Newsmaker: Fiona Thorne grapples with changing odds at Gala Coral Group

If Gala Coral Group's incoming corporate comms head Fiona Thorne was watching the Budget this week she could have been excused a wry smile.

Fiona Thorne: reporting directly to CEO Carl Leaver (Credit: David Tett Photography)
Fiona Thorne: reporting directly to CEO Carl Leaver (Credit: David Tett Photography)

While a political war on the fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) prevalent in Coral betting shops across the country continued, with a ramping up of taxes on their profits to 25 per cent, another part of the business received considerably kinder treatment.

As part of a package of pledges to woo the grey vote, Chancellor George Osborne cut tax on bingo halls in a move that would have been music to the ears of those overseeing the group’s Gala Bingo operation. 

Set to be the only figure handling communications at a group level when she joins next month, the ex-Fishburn Hedges (now Fishburn) CEO will have to deal with such contrasting attitudes on a daily basis and help guide the group as the industry continues to face public scrutiny.

LightBrigagde founder Alan Twigg worked with Thorne while at Fishburn offshoot 77. He says: "It's a populist, fast-moving market that is coming under pressure on a number of fronts. Having top flight corporate figures helping show they are not just slick and professional operators but responsible and at the forefront of gambling awareness is crucial."

And while this pressure has already prompted rivals such as Paddy Power to bring in corporate clout from RLM Finsbury, Twigg sees Thorne’s hire as a smart one.

"She is a clear thinker who knows what she wants and will plough on to get it, while being strong enough to hold her position," he adds.

Thorne’s CV includes stakeholder work on issues such as the consultation over Gatwick’s second runway, and she says the complexity of the challenge was part of the appeal.

"Anyone would recognise that the gambling debate is very live right now, with politicians of all parties discussing it, and there’s a really interesting job there when it comes to actively engaging with all the relevant audiences."

Reporting directly to the CEO Carl Leaver, she is also adamant that keeping a low profile until things calm down is not an option.

"There will need to be a genuine dialogue," she says. "In the conversations I had with Gala Coral I was clear that my style was one of engagement, and it said that’s why it wanted to hire me."

Government attention will not be the only issue. Gala Coral owns 1,800 betting shops and leads the bingo market in the UK, while also operating in Italy and running a number of gambling websites, but it is also facing a tough time financially.

Figures for the year ending September 2013 revealed that though turnover increased by six per cent compared with 2012, the group continues to face a heavy debt burden that contributed to an overall loss of £218.7m. 

One PR figure who held a senior role with a rival says Thorne will have a challenge to steer the company amid massive ongoing changes in the gambling market. 

"Gala has been slower to embrace the technological revolution than some," he says. "The market is now about pushing as many people online as possible, with the bookmakers shops now often existing just to house FOBTs." 

Thorne recognises that the narrative cannot just be framed by the political attacks currently catching media attention.

Acknowledging that "FOBTs are an important part of the discussion", she argues that the focus needs to be on the bigger picture.

"It’s about looking at what is the story that Gala Coral wants to tell as a business in its entirety," she says.

"People love the product but don’t have a sense of the organisation behind it. It’s true to say we need to get to a place where there’s a clear narrative about the business as a whole."

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