After more than 14 years with 888 Holdings, Itai Frieberger was last week replaced by Itai Pazner as the operator's CEO.
It was big industry news, to say the least, and Gambling Insider caught up with the new man at the helm to discuss his plans and ambitions for 888 in the years to come.
Congratulations on your appointment as the new 888 CEO. This will be your eighth role within the company – what advantages does that kind of company knowledge bring you?
It gives me a deep and wide inter-company knowledge. It’s a very smooth transition into the CEO role. When you grow within a company, you know the company very intimately. I’ve been through some very, very good periods in the company and some challenging periods in the company. I know some of the mistakes made in the past and that gives me an advantage. I know the culture and people very well; that gives me a pretty good advantage stepping into this role.
Will your management style lead to much change, or will you put more emphasis on continuity?
There will be more emphasis on continuity but, where needed, there will be changes. There was change in my previous roles whenever I got into a new position. It’s not change in terms of reorganisation but change always happens when there is someone new in these positions. Nothing dramatic is planned.
What targets have been set for you and what are your biggest personal aims in the job?
We have quite a clear strategy which the executive operational management set, not so long ago, and that strategy will continue. It’s a lot about regional expansion, deeper into our existing regulated markets and wider into new regulated markets. We just launched two new regulated markets in January – Sweden and Portugal. We’re working intensively on expanding our geographical reach. The area that’s also very close to my heart and mind is product excellence. It’s not something new for the company, because we’ve been developing our product since day one. But I am putting a lot of emphasis on product excellence and customer experience. I come from a B2C and consumer background, so I’ll be bringing that flavour into my role and put even more emphasis into that area.
Looking ahead, in light of your recent launch in Portugal, what are 888’s aims and ambitions for its European interstate poker network?
Obviously, poker is a big vertical for us. We are what I would call a top-three operator. We still have a very good and clear agenda on poker. We know poker is a game that depends on liquidity. It can survive without liquidity but thrives with liquidity. So we need to inject as much shared liquidity pools as regulations allow. The shared liquidity network in Europe theoretically has four countries in it but, practically, has three. We’ve now built the infrastructure and we’re still waiting for a few technical approvals before we launch poker in Portugal. That will be our first step and, in the future, we’re looking to add Italy, while France is a business decision about whether we go back into the market.
Where can you improve in casino and sports betting?
Sports and casino are a big part of our strategy. They are the two biggest segments in the market and two segments we’re very active in. Casino is our original product and we have a lot of legacy in casino. We have a combination of our own studios that create excellent, top-quality products, including slot machines and table games. We’ll continue to invest in that and proprietary games which are unique to our platform. We’ll also integrate third-party games from all the big suppliers globally.
We launched a new casino platform in the middle of 2018, which is part of the product excellence I talked about earlier. We’re planning to do that more in different verticals and to improve casino further. Internally, we call the platform Orbit. It has been extremely successful for us and we see very good results in every market it’s been rolled out to. It’s been rolled out in the vast majority of markets but there are a few left. We launched the product in June and the latest markets we launched were Spain in December, then Sweden. The platform looks very promising in terms of results.
We are enhancing our sports product, too. We have front-end projects we are working on internally, which will be released in parts. It’s going to be rolled out further throughout the year. In poker – we spoke about liquidity already – we are making a massive investment in the product, both in the tables and in the lobby. By mid-2019 – or the second half of the year – all of our products, including bingo, will have a brand new interface. So we are investing a lot in our product and that’s the core of what we’re selling.
To what extent do you see the landscape of the US market changing once some of the established European operators make their mark?
If you look at the UK sports betting market, which is probably the most sophisticated and competitive market, there are at least tens – if not more – of operators in one market. We’re competing in that market. Obviously, there will be more competition in the US but there will be some operators who find it challenging to enter the market. Licensing, platforms and data centres all present issues. It’s not trivial to enter the US market. We’ve been there since it was regulated several years ago, so we have the experience. We have had a headstart there, which is good. Like in every market, we expect competition but we don’t enter any market thinking we’ll be there alone. We’re not worried about that.
You are now licensed in 12 different jurisdictions; are there any other markets you’re looking to enter?
On the short-term horizon, there are no markets changing their regulated status in the near future. So, in the next six months, there isn’t anything I’m aware of. But there are a few more markets in the US now in different stages of regulation, which I assume will be more relevant to the second half of this year or the beginning of 2020. The Netherlands is a very interesting market for us and is supposed to go into regulation. There are a few smaller Eastern European markets in all kinds of different stages of the process. So, each market, we evaluate the potential, the regulatory requirements, the tax regime and we decide whether we want to enter or not. But we have our hands pretty full right now with two new markets this year and with further expansion plans in other regulated markets we’re already in.
What is the biggest challenge facing 888 right now?
The biggest challenge for the industry at the moment is regulation and compliance – and the change in atmosphere in different territories. It’s something we’ve already been influenced by. For the last 18 months, we’ve worked on this quite extensively and it’s still very much on our radar. That’s a challenge for the whole industry, as well as 888. From my perspective, 888 is a mid-sized player in the market and we need to continue being very competitive and enjoy the benefits of owning our own product, software and platform, not relying on providers. We can be agile, make our own decisions and move fast, where not necessarily everyone else can do that.
Where do you want to see 888 in five years’ time?
I’d like to see 888 as a much more dominant player in the sports betting field. Looking back, 2018 – we haven’t released our numbers yet but we released the first half – wasn’t as good in terms of performance as we were used to in the years before. Accelerating growth in the next three years is important. We want to underpin our position as a very strong, multi-product, multi-region operator in the industry. There aren’t many operators who have the ability to operate in the four main categories of products independently and in so many regulated markets. That’s one of our competitive advantages and something we must keep, while returning to higher growth rates. It’s a very interesting and exciting period in the industry. There’s a lot going on and a lot of consolidation in the market, too. I think 888 is in a very strong position to continue operating independently, while looking at the opportunities and changes in the market.