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Camelot hopes to hit the jackpot again

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Australia
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June 11, 2005
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Posted: December 17, 2005, 8:58 pm - IP Logged

Dianne Thompson is babbling away excitedly like one of her lotto millionaires as she gears up to try to scoop the UK's National Lottery licence for Camelot for a third time.

It wasn't meant to be like this. Earlier this year the chief executive of Camelot was reportedly suggesting it was time to move aside. After all, Thompson, 54, had always said she would stand down when she had managed to reverse a sales decline.

She has certainly succeeded there, with Camelot reporting another strong set of results for the six months to September 24 this weekend.

Why isn't she off then? "What I actually said is that I would not be able to fight a third bid. It was a hell of a process last time and I could not face going through that. But I am in my dream job. I love this company and I love what we do."

Does she want to go on and on and on, like Mrs Thatcher? "I have no definite timescale in mind," she says, before hinting that she will probably stand down around 2011. "The thing about announcing when you are going is that it is very difficult to stay totally in control."

Thompson says she is not tempted by the bigger jackpots on offer at other companies. "What would happen for me after this is probably try to do a plural career with a number of non-executives," she says. "I don't think it will be millions."

Thompson is on the front foot about boardroom pay at the lottery operator. Times are good at Camelot with bonuses running at 19pc of salary, but Thompson says these compare poorly with the likes of RAC where she used to be a director.

"It depends on what you compare us to. If you compare us with public sector that probably sounds like an awful lot of money. But I sit on the board of RAC and they were getting bonuses of 60pc."

For now, Thompson has got another lotto licence to win. The current seven-year term expires in 2009 and on Tuesday the regulator is due to announce details of how long the next licence will be.

Thompson wants the new licence to run for 10 years. The current seven-year licence presents its own problems. "The trouble with a seven-year licence is that by the time you get to year four - which is now - it is very hard to justify any new investment in it," she says.

"The other problem is actually attracting the staff. Because at best I can only offer you a seven-year promise. Now in year four, all I can offer is a five-year promise.

"When you are running a business with a seven-year life there comes a point when people take a conscious decision whether to jump or stay. That is about now."

Thompson's toughest time was in 2000 when Camelot nearly lost the current licence. It was made worse the following year when a third of the staff left in the wake of the upheaval. "While we had been out there fighting to get back in a third of them had been out looking for jobs," she says without rancour.

So far 20 groups are in the running for the next licence, but Thompson thinks it will come down to a handful of lotto staples like Ladbrokes, and Richard Branson (yes, again).

"He said never again last time but he said that after the first one. Then he had another go for the second. He was always very generous towards me as a person.

"When we eventually won he rang me and left a message on my answerphone to say congratulations. He also said that if we had lost and he had won, he was going to offer me a job."

If Camelot wins, Thompson will have the chance to see through the lottery's biggest challenge - raising £750m of the 2012 Olympics' £2.5billion budget.

So far, two scratch-card games have been launched and another is planned for February. "We are doing well," she says confidently. So how much have you raised? "£2.7m so far. So £747.3m and counting."

She is pushing for some help from the Treasury by asking the Chancellor Gordon Brown to reform the way it collects tax from the lottery. Rather than paying 12p in every pound gambled to the Revenue, Camelot wants to revert to a "gross profit tax" which applies to bookmakers.

"I am pretty confident about raising the money, although GPT will help. Without that we are confident we can do it, but it will just be harder," she says.

Perhaps Thompson should be more concerned after 2008 when tabloid tales of missed deadlines and ballooning construction budgets on some of the projects might sap the punters' Olympian spirit? Ever optimistic, Thompson takes a rose-tinted view of the British delight in wallowing in events going wrong. "I don't think that will happen," she says. "As a nation we are very proud of our sporting achievements. You only have to look at what happened with the rugby world cup and the Ashes."

Thompson has only ever won £30 on the lottery (three £10 wins from about 170 £1 stakes) and hasn't played since joining Camelot as commercial director in 1997 (she took over as chief executive in 2000). She lives on her own near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and spends the middle part of the week in London meeting retailers, pressure groups and the regulator.

Her 12-hour days start at 7.30am and Mondays and Fridays are spent at head office in Watford where she tries as often as possible to give the big cheque to the winners. She reluctantly accepts the high-profile tag that comes from being one of Britain's most high-profile women bosses (she was businesswoman of the year in 2001).

"I hate being in the public spotlight but it goes with the territory and is something that I have to do," she says. "People think that if Di can do it then I can. You automatically become a role model for them."