At first, Natalia Hilevych fights back tears. But, as she answers one of the most difficult questions Gambling Insider could ever ask, the Parimatch Eastern Europe CEO slowly begins to hit her stride. Once finished, it is an inspirational response – and, without question or exaggeration, the best answer to any question this magazine has ever received. “Whereas before I might have started my morning by looking at financial metrics, today every morning starts with checking if everyone is alive; whether they have wi-fi; if anyone needs food or medicine. At the beginning, it was very difficult. But the determination of my team has been amazing. Now they ask me for more work to distract them from this nightmare. They work in hallways, corridors – and they’ve never done more.”
Now based in Kyiv, Hilevych’s story began in Donbass. Humbly, she believes it’s a story that will be similar to many other successful executives. She looks back: “I was born in Donbass, where my family is currently based and the war is now impacting it very heavily. This was not a small city and it was high in commercialism, with metallurgy, chemical and gas production. So I grew up with people who knew the meaning of heavy physical work. For me, that developed a strong sense of not being scared of any hard work. I learned that to achieve something, a lot of work is needed.”
But, despite those Donbass roots, the city also created a sense of ambition within Hilevych, allied with a desire to move away. Hilevych wanted to help Donbass and Ukraine change for the better, yet she understood the best place to achieve this was not Donbass itself. She endeavoured to achieve more and, although she did not have a specific dream job per sé, from an early age Hilevych had the ambition to build something. In fact, the Parimatch Eastern Europe CEO recalls being a leader from childhood – even during holiday camps! Here, through her school years and at university, she realised motivating people was a “strong point” of hers, something that would play a part in the rest of her career.
Hilevych’s first degree came from pedagogical college, before a second followed in economics. She was already working when studying, and found her most important experience had come from the business world. With both study and work experience under her belt, Hilevych was about to embark upon the first significant stage in her career. It wouldn’t be the gambling industry just yet – but one bearing plenty of similarities. “I moved to Kyiv and joined one of the biggest companies in alcohol, Bayadera Group. It was smaller then but has grown into one of the foremost spirits firms in Ukraine – part of my role was to grow it. So my first serious experience came in the alcohol sector.”
“Another lesson I’ve learned is not to delay things until tomorrow. Do it today not tomorrow, because tomorrow you might not have electricity”
Part of the wider fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry, working in alcohol can prepare one for a career in betting extremely well. In the UK, for example, Betting & Gaming Council Chair Brigid Simmonds is one of many who can attest, having formerly been the Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association. For Hilevych, both industries are “dynamic,” requiring quick decisions – with a lot of “emotion behind the marketing.” It’s not as if the sectors are without their critics, either. Both alcohol and gambling can lead to addiction – and are looked upon with scorn by ardent religious groups. Alcohol is far more socially accepted yet both fall easily into the ‘vice’ category; both can undeniably lead to harm.
Equally undeniably, however, both can lead to huge entertainment value. Swathes of consumers can drink alcohol socially, without addiction; alcohol is associated with birthdays, weddings, Christmas, New Year and all kinds of celebrations. While it is less vocally shouted about, the same can apply to placing a casual accumulator on a Saturday afternoon, betting on a FIFA World Cup final – the Grand National, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon or the Super Bowl. “Both industries are about emotion – what you gain from using both of those products,” Hilevych tells Gambling Insider.“Business is about delivering emotions. The products, really, are the same. Alcohol, betting – the odds are roughly the same for everyone. But what you build around your brand is what attracts players.”
Hilevych entered the alcohol industry as an assistant to the Marketing Director. Over 13 years, she progressed to the role of Deputy CEO. All the while, Bayadera Group grew from a top-10 company in its field to the market leader. “We created 10 international brands and what we learned was that there is not only one consumer – every consumer is different and there are different types,” she explains.“We created a strong portfolio of brands that helped us get past three economic crises. Some brands succeeded to cover for others that didn’t do as well at certain times.
