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NEWS 27 January 2020

CEO Special 2020: Evolution Gaming - Staying humble

By Tim Poole

Evolution Gaming CEO Martin Carlesund speaks to Tim Poole about waking up in the middle of the night, attending sales meetings as a child and trying to build “the best company in the world.”

“If I wake up at 3:30am, a little bit sweaty and stressed, that is a good thing, because then I’m actually thinking about it. The day I don’t, where I stop thinking about it, I get to the horrible, unhappy part of life where you should have quit already.”

That, according to Evolution Gaming CEO Martin Carlesund, is a brief insight into what sets the live casino supplier apart from its competitors.“We are crazy, paranoid; we really want to be better every day. We want to be the best company in the world. How are we going to get there? If you lose that, you should quit.”

Being “the best company in the world” is an aim Carlesund repeats continuously throughout our interview. At the same time however, Carlesund at no point claims Evolution actually is the best, not even in gaming. The other point the executive is at pains to repeat is his desire to stay humble. It is his drive and ambition to take Evolution to the summit of the business world but, should the firm ever get there, you won’t hear him shouting it from the rooftops.

While Gambling Insider has previously written about the need for work/life balance in our July/August magazine, Carlesund’s approach has evidently yielded results for Evolution. But, although the live casino firm’s employees may not know it, they owe some of their success to the declining textile industry in Sweden. Born in 1970, Carlesund grew up in a “medium-sized Swedish town,” frequenting sales meetings for his family’s sewing businesses when he was “quite young.”

It's good to have an experience where you have run a company that is in trouble, where you have to cut costs and see how you survive in a situation like that, and to expand and really build a company, getting as much market share as you can

That hands-on childhood helped Carlesund form an early career ambition, which would soon become a well-defined goal: “I was sure I wanted to run a company in some shape or form – that was very early. That was the ambition and that was my goal; it was clear quite early. I have a master’s degree in finance and I studied computer science; I was a developer and programmer. I started working with Ericsson early; my first degree was called the first level of engineering in Sweden. But yes, my ambition was to run a company quite early.”

After moving to the Netherlands, Carlesund built up experience in the telecoms sector. Later though, he went back to textiles, before becoming a CTO and then overseeing mergers and acquisitions. At 29, he was the youngest CEO of a public company in Sweden, going on to run the national Yellow Pages in Sweden and Finland. He ended up entering gaming through a friend, joining Highlight Media – “the largest affiliate at that time in the industry.”

It’s at this point in the interview Carlesund first expresses his intention to remain “humble.” Hearing of the Swede’s rounded industry experience, Gambling Insider asks if it’s better to learn from different sectors or to follow a single industry closely for one’s whole career. The CEO replies: “You should be very humble when you judge and make statements about those things, because they can come across as arrogant. But I think, for sure, it’s very good to have run businesses in different parts of the total landscape of business.

“It's good to have an experience where you have run a company that is in trouble, where you have to cut costs and see how you survive in a situation like that, and to expand and really build a company, getting as much market share as you can. To only have one of these is maybe not perfect. I would also say in the gaming industry, there have not always been experienced people running companies. I think we’re getting there now, slowly reaching the professional level and actually running companies like they should.”

Precisely how gaming companies are run is the perfect segue into our next area of discussion with Carlesund. It is, of course, the reason we are interviewing him for this CEO Special: his journey since taking over as Evolution CEO in 2015. It’s a road he describes as “intense, hungry, full speed ahead” and has seen the company grow from “about 1,200 employees to 8,000.” The executive, again, is modest enough to acknowledge his “fantastic” management team and speak of his good fortune in that respect.

Whenever anyone is interviewed by Gambling Insider, it’s important our editorial team maintains a balanced view and doesn’t lavish a CEO with praise just because they’ve taken time out of their day to speak with us. But the problem in this case is Evolution’s results have been so strong, there is little for us to criticise. Since its foundation in 2006, the organisation has grown emphatically year-on-year and, unlike many in gaming, has even seen its share price take an upward trajectory in recent years. After its IPO on 20 March 2015, Evolution shares settled at a price of SEK 17.95 ($2.07). Four-and-a-half years on (a timeframe which coincides with Carlesund’s arrival), the supplier boasts a share valuation of SEK 252.50.

For Q3 2019 (the most recently-published results at the time of writing), Evolution generated revenue of €94.7m ($105.4m), an increase of 47% year-on-year. EBITDA rose 74% to €48.5m and overall profit grew 87% to €39.8m. “We’re growing everywhere,” Carlesund remarks, before turning these results into a broader message: “That is also important to mention: everyone says ‘oh, the UK isn’t going well.’ Woah, it’s a fantastic market: we’re growing 12%. There’s nothing wrong with growing 12%. Come back when it’s declining 20% to 30% – then you need to cut costs. So this gaming perception of problematic markets on growth, it’s like: get real!

