A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall: Per Widerström Evokes Massive 888 Reset

Consider Per Widerström, the newly-installed CEO of over-the-William-Hill 888 Holdings, a UK Omnichannel that once bestrode iGaming and the wider gambling industry as a titan but is now facing an existential hard rain wrought by years of mismanagement and lack of corporate agility.

Hammered by historic AML failures in the Mid-East; spiralling debt caused by surging interest rates–and paying too much for the storied William Hill brand–and the corporate upheaval of ousting long-time CEO Itai Pazner, 888 was even dropped from the FTSE250 at the end of last year.

Widerström, a 57-year-old Scandinavian alumnus of the leading London School of Economics and vastly experienced head of 11 different, mostly gaming, companies; a man of impeccable, sober, reputation; was appointed 888 chief in October with the express mission of restoring the company’s lost lustre.

Further prompted by a disappointing FY23, Widerström, who has already initiated a wholesale C-level clearout at the owner of 888 Poker, Mr Green, as well as the aforementioned William Hill, et al, has now decided on the age-old expedient of a corporate rebrand.

888 Holdings, founded in 1997 as Virtual Holdings Limited by Israeli brothers Avi and Aaron Shaked and Shay and Ron Ben-Yitzhak, will henceforth–subject to shareholder approval–be known as Evoke.

Less is More

And Widerström, who certainly puts his money where his heart is–he currently owns around US$2 million worth of shares in 888–, has also decided that for the moment “less is more” for the embattled Omnichannel.

Formerly pioneers of the now-booming US market; 888 has decided to terminate its partnership with the Authentic Brands Group (ABG), which granted it exclusive rights to use the Sports Illustrated (SI) brand for online betting and gaming in the US.

888 will pay ABG US$50 million (£39.82m)–US$25 million upfront and the remainder by 2029–to escape the deal. And it’s agreed to sell its remaining US B2C assets to Hard Rock Digital, with details forthcoming.

Meantime, 888 is aiming to concentrate on its core markets of the UK, Italy, Spain and Denmark – making up around 80 percent of its annual revenue, which dropped to £1.71 billion (US$2.14bn), pro forma, in FY23; an eight percent decline on the previous year.

Winds of Change

Explained Widerström: “In the US, the intensity of competition and requirement for scale means huge investment is required to reach profitability.

“Our partnership with Authentic has consistently driven strong demand for the SI brand across both consumer experiences and product offerings.

“[But] despite these successes, we have concluded that achieving sufficient scale in the US market to generate positive returns within an accelerated time frame is unlikely.”

Yet, Widerström (pictured right) also stressed:

“I firmly believe that the group now has all the key ingredients for long-term success: leading positions in growing markets with high and rising barriers to entry; powerful proprietary technology; a top-class management team; and some of the strongest betting and gaming brands in the world.

“We are now clear on what success looks like. We have the team and capabilities to deliver, and I am confident that the execution of our plan will deliver a high return on equity from sustainable profitable growth, enhanced by deleveraging.”

Added 888’s new Chief Financial Officer Sean Wilkins: “We are under no illusions that this financial performance [FY23] has been disappointing. At the end of 2023 our financial leverage of 5.6x was above where we want it to be.

“[But] the business is now at a critical but exciting juncture.

“We must invest in improving our capabilities in a few critical areas to successfully drive sustainable, profitable growth.”

Embracing the fresh wind of progress, a wider adoption of AI, product, technology and a so-called “Glocal” operating model, much is riding on Widerström and his new corporate team at 888 Holdings Ltd.

Only time, in short order, will tell if they can successfully “Evoke” profound and lasting change in the hitherto tampered fortunes of one of the UK’s great gambling companies.

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