Jordan Levin, SG Digital CEO, speaks with Owain Flanders about his Midwestern roots and role in the development of Scientific Games’ digital arm.
“A lot of people always talk about luck,” explains straight-talking SG Digital CEO Jordan Levin. “But I am a big believer that luck is a fallacy. You make your own luck. It’s at that intersection between preparation and hard work.”
Throughout my discussion with him, it’s clear that it’s his unrelenting work ethic that sets him apart from others in the industry. It’s this dedication that’s seen him construct Scientific Games’ digital arm from the ground up over the past 14 years. Levin has dedicated his entire career towards the growth of Scientific Games in one form or another, from joining WMS Gaming in 2006 to becoming SG Digital CEO in 2018. Within that time, he’s always held onto one aim – to get the absolute best out of himself and his team in whatever role he takes on.
It’s with this leadership that SG Digital has gone from strength to strength over the past few years. The supplier has taken significant market share in regions all over the globe, most notably the US, Canada and Europe. With its OpenSports and OpenGaming solutions, the company has rapidly built one of the most respected brands in the industry, both in sports betting and gaming. As we look forward towards the rest of 2020 and into 2021, it seems that growth is far from slowing down, despite the significant obstacles that may have been thrown in its way.
So where did Levin’s penchant for hard work take root? Well, according to him, it’s something inherent in the populace of the Midwest. In his formative years, he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. There, on the Southwestern shores of Lake Michigan, Levin says you won’t find the “flashy people” that you might find on the east or west coast of the country. “We’re heads down serious workers. Those are the values that I was brought up on and still hold true to today,” he says.
Levin admits that he may have “tripped into the gaming industry” by chance, but he developed a love for the business world from an early age. This passion saw him pursue an undergraduate business degree at the University of Texas in Austin, and as he lists off its many benefits (food, weather, business, culture), it’s clear that the Texan city still holds a special place in the executive’s heart today.
It was during this education that Levin also developed a love for history. He describes himself as a “history buff,” seeing its priceless value as a method for learning about the world in different contexts. As our conversation continues, it becomes apparent that this ability to learn from the past is something Levin has carried with him throughout his career. From the development of WMS Gaming to facing the current pandemic with SG Digital, the CEO has never been afraid to admit where he’s made mistakes. This way, he believes he can take the best course forward while ensuring the trust of team members, employees and customers.
People should be who they are, whether they are presenting to a board, leading 8,000 people or meeting with the marketing team. Authenticity, openness, passion and accountability measure up regardless of the team
Although ultimately spending the majority of his career within the gambling industry, Levin didn’t actually join the sector until 2006, almost eight years after receiving his undergraduate degree. Instead, he began his professional career in the world of corporate finance and investment banking. It was here in his early twenties that Levin learned the ropes of professional working life.
As he recalls this time, the executive describes one colleague who became a personal mentor, shaping his ideas on diligence and professionalism for years to come. Levin says: “In the early years it was the people that I worked with who inspired me. I can recall one individual in particular who wasn’t that much older than me, but who had achieved a very senior position in one of the investment banks I worked at. They really led by example in terms of how to work hard, pay attention to detail and show your clients the utmost professionalism.”
Although he hadn’t spent any time in the gambling or technology sector prior, Levin joined WMS Gaming as Business Development Associate in 2006 working his way up to Vice President of Business Development by around 2011– a company which would subsequently be bought by Scientific Games in 2012. The role allowed him to move from the world of banks and advisory firms into a gaming company environment. Although a mid-size gaming supplier at the time, WMS Gaming was growing, and Levin’s brief was to help the company secure deals to aid this growth, be it entering new markets or sealing new partnerships and business opportunities.
Through WMS, Levin had officially dipped his toe into the world of gaming, but he certainly wasn’t enamoured with the industry at the start. In fact, he thought it might be an interesting industry to spend a couple of years before returning to banking and private equity. “Now here I am 14 years later,” he laughs.
Throughout this period of his career, Levin worked for WMS Gaming and Williams Interactive in various roles before SG Digital. Although these companies are all now part of Scientifc Games, he explains how his career path has suited his restless personality. “I like change,” he says. “People always ask me ‘how is it getting stuck inside a company for so long?’ It’s really such an evolving company. There are no similarities between the Scientific Games of today versus the WMS of 2007.”
As we discuss the challenges Levin has faced during his time in the industry, it’s clear that his career has been defined by two main company transitions: Williams Interactive and now SG Digital.
In 2012, Levin was tasked with forming Williams Interactive as a digital arm to WMS Gaming. There were a string of challenges inherent in such a significant business development. Prior to this point, WMS had 100% of its revenue in brick-and-mortar gaming, along with what Levin describes as an “old school” way of thinking. Eventually, under Levin’s leadership, Williams Interactive was formed from scratch as part of WMS – a development he believes offered the best of both worlds. It allowed Williams to benefit from the existing brand, access to IP and channel, as well as the already solidified corporate structure while making a new name for itself.