“In the alcohol industry, there are strong regulations – you need licensing; you need to meet a lot of rules. There are advertising and communications restrictions. This calls for non-standard solutions! Both gambling and alcohol have a stigma about them – some players won’t openly talk about their gambling, others won’t openly discuss their drinking. So there is a strong emphasis on encouraging the right, responsible culture of both gambling and drinking.”
THE MOVE TO PARIMATCH
In 2018, Hilevych paused to reflect. She considered what she had achieved so far in her career and what she wanted next. Before her was a choice: one between staying at a stable company – in an industry she had come to know very well – or taking a leap forward. In the end, you could say Hilevych gambled on the gambling industry – and it’s a risk she confidently declares was successful. At the same time, though, the CEO is keen to stress that “there was a big jump” to her next role. That jump, of course, brings her to where she sits today – Parimatch, one of Ukraine’s premier operators.
“There is still a big difference between the FMCG industry and the technology involved in gambling,” Hilevych remarks. “Technology had moved forward hugely and my first few weeks at Parimatch were about learning something completely new. But, at the same time, I remember my first week providing me with a lot of awe and wonder. It amazed me how easy it was to reach customers, to conduct market research and the amount of time technology saved in this regard.”
The executive’s first step onto the Parimatch ladder saw her join the marketing team. This brought with it Hilevych’s first real gambling lesson. Initially, she saw all marketing as effectively the same thing. The different aspects of the customer journey – acquisition, retention, product etc – were something completely new to the exec. Slowly, she learned the differences between a customer’s first touchpoint and every stage on the user journey. Here, Hilevych credits the culture at Parimatch, with a strong emphasis on growing employees internally. “I was no exception – you just need your own motivation and the company is willing to support you.”
Upon these mentions of acquisition and retention, Gambling Insider can’t help but ask Hilevych her thoughts on the current state of operator marketing. For some time now, there has been a huge focus among operators on customer acquisition. Heavy bonusing and free bets remain a common trend in Europe, but it is a trend that is now proliferating across North America since regulated online gaming started opening up in the US. We put it to Hilevych that there is, arguably, nowhere near enough of a focus on retention. And the CEO agrees: “Those statements are correct. If a company has only just joined a market, there is of course a huge focus on acquisition. But when a company is mature enough, there should be more of a focus on retention. At Parimatch right now, for example, that is our main focus – but industry-wide, there’s not enough of it.”
“We are moving towards making Ukraine an attractive proposition for operators,” the CEO says. “Despite the rules and regulations written into law, there is still a lack of understanding among players. As such, we’ve embarked upon a campaign at Parimatch to educate players – especially on responsible gambling"
STEPPING UP TO CEO
In 2020, Hilevych went from Parimatch Ukraine's CMO to CEO (now Eastern Europe CEO). That meant new realms of leadership and responsibility. Hilevych, however, took this challenge head-on – seeing it as a harmonious match. “When I was named Parimatch Ukraine CEO, I already had serious experience leading people – both from the alcohol industry and at Parimatch,” she says.“I now knew the processes, the company’s values – and this helped me step up to the CEO role. Most importantly, you need to know the soul of the company. My vision of where we needed to grow matched with Parimatch's values, drive and energy.”
Former Parimatch CEO Sergey Portnov, a previous Gambling Insider interviewee, was the key figure in initially bringing Hilevych to the company. A charismatic – and talkative – young entrepreneur, Portnov invited Hilevych to Parimatch and “from their first meeting,” she says it was clear the two gelled. Under his initial leadership, Hilevych was all too happy to carry out the goals he had set out for the brand. Parimatch, of course, has undergone a business transition since then, with Portnov becoming a shareholder only. It now focuses largely on the newer B2B side of its business – Parimatch Tech. For Hilevych, though, remaining on the B2C side of the Parimatch organisation made perfect sense – as working to attract and appeal to customers is what she loves.
THE FLEDGLING UKRAINIAN MARKET
Given Hilevych’s focus on B2C operations, Gambling Insider’s next line of questioning inevitably leads us to the Ukrainian market. It has been two years since sports betting was legalised in Ukraine, making it one of the youngest regulated markets in Europe. Unfortunately and unavoidably, several regulatory issues have stalled due to the ongoing war in the country. But, according to Hilevych, with some adaptation from the Government, the Ukrainian market is starting to move with greater speed and enjoy a greater level of development.
