Julian Moore met with Giovanni Garrisi, CEO of StanleyBet, to talk about everything from 90s modems, to the AI of the future, to the first robot retail operator for betting shops
Giovanni Garrisi is a man who loves a good challenge, a man who thrives on numerical probability, and is fluent in the language of mathematics. He is a man who has made his own successes over the years and shows no signs of slowing down. He is driven by a passion for numbers and a well-honed instinct for putting them to work in the real world. As he tells me that he’d like our interview to be more of a chat than mere bullet points on a press sheet, I’m keen to hear his story...
Garrisi, an Italian born in Florence, grew up in Sicily with fond memories of a time before technology, when children played in the streets and dreamed of glorious futures. But technology has also helped drive Garrisi to success, shaping his own future and that of StanleyBet. Much like the binary beginnings of the technological revolution, his own destiny was always vested in numbers.
“First of all”, he starts our chat, “I am a mathematician”. Garrisi achieved an honours degree in mathematics from the University of Rome, before taking a role with Italy’s Department of Social Security to develop financial software for pensions - “Project PN1”, he remembers proudly.
“Following that project, I spent some five years in Italy’s central bank for currencies, Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi, driven by my interest in applying mathematics to economics - econometrics. At the same time, I became interested in the gambling industry, seeing it as a branch of mathematics, and with this scientific approach I won a lot of money beating TotoCalcio.”
TotoCalcio was the leading football pools totaliser in Italy, challenging players to predict the outcome of 13 weekend matches (now brought to 14). Garrisi applied his aptitude for mathematics to the game and created a system that led to his big win - around €2million in today's money.
“Then I realised it would be more profitable to provide this service for others, rather than try to beat the TotoCalcio game every week! In 1984, Rome set an industry first in Europe when I installed a computer in a state pool agent – it was the first in Europe, when everything was still done manually. And in May 1994 I became the first person to bring UK-style betting to Italy.” The first Italian betting shop opened in Bologna just in time for the FIFA World Cup in the US.
“It was sports betting, with London operators. I was the only one in Europe, I believe, to have created a technology that allowed exchange of betting data between PCs and servers in two different countries, in real time. Everyone was still using photocopies and fax machines, but I was using a computer in Italy, with a modem, to connect to a server in London and accept bets within a couple of seconds.” Both the client and server software were created from scratch by Garrisi working in C programming language.
With this high-tech advantage over the competition, momentum grew for Garrisi’s sports betting ambitions and he realised that he needed a bigger operator to deal with. So he got in touch with Stanley Leisure Group, a listed company on the London stock market and the 4th largest operator in the world with 43 casinos and 600 sports betting outlets. The company had been operating since 1958 and had grown to become a multi-million pound business.
“We set up a 50/50 joint venture for international sports betting with exclusivity outside England.”
Then in 2005, the retail business was bought by William Hill for £500million, while a public takeover bid saw Malaysian company, Genting International, take the remaining casino business in 2006 for £650million. In the same year, Giovanni Garrisi was able to buy the entire international betting division of StanleyBet, bringing with him the best of the previous Stanley Leisure management.
“In that moment, I was able to buy the whole betting division, so I became Mr Stanley in England! Not a lot of people know that the owner of StanleyBet is an Italian! And in 2011 I proudly became British, grateful to the country where I was allowed to follow this fantastic path”. He has a cheeky smile on his face, and I like the man even more!
StanleyBet has since gone from strength-to-strength with Garrisi at the helm.
“Today Stanley Group is a company with a turnover in excess of €700million”, he explains, “operating in 12 countries, 3 continents, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and employing around 3,000 people.”
In the B2C market, the group operates in the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Cyprus, with a focus on aligning their retail and online services to create an omni-channel experience. B2B activity is concentrated on markets in Croatia, Romania, Nigeria, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Cyprus, and the UK. Operations are managed from the company’s headquarters in Liverpool, UK. Goals over the next three years are to strengthen the company’s position in existing markets and to develop new markets with a B2B approach.
Latin America is a new market for the company - they are operating in Peru, and they are in discussion with regulatory authorities in Argentina. “South America has great potential for market expansion”, Garrisi tells me. “It’s a continent with 650 million prospective customers.” However, it’s not a market that StanleyBet wants to enter alone. “In these countries, directing operations from the other side of the world is de-facto impossible.” So, as a European-based entity, the company is taking a ‘glocal’ approach to the LatAm sector, using a local partner to adapt to the market with a multichannel strategy across retail, online and mobile.
In terms of the company’s overall operations, “the company is active in the betting sector, machine sector, self-service terminal sector, and the virtual sector.”
“Innovation is very important to us - we’re currently working on a project in collaboration with the University of Liverpool to develop a robot named Alicia, who will be introduced to the world in February 2020.”
It’s clear that the Alicia project is close to Garrisi’s heart. “It’s artificial intelligence, which is a very scientific concept, but it’s also strongly connected to machine learning.” He talks about chess as the typical example that many will recognise, and how A.I. has come so far that, with machine learning, Google’s AlphaZero A.I. program learnt and mastered the game in just four hours before beating the world champion chess program, Stockfish.
“Our project with Alicia is directed towards becoming the first robot retail operator in a betting shop, but I like to say that Alicia is a means to an end: if we can develop a cashier, we can develop anything.” The robot will take a female form, welcoming customers and using facial recognition to personalise the retail experience for database-registered players.
“About two years ago, we created a startup called Magellan Robotech. This is the scientific arm of the company, with 80 people working in Liverpool across two areas: betting and gaming, and developing robotic products. The cashier robot is an ideal way to apply the concept in a real-world environment, before we begin developing uses in other areas.” It’s a small but not insignificant revelation that StanleyBet is expanding into areas outside iGaming, but with innovation at its core, it makes sense that Garrisi would steer the ship into new and interesting waters.
Yet Magellan Robotech still has fingers in the iGaming pie, with the virtual tournament ‘Trident’ developing a successful offering across the retail network and set to do well online also.
“With Trident you can have ten games at the same time on the same screen - it’s currently the best in the market, and represents a significant source of our income.”
Trident, powered by Magellan Robotech, leads the way for StanleyBet’s 3d virtual products across both retail and online. The product offers a 20-team football championship across 10 simultaneous events, including an extensive variety of markets and combos for betting.
Based on the success of Trident, the opportunities for virtual games are clear to see. Across horse racing, tennis, greyhounds, and motorsport, to name just a few, virtual games increasingly resemble the real sport. Always available, on demand, they offer guaranteed revenue for operators as the games are randomly pre-determined and not affected by human variables like real-world sports.
Being a statistician by nature, Garrisi adds that it’s important for StanleyBet to ensure that the experience for players is fair and realistic, and in particular, unbiased. Stats, numbers, odds, and outcomes shape the experiences that StanleyBet delivers, and as the ever- competitive Garrisi says himself, “I love a good challenge, especially when we have the ability and commitment to win!”