Levin rates the excitement of this challenge as second only to his current experiences as SG Digital CEO, a journey that began with a period in charge of a much smaller team. After growing Scientific Games’ social business SciPlay for three to four years, Levin was asked to oversee an M&A team. This saw him transition from managing around 400 people to a team of just two others, a truly humbling experience.
Don’t underestimate the role of culture in success. People have to believe that they can do something before they actually do it. That is part of leadership and vision. I have absolutely had the right team here, and I look forward to continuing to lead SG Digital on the journey we are on
Levin had just overseen the hyper-growth of SciPlay from a small start-up with up to 30 staff members to a large-scale company with hundreds of employees and multiple facilities. However, Scientific Games’ faith in Levin was not misplaced. The M&A team achieved quick results, completing eight acquisitions in just two-and-a-half years. Among this list of acquisitions was one company that would prove integral SG Digital’s technology in the future – NYX, owner of OpenBet.
One year after the acquisition of NYX, Levin was appointed to the role of SG Digital CEO. His mission was clear: to oversee the integration of NYX and its OpenBet system. Levin describes this as the most exciting but challenging experience of his career to date. “If you imagine driving a bus down the motorway and having to change the tyres at the same time, that was the situation when I came into the business,” he explains. “Initially we had to do a fair amount of realignments to make sure everyone was on the same page. We had to build a common culture and branding. We also had quite a lot of technology work to do, because at the time our platform was not known as the most dynamic, cheapest or fastest; those things needed to change.”
Despite the clear challenges this integration posed, you just have to look at the contrast between the SG Digital of 2018 and its current standing to recognise the successful work of Levin and his team. There has been significant development, not only in the technology behind the company’s products, but also in its ability to deploy those products. In 2018, SG Digital was able to launch around two new sportsbooks for customers each year. And now, the supplier is able to launch four times that amount per quarter. In June this year, the company also launched a total of four sportsbooks, two of which were for European customers.
Whether managing a team of just two others or a whole business, Levin has undoubtedly developed an ability to lead throughout his career. So what is it that he thinks makes a good leader? One word – authenticity. “People should be who they are, whether they are presenting to a board, leading 8,000 people or meeting with the marketing team,” he explains. “Authenticity, openness, passion and accountability measure up regardless of the team.”
Levin admits his leadership style is often “tweaked” depending on the situation. In his current role, he oversees a team of 1600 employees with different cultures, ethnicities, attitudes and work styles. He believes that empathy is important when leading so many people, and to that end he fosters a culture of open debate, allowing each individual to have a voice regardless of their standing in the company. That being said, he expects his team to fall in line once an ultimate decision is made. “When the leader makes the decision that’s it,” Levin says. “Line up, support and deliver.”
This leadership style has generated solid results for SG Digital. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have applied the brakes to sports betting, SG Digital’s growth has increased this year. The supplier saw revenue of $73m for Q2 2020, a rise of 6% year-on-year, while AEBITDA increased by 67% to $20m. In fact, Scientifc Games’ digital and social sectors were the only ones to see continued growth during this period. According to Levin, this stemmed from very high growth in online gaming.
Instead of seeing the pandemic as limiting, Levin believes it made the perfect opportunity for further product innovation. In July, SG Digital launched OpenMarket, its sportsbook content market place. In a similar trend to the group’s OpenGaming platform, OpenMarket allows sportsbook suppliers to sell their content on one side, while operators are able to choose content on the other side, forming multiple supply deals with one point of integration. “That was an idea that we had always put on the back-burner,” explains Levin. “Then, as the pandemic was kicking off, we said it was the right time to push something like this forwards. And it’s working beautifully.”
As we look towards the future for SG Digital, it’s evident that the CEO’s ambition is far from being quelled. For online gaming, the supplier is aiming to build on its New Jersey success, where it currently holds more than a significant share of the casino market. According to Levin, the company is on-track towards that same position in Pennsylvania and is poised to enter Michigan once the market is active, which is expected to be towards the back-end of 2021. This online gaming expansion also continues in regulated markets outside the US, particularly Canada, where the company holds an even greater market share than in New Jersey.
Despite the pandemic’s impact on sports betting, interest in SG Digital’s sportsbook content has also remained high across the globe. This demand has seen the company’s sportsbook delivery timeline stretch out comfortably into Q2 of next year. With the help of its government relations team, the supplier is also keeping a close eye on the further spread of regulated sports betting in the US. “If there is noise or activity, then we’re all over it,” insists Levin.
After 14 years working in leadership roles for the benefit of Scientific Games, Levin has accumulated a long list of achievements. But whether developing a start-up or securing acquisitions, he’s most proud of empowering team members to believe in themselves and get the job done. He says: “Don’t underestimate the role of culture in success. People have to believe that they can do something before they actually do it. That is part of leadership and vision. I have absolutely had the right team here, and I look forward to continuing to lead SG Digital on the journey we are on.”