“We are moving towards making Ukraine an attractive proposition for operators,” the CEO says. “Despite the rules and regulations written into law, there is still a lack of understanding among players. As such, we’ve embarked upon a campaign at Parimatch to educate players – especially on responsible gambling. We signed Oleksandr Usyk (pictured left) as an ambassador for responsible gambling and he became a world champion that week. As the champ, he knows what it’s like to be in the heat of the moment but needing to make a calculated decision – a hook from the left, a hook from the right! We hope our competitors in the region will do the same, to reduce the amount of negative information and attention to do with our market.”
Within days of the announcement, Usyk had defeated Anthony Joshua to win the WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight boxing championships. When we put the phrase “perfect timing” to Hilevych, she assures us Parimatch had no way of knowing he would win the fight – but that, with the deal being signed just a week prior, the brand understood there was an element of risk. Much like Hilevych’s earlier decision to join Parimatch, this was another gamble that paid off. Despite not having communication with “Sascha” for 2-3 months at a time – in complete defiance of his contractual obligations, Hilevych jokes – he is “now a hero not just for Ukraine but for everyone at Parimatch.”
As we near the end of our interview, there is one major topic left for Hilevych to cover. It is one that makes her a completely unique member of our CEO Special – but for all the wrong reasons. On Thursday 24 February 2022, Russia escalated its invasion of Ukraine. Ever since, the people of Ukraine – and by extension, the people of Parimatch Eastern Europe – have been the victims of war. Throughout, Hilevych has been tasked with continually leading her staff. Her responsibilities have not diminished; they have instead multiplied.
“Thank you for asking the question and not being silent about the situation,” Hilevych begins. “I am talking openly every day about the fact there is a serious war going on in our country. But Ukraine has never been stronger or more together as a nation. Of course, our work has changed and my role as a leader has changed. On top of my financial obligations to our directors, I now have responsibility for the lives and health of my people – both their physical and psychological wellbeing.
“So whereas before I might have started my morning by looking at financial metrics, today every morning starts with checking if everyone is alive, whether they have wi-fi; if anyone needs food or medicine. At the beginning, it was very difficult. But the determination of my team has been amazing. Now they ask me for more work to distract them from this nightmare. They work in hallways, corridors – and they’ve never done more. Before, if we had to outline any goals and explain why certain projects were important, now it’s just a case of 'give me more work, as much as you can.’”
Hilevych is well into her stride now – and highlights that, from an operational viewpoint, putting off decisions is a “big mistake.” In the past, there may have been ample time to analyse; time to think about the costs and benefits of a key decision over and over. Time, now, is precious for the Parimatch Eastern Europe CEO and there is often a requirement to make “two to three major decisions” at once, needing to execute them quickly. Every business is working for Ukraine’s victory, Hilevych says, and the current situation has underlined that above all else in business, “the most important thing is human life.”
Consequently, Parimatch has partnered with several charitable organisations and tells its story as widely as it can. “We do not fear,” Hilevych states.“Because we’ve seen everything. Years ago, I used to think long and hard about which advertising campaign to go with, or whether to enter into a new partnership. There’s no fear for us anymore because those decisions, compared to what we face now, are nothing. Another lesson I’ve learned is not to delay things until tomorrow. Do it today not tomorrow, because tomorrow you might not have electricity. We believe we fight and we spread our message, telling everyone about it.”
The challenges Hilevych faces on a daily basis are all too clear. But for this bravest of CEOs, what is her favourite aspect of leading Parimatch Eastern Europe? This, she says, boils down to learning, development and growth. For one, Hilevych is still herself learning – enjoying communicating with professionals from all kinds of sectors, backgrounds, specialities and ages. It is “fantastic” for the CEO to learn alongside team members who have a “niche” specialisation. “The main thing is to see the results of my team, which we achieve together,” she concludes, “growing people who started out, like me, as an assistant. Seeing them develop, get promoted – and some eventually, I hope, become a CEO like me.”