“But we’re growing in revenue. The Nordics is maturing somewhere like 30% and the UK 12%. In the rest of Europe, it’s 42%. Then, of course, Asia is growing tremendously fast, more than 100%, and North America is growing tremendously fast – also 100%+. The rest of the world is up 54%. Overall, we come to a growth of 47%, which is an increase of growth speed, even though we’re 50% larger.”

Hearing those figures, we ask the CEO if Evolution has the growth of live casino as a whole to thank. Here though, Carlesund is perhaps at his most confident. While he admits the overall product is growing, the exec proudly tells us Evolution is “driving live and increasing the gap to competition every single day.” Games like Monopoly Live are seeing the provider attract “completely new players.” In his view, live casino has the “completely right” idea, as so much of entertainment today is “driven by people looking at YouTube, TikTok or Twitter.”

Naturally, talk of video services like YouTube and Netflix is becoming increasingly important for gaming CEOs. Carlesund is not the only executive in this CEO Special to bring them up, while Evolution CPO Todd Haushalter echoed a similar message speaking to Gambling Insider last year. According to Haushalter, these streaming providers are ultimately competition for live gaming, not just separate products. Carlesund agrees: “The first thing is we fight against the little time we have where we actually do something we want to do. You, me and everyone else has a number of things we have to do: those things involve sleeping, eating and taking care of our families.

“These things are fantastic – it’s good to sleep and family’s the most important priority. But then you have an hour or two where you can do something for yourself. You can go to the gym, you can watch a movie on Netflix, or you can just surf on your computer. That is the time we’re fighting for. We’re not only competing with each other; we’re competing to get a piece of that time.”

While sports betting lives off the back of the sporting calendar, Carlesund believes other forms of gaming must create that demand, “not stagnating or doing repeatedly 20 more of the same thing every day.” That explains why, in the battle for a player’s time, Evolution’s games have often stood out. Evolution products have repeatedly won Global Gaming Awards and, for Carlesund, it’s easy to “fall in love” with his development team’s games. When asked for a favourite, the Swede namedrops Monopoly Live, Deal or No Deal Live and Lightning Dice, warning there will be more to come at ICE London this year.

It's good to sleep and family's the most important priority. But then you have an hour or two where you can do something for yourself. You can go to the gym, you can watch a movie on Netflix, or you can just surf on your computer. That is the time we are fighting for. We're not only competing with each other; we're competing to get a piece of that time

But what exactly drives Evolution’s creative process? On this topic, the CEO has plenty to divulge. In fact, he tells Gambling Insider he “can talk about this for hours!” He explains: “You have to have ambition in your company; you have to be strict and cost-efficient. But you have to put a team together, a company together and my aim is to build the best company in the world. I really mean that. It should be better than Spotify, Facebook, Google; it should be the best one.

“If you attract top people, challenge them and let them do their thing, then you get that fantastic creative process when the company really goes forward. That won’t happen if you don’t have that ambition, you are controlling or you think you are just naturally better than everyone else. You should always recruit better people: if I can find someone better than me, fantastic, get them. Be aware, I’m tough; I’m direct and tell people what I want. But, on top of that, there is this message of building the best company in the world and attracting the best talent.”

It strikes Gambling Insider being tough and letting people flourish autonomously can often be two very different things. Is there a balance between being direct and letting people get on with their job? “For sure, there is always a balance. But the route to being the best company in the world doesn’t go through a lot of fancy offices, painted walls, expensive furniture and the best coffee in the world. The route to the best company is the way you work together, that everyone has respect and you have a directness; that there is no politics and you have a goal together.”

Carlesund continues: “Sometimes, I think when companies earn money, instead of focusing on doing that, they buy expensive furniture and offices. That won’t work – that’s not what drives people. It’s nice for a week or two, but you get used to it. I’m not saying you should sit in a basement with no paint on the walls. Our offices are fantastic – but they are efficient. They are just a tool to get what we want. ”So what are Carlesund’s next steps, as he embraces waking up at 3:30am with a new idea or reflection on what he could have done differently at that day’s board meeting? Emphasising his “big goals” for Evolution, the CEO wants to continue taking market share and creating “groundbreaking products.”

While praising what the supplier has achieved so far, Carlesund unsurprisingly adds there is much more to be attained. He says: “When you look at a company, you have to look at the management; you have to look at who is there, what they are doing, how hungry they are. Where do they want to go? If you don’t see that hunger, energy or willingness to go anywhere – if you see people content with quite a good quarter – there is no drive in the company to move forward. Sometimes that is forgotten.”

But Carlesund closes with a different message. Though this is a CEO Special, the Swede is keen to acknowledge no good leader is worth much without their team. “The people working at Evolution are fantastic,” he beams. “We’re built by thousands of talented employees. Without them, I would be nothing. My job is to ensure they can be the best every day. In everything I do, that is the most important thing. These people deserve that. Our total success and everything we do comes down to them.”

Read the rest of the CEO Special below or click here to receive the print edition

 

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