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Game Changers - The rise of Hayley Jane Lee of Gala Leisure

Game Changers is a brand new series of what will be regular articles in LP Magazine Europe focusing upon inspirational risk practitioners. Each article will be from the perspective of another prominent industry figure sharing the game changer’s influence upon the writer’s own career or that of the industry as a whole.

In the first Game Changers article, Kerinda Trigg, the former group sales and marketing director of The Cardinal Group, aptly interviews Hayley Jane Lee, the newly promoted director of risk and compliance for gaming giant Gala Leisure, the largest retail bingo operator in the UK. With almost 130 bingo halls, Lee and her twelve-strong team mitigate and manage the daily risk of more than 4,000 staff engaged in the leisure gaming economy. 

Kerinda Trigg is herself a successful LP practitioner having worked in key field and head office roles in the asset protection team at DIY giant B&Q. She was also the co-founder of ORIS Forums in 2006, the not-for-profit organisation connecting heads of LP and risk through the facilitation of collaboration. An expert in the Insights Discovery model, the colour-driven psychological profiling tool that many leading businesses use to build complementary and winning teams, Trigg has a natural affinity with understanding how personalities come together and conflict. At Cardinal, she used this skill to profile both her teams and customers, so she could better understand their motivation and help them to fulfil their potential.

When I was approached to write the first Game Changers article and asked to interview someone inspirational in the LP sphere, the first word that genuinely popped into my head was “bingo.” The feature series was to be called Game Changers, and for me to be given this opportunity was like hitting the jackpot. With that in mind, there was really no one else I could interview other than Hayley Jane Lee, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for a number of years and someone I truly admire and respect. She started life as a bingo caller and worked her way up through the business to where she is today - directing the Gala Leisure Group strategy as it relates to risk and compliance for one of the UK’s largest gaming leisure businesses. 

From calling “house” to calling the shots, Lee has been instrumental in taking the gaming industry into the twenty-first century. A strong and decisive woman, role model, and mentor, she combines hard work, grit, and determination with a sense of fun and humour, which has earned her the respect of her colleagues and industry peers. She is both gutsy and giving and symbolic of a new breed of risk managers who now find themselves sitting at the board table, a position many would have found hard to believe a few years ago. To achieve this elevated role as a female in this market is a huge achievement in itself. For risk now to be a board agenda item and to have representation at the top table rather than an issue widely viewed as a cost to the business, it completes the double-whammy or in Lee’s world “house.”

Fun for All Ages

Exactly two years ago, Gala Bingo Holdings Limited and its trading subsidiaries were acquired from Gala Coral Group Ltd via a £241 million management buyout, backed by Caledonia Investments, a divestment that removed the Gala Leisure bingo business from the merger between Gala Coral and Ladbroke with their collective focus upon high street bookmaking. From then to the present day, it has been an “eyes down” focus upon the new “hand” that Lee and the team have been dealt as well as the all-important numbers.

Lee is part of a new guard breathing fresh life into the bingo industry, a game that has seen a massive revival in fortunes with the mass migration to the online world capturing the imagination of millions of new players, a far cry from the tired and dusty social clubs of old. Today, figures suggest there are more than 100 million bingo players around the world, 80 per cent of whom are women aged between thirty and fifty. The remaining 20 per cent are males who are in it to win it as well as pick up new friends along the way.

Bingo today is played on tablets and smartphones as well as in modern bingo halls. The game may be the same, but technology has made it faster and instantaneous and a place where the stakes are often higher as reflected in the fact that Gala Bingo now pays out £42 million in winnings and prizes every week.

This shift has also had an impact upon the player demographics. Today, the proportion of under-45-year-olds playing bingo has moved from 46 per cent to 62 per cent in the last decade, and the number of players aged between eighteen and twenty-four now represents almost one million players.

The more people who play, the higher the risks. And Lee’s prime concern is to make gaming respectable, responsible, and safe for both customers and staff in what is one of the most regulated businesses in the world.

It is about the physical world, making sure the premises are welcoming and safe at all hours and that the business is shielded from the reputational damage associated with gambling. “Playing happy” is part of the philosophy of the organisation as it seeks to provide a sense of entertainment and social cohesion in the local communities where it is part of the way of life, as well in the online space where it has become a major player.

Gala Bingo works closely with the Bingo Association to deliver education on gambling and also contributes to the charity GambleAware, which supports people with gaming addictions.

The Opening Gambit

We meet at Newcastle House, Gala Leisure’s UK headquarters, which lies in the shadow of Nottingham Castle, one of the first Norman fortifications in Britain and witness to many of the country’s historic episodes, including being laid siege to by Richard the Lionheart who returned from the Crusades to put down a rebellion by his mutinous and treacherous brother, Prince John. It was also whence the ill-fated Richard III rode to his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. This was Richard’s own high-stakes gamble as he became the last English king to die in battle. It was only in 2014 that his remains were discovered and later exhumed from the foundations of a car park in nearby Leicester and laid to rest in the city’s cathedral.

It may have been that Richard’s number was finally up after the scandal in the Tower of London with the disappearance of the two young nephews and centuries of bad PR, including Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. There are, it could be argued, parallels with the popular perception of gambling. As you cannot denounce the monarchy for the behaviour of one sovereign, you cannot badmouth an entire industry on the excesses of a few. While gaming can attract a bad press, bingo, with its community engagement, has provided the antidote, the acceptable face of gambling.

I began by asking Lee, mother of two teenage children, about her journey from starting her career at Gala Leisure to where she is today. 

