Saturday, 24 September 2011

Guardian Articles

The Guardian had a couple of scathing articles relating to Betfair yesterday. Betfair's losing streak:

Barely a week seems to pass without somebody senior at Betfair announcing they're off. Yesterday it was Edward Wray, chairman, founder and 11% shareholder. He told the annual meeting that he, too, is preparing his exit, apparently because the company wants to tick every box in the handbook of good corporate governance.

Wray's departure will take a while – a successor will have to be recruited and serve a short apprenticeship as deputy chairman. Even so, it's a significant addition to a long list of departures announced since flotation less than a year ago.

The tally includes chief executive David Yu (going once a recruit can be found: the search is three months' old) and Mathias Entenmann, chief product and services officer, who was flagged up in the prospectus as another key employee.

Then there's Charlie Palmer, head of mobile; Robin Osmond, chief executive of financial betting exchange LMAX; Matt Carter, director of research; Lee Cowles, director of UK sports and gaming; and Andrew Twaits, chief executive of the Australian operation.

Investors, pondering a share price 40% below its float level, may remember the third of the four reasons given for going public. A listing would "assist in the incentivisation and retention of key management and employees".

Yeah, right. To judge by yesterday's meeting, public life seems instead to have created a bunker mentality among Betfair survivors – rarely a good sign.
And Bounced from Betfair's annual meeting
Whether Betfair's annual meeting on Thursday was a drama or a comedy is a moot point. Either way, the venue – the headquarters of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – could hardly have been more appropriate.

The backdrop for this latest Bafta performance had been developing for months, following the betting exchange's stock market flotation last October. Since then, the board has worked tirelessly to craft a £770m gambling group from a £1.4bn start.

Has chairman Ed Wray become a tad over-sensitive when reminded of that feat? Very possibly. On Thursday, Wray banned the media from the company's inaugural annual meeting as a public company – a move almost unheard of in the 21st century.

Just to be safe, he barred journalists who happened to be shareholders, too. Admittedly, the Guardian is neither a large nor a long-standing investor, having acquired its five shares on Monday precisely in order to dodge the media ban. The company's registrar liaised with our chosen broker and we received a proxy voting form alongside a letter confirming that we would be able to attend.

Betfair, however, had other ideas. Apparently, we had the "wrong type of form" or the one that we did have was filed too late.

Then followed a series of unorthodox excuses: "It is not the job of the Guardian to doorstep AGMs," said one PR. "We don't make the rules," said another, (er, yes, you do), while Betfair's legal supremo, Martin Cruddace, offered that the meeting was solely for shareholders (excuse me!).

His flunkies blocked journalists from accessing the auditorium – with one of the enforcers being a sheepish-looking former Sunday Times city editor, Paul "Doorman" Durman.

So what did the company have to hide? "Absolutely nothing," says Wray.

Betfair has missed numerous financial targets and seen its shares plummet, while chief executive David Yu and finance director Stephen Morana have been handed total pay rises of 125% and 445% respectively. Those windfalls – in effect doled out as a reward for getting the inflated flotation away – were trousered despite objections from governance groups including the Association of British Insurers and Pirc. A string of top executives and managers have quit or are leaving the group – and chairman Wray said on Thursday that he too would soon be stepping aside to spend more time with his millions.

Will he be missed? The poll at the annual meeting suggests not. Only 47% of the company's shares were voted in favour of his re-election, and 17% actively refused to support the co-founder. The news of another planned Betfair departure knocked the shares again, as they lost about 8% to 723p – 44% below the £13 flotation price.

All of which may have gone unnoticed by non-executive directors Josh Hannah and Ian Dyson, who were notably absent from their chairman's side. Were they barred, too?
A far cry from the esteem in which they were held by almost everyone who wasn't a rival bookmaker just a few years ago.

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