employees are not allowed to play. So it could be you, but it can’t be me,” she laughs.
“I get all my pleasure out of knowing that despite running a business with a £7.5billion turnover every year, an awful lot of money is going to deserving causes — many of which are small operations.
“In the early days, it was really quite tough for charities that were unable to employ professional fundraisers to benefit and the application process was very cumbersome.
“But we soon realised that and so the distributors created Awards for All. These are grants of up to £5,000 and are much simpler to apply for.”
The jackpots for ordinary lottery draws seem to be getting smaller, except when there is a rollover. Are people cutting back?
“There has been a little bit of that,” admits Dianne. “We’re certainly not recession-proof and I believe our sales could be up to £1.5m a week higher were it not for the economic situation.
“What we are finding is not that people have stopped playing, but maybe instead of spending £3 each week, they are now only spending £2. But we are still in growth and have been since 2003.
“We’ve had to diversify to maintain our position, hence the new Tuesday draw and the Plus Five. But we’re not just putting more and more in, as we introduce something new, we take something out.
“We launched Dream Number when it was first announced that London had got the Olympics and as we put Plus Five in, Dream number came out.
“It’s like anything. You want new varieties all the time or it gets really boring.”
Loving the job so much and being so driven, how will she cope with retirement?
“I’m not sure what next. I’m not planning to slow down, I’ll just be giving up the day job,” laughs Dianne.
“Currently, I’m a Trustee of the Born Free Foundation. I do three-year stints with charities that are close to my heart. I also did three years with Breast Cancer Care, because of my mum. And then I did three years with a charity called Changing Faces because I was born with a really bad strawberry birthmark, which in the winter you can occasionally see. I’ve got a scar, but it’s not particularly noticeable, so I know the stress of looking different.
“I do worry about retirement slightly because the job is so full-on and I’m not sure what I will do. But I say that and then this weekend I had the most fantastic time relaxing. I watched two old movies and before I knew it, four hours had gone by and I thought, ‘I could do this ok’.
“I’m a firm believer in not going back. I’ve never gone back to any company that I’ve worked at — I’ve kept in touch with some of the people, but I don’t believe in going back.
“The day I leave Camelot’s offices, that’s me done.”