“I have been involved in the gambling world all of my professional life,” she said. “I have worked in the industry in a full-time capacity for twenty-one years as I started as a teenager. I began my career as a team member and worked my way through the ranks, becoming a manager at the age of twenty-one.”

Achieving such a responsible position at such a tender age provides some insight into the work ethic that has been a trademark trait from her very early days. So what does Hayley Jane Lee see as her secret weapon? 

“One of my key strengths was always my attention to detail and the measures that I put in place to protect the business assets. I leave nothing to chance, whatever the role that I have been involved with, so it was a logical progression for me to move from being a member of bingo club management into a field-based audit role, which is where my career in risk and compliance really started to take off.”

So what makes Hayley Jane Lee tick? What were the key drivers and inspirations that secured her long-term commitment to the bingo industry?

“I believe that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That is why I am still around—to see the job through. I love to see the practices that we develop making the job easier and safer for our operators. I can go to bed at night knowing that we are making a difference to the people who work for us, as well as our customers.”

Lee, who is engaged to be married in October 2018, added, “What people close to me think is also important to me. My family keeps me grounded and motivated as I want to make them proud of me as well.”

The day job is never straightforward and throws up a number of challenges, not least in terms of the real deliverables of risk and compliance.

“Working in an area of the overall business that doesn’t deliver actual ‘profits’ for the company makes it sometimes difficult when putting in capital papers to spend cash. However, I’m very lucky as Gala Leisure recognises the real value in protecting their people, brand, and assets. So the work of our department is recognised, and requests do not fall on deaf ears - far from it.”

I touched on the subject of the sexism in the security and compliance industry. As a woman in the field, I have seen first hand its corrosive effects, so I was interested to understand Lee’s take on the matter, particularly as she had begun her career so young.

“Yes, security and risk are still largely male-dominated fields. And, yes, there have been times when sexism has reared its head, particularly in the early years of my career. Fortunately, it is less frequent today, and female appointments in roles such as mine are a lot more common in 2017.” 

A Voice That Resonates

Gambling is probably one of the oldest pastimes in history, dating back to ancient times. In medieval England, about the time Richard I was teaching his unruly brother a lesson just over the road from where we were sitting, the first card games were being played for money, but they were the preserve of the rich. But times change, and the industry has adapted accordingly. The latest disruptive force to impact gambling has been the Internet, which has become an enabler to reach a wider audience and provided the pastime with a broader appeal. The flip side of this wider acceptance is the necessary checks and measures and the task of managing that additional risk and exposure.

For Lee, this has been straightforward to manage: “There are always challenges in any job as things develop. I am a great believer in embedding change, providing it is strategically right for the business. Change is healthy, and we should all embrace it as the technology evolves. Online has been a game changer and has certainly attracted an exciting, added dimension to our offer. There’ll always be a place for retail bingo clubs, but online has proved to be a very successful parallel business.”

So how does Lee’s strategy for facing down those challenges help to keep customers and staff safe?

“The challenge is always to ‘be on the ball’ keeping myself and my team updated on all industry and legislative changes. Complacency is not an option for us. Risks for people and business change all the time—you’ve got to be proactive and reactive when the need arises.

“My key priorities have changed in terms of whom I now liaise with more externally. I speak with Government and our regulators quite often and have found myself visiting Westminster on a few occasions, mainly for our charity contributions. However, I was there in October as a personal invite because of our contribution to Responsible Gambling Week, which was supported by all gambling sectors to help educate our customers around playing responsibly.

“We work closely with our trade association (the Bingo Association), and Gala Leisure contributes a significant amount to GambleAware, which devotes its time and investment into research and support for problem gamblers.

“Gala Leisure owns 129 businesses, which are all proud to run like communities in their areas. They’re a meeting point for friends and families, and our relationship with our customers feels more personal, and we also open for business day and night.

“The gambling industry is highly regulated, and as the rules surrounding gambling (in most cases) are for universal interpretation, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what this means for our particular sector. As technology evolves, I also appreciate the challenges our regulators face. Fortunately, we have a great relationship with the Gambling Commission and good two-way communication to achieve a clear understanding.”

With our interview coming to a close, I asked the million-dollar question: what about your job keeps you awake at night, and what gets you out of bed in the morning?

“What keeps me awake? I guess it is the fear of a serious incident involving either someone employed or a visitor to our premises. Our training, procedures, and policies try to minimise this as much as possible, but there is always a risk of accidents occurring. What gets me out of bed? The people I work with and the company I work for. It’s also far too busy in my house in the morning to stay in bed!  

“My new promotion is really going well. I have been working in this type of role for a while now in preparation for a director position. The challenges are tough, but I’ve got a great team around me to meet them. No one can guarantee success, but I like to think we play a major part in looking after our people, the consumer, and our assets. We’re a company with a clear and exciting direction, and it’s great to be part of such a fantastic team.”

Bingo calling is a skillful job. It calls for personality, engagement, clear enunciation, and the ability to make yourself heard over the background noise. This was the grounding and starting point for Hayley Jane Lee in the rapidly changing world of Gala Leisure. She has made her voice carry over the last twenty-one years, and it is now being heard in the corridors of power in Westminster as well as resonating in the gaming halls and social clubs across the UK. Parliamentarian or pauper, Lee treats all she comes into contact with equally and always with a smile. All who know her and the work that she and the team carry out on behalf of Gala Leisure recognise her as a true game changer and someone who has marked the card of risky practices in her business as they all have to play to her house rules.

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