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Betting Shop Manager of the Year gives his thoughts after winning the 2011 title.

01 December 2011

NEXT morning, Andy Bennett came down from his Knightsbridge hotel room to the lobby wearing exactly the same clothes – he hadn’t expected to stay another night – yet in one of the snappiest dressed parts of London could still have won a best turned out award.

He was tightly gripping his Racing Post/SIS Manager of the Year trophy, hardly having let go of it since John Parrott and Gary Wiltshire handed it over the previous afternoon. “I feel spectacular,” he said.

A few in the audience admitted they hadn’t even heard of Scotbet until Bennett began to figure on everyone’s radar – and then been surprised to learn the company, formerly known as Morrisons, had some 70 shops and is Scotland’s largest independent.

“Yes, I’ve kept a close eye on the trophy,” he said, “it attracted admiring glances when my area manager, Isabelle Kelly, took us out for a bite last night – to McDonalds.”

Suddenly suspicious of clichés about Scots folk minding their pennies, he hastily added: “It was just handy enough, next to Harrods, we had a lovely lunch earlier, it suited us.”

Yes, we believe you, and Scotbet also got the value!

Bennett is strikingly unassuming, yet ambitious and competitive. It’s an interesting and formidable package – and yet his perspective changed after the arrival of son Kris, 5. His partner Tracy Pepper is a line manager for Tesco, Galashiels, in charge of the checkout and front end of a large store.

“My family definitely are my priority, and with Tracy coming down to London with me, this was the first time we had left Kris – though we knew he was being well looked after. We’ve got him a London double decker bus and black cab from Harrods. It’s going to be a good Christmas, Santa is bringing Kris a computer – he has four of them in his class at school, can do basic stuff – he’s already better than me! I had to borrow a computer from Tracy’s dad to enter Manager of the Year, and need one myself now to follow the example of Mike Demetriou [2010 champion] and write a regular Racing Post blog.”

He is originally a Glaswegian and supports Rangers. Yet his accent doesn’t sound Glasgae. “You should hear my mum and dad!” He is cautious about mentioning his team. “I love Rangers, but in Scotland it sometimes doesn’t help to get too loud about things.”

He had left school at 16. “I’ve always been a lucky guy, immediately got my first job with a jeans shop, then next managing a sports wear branch in Livingston, where I was made Manager of the Year twice – so this is a hat-trick! But the others were purely down to sales figures; this Manager of Year is about so much more.”

He came to the borders, where Tracy is from, after she became homesick, and he saw a Hills advert. “They were looking for cashiers, but liked my background and offered to fast track me as a deputy manager. I’m really grateful to Hills, they trained and encouraged me – and set demanding targets. I’d previously put on my football line, only an occasional horse bet; working in a betting shop sparked my interest in horses.”

But he admits this was mainly to be able to chat to his customers. “My target is to make my customers happy, and that involves talking to them about their interests. They know more about horseracing than me, so I don’t need to be a specialist, I do need to be a people specialist. I love hearing what people are interested in, I enjoy the wee intricacies of racing and betting, how it all works and the pleasure people take from it. It’s the punters that make the job.”

Talking to Bennett, you realise he’s really a super salesman, both of betting and himself.

“I was reluctant to leave Hills, but Scotbet was an opportunity . . .  that said I could have expected a manager’s job with Hills. It wasn’t easy.”

Scotbet in 2006 had bought the former independent in Selkirk of Dominic Forte, then moved the branch to the old town post office. Ironically this was a site Bennett had flagged up to his former employer as one with potential. “Hills took a look, but didn’t fancy it . . . I did.”

He explains he got a result when first walking into the old Forte shop, as Bill Hynes, the settler, had agreed to stay for six months. “He had 26 years with Dominic, knew everyone and introduced me to them. I learned from him too, about conscientiousness and trust. People trusted him, and when he endorsed me, it was a massive edge. Selkirk as a whole was greatly saddened when he recently died.”

Allan Fox is the former punter from Bennett’s old Hills shop in Galashiels that joined the team after Hynes’ retirement.

Fox, 50 although he had once worked as an under-age boardman a long time ago, was then trained up by Bennett, eventually appointed co-manager covering three days a week.

Fox says: “Andy’s a joy, passionate about the job, even more so about his customers, He genuinely feels the pain with a losing customer, but also shows extraordinary patience. When I was a punter, managers used to find my bets ridiculously over-fussy and a nuisance, never Andy. He’s a fantastic example as a manager, totally genuine, except when it comes to golf, then he’s a bandit and claims an 18 handicap, my advice is caution. And he’s merciless on the tennis court, I give him 17 years, he gives me nothing.”

Bennett says the business mix in the shop is 55 per cent over the counter betting, 45 per cent machines. Within the 55 share, horseracing has 40 per cent, and typical of Scotland, football is the same. Greyhounds take ten per cent, virtual and numbers five per cent each. There is limited interest in other sports betting, albeit with occasional event driven spikes.

“We do face an illegal gambling problem, but this is now being taken seriously by the authorities.  Within the shop, I’m looking forward to improved in-running service for my customers. I’ve been impressed by John Heaton [a former Tote chief executive] who is our new chairman. He’s a genuine industry heavyweight, there’s a lot of things to be done through the estate, but I’m lucky to have a great, modern shop. Punters like and respect it, there’s great atmosphere in there.”

He describes Manager of the Year as thought-provoking, and broadening. “It’s a positive experience for everyone, no matter how far you get. Some of us ‘wanted it’ more than others, that’s the way life is, but Doncaster gives you the chance to meet the best people in this profession, and learn from their experiences. Everyone got on famously, it was a huge boost and on behalf of all the managers involved, I’d like to thank Racing Post and SIS for the hard work that goes into it.”

Early dates in his diary for next year are the Ice exhibition at Earls Courts, 24-26 Jan, and he will be guest of honour at the Racing Post Juvenile at Wimbledon, Tuesday February 28. Then there is his star prize of a trip to the Dubai World Cup at the end of March.

But one of Bennett’s first engagements is Ascot on Friday December 16.

Awards MC Lee Mottershead had explained: “One person alone cannot make a betting shop great, and so, to recognise the work of the winner’s team members, each and every individual that makes up our winner’s shop staff will be treated to a VIP day at Ascot in the luxurious SIS box. Sadly the corresponding meeting has been abandoned for the last two years so, to all the team members concerned, don’t count your chickens!”

Recalling this, Bennett says that advice is “particularly relevant to Colin [Gallacher] who minded the shop while Alan and I were away. He sent me a phone picture of the SIS ticker showing me as Manager of the Year – that alone felt amazing. But.Colin famously, during his driving test, was asked to name a sign you see out in the country. He replied ‘fresh eggs for sale’. He failed . . . so Lee doesn’t need to worry about us counting any chickens ever again!”

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