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09 March 2010

PartyGaming - PartyCasino, PartyPoker, WPT News - CEO Jim Ryan Interview

Websites World Poker Tour WTP Casino Noble Casino

Financial Performance

Total revenue and clean EBITDA are down. So how would you characterise 2009 performance?

Q. 2009 was a challenging year. It was a pretty tough economic backdrop for the sector. In fact, the sector has not worked through, or lived through a recession before that. That being said, I think PartyGaming's performance as well as the sector's was resilient but not immune. In 2009, we focused on operations and improving our operations.

In doing so, we actually returned the business to growth. And if you take a look at our fourth quarter, all four product verticals grew in that quarter, and grew dramatically. It was a 17% quarter-over-quarter growth.

So, if I take a look at the year as a whole, I would say our trading was robust, slightly ahead of analysts' consensus, so we feel good about that, and we're positioned very nicely moving into 2010.

Q. You mentioned Q4. How much of that was down to seasonality? And how much is sustainable growth?
A. Well, it's interesting. Q4, Q1 are typically the two strongest quarters in a year. That being said, focusing on our core operations, focusing on the customer, making a number of product, pricing, promotional-based improvements have actually improved the trading of the company. We saw the growth, as I mentioned, 17% quarter-over-quarter growth in Q4. We've seen that growth continue into the first quarter. So we're moving into the year very optimistic about our prospects.

Q. And what's behind the decline in new player signups in the Americas and in Asia-Pacific?
A. There are two factors. First and foremost, you have operators who have continued to operate in the United States, taking their profits and investing into countries like Canada. So that has made those environments far more competitive. That being said, PartyGaming is principally a European business. That's where our focus is. That's where we see our growth in the ensuing years. New, regulated markets coming - Italy, France, Denmark, hopefully Spain in the not-too-distant future. So that's where we're directing our attention at this point.
Business performance and development
Q. Looking first at Poker, you lost third place last year, but have regained it since. What was behind this, and how will you retain your position?
A. Interestingly enough, it was fairly simple - focusing on core Poker operations. What does that involve? It involved rewriting our products, soup to nuts. We actually re-launched Poker in September of 2008, but on the back of that re-launch, we did some very, very important things. We focused on the consumer. We changed our VIP and loyalty points programme in July of 2009. Since we've done that, we've experienced month-over-month growth in our Poker product.

In addition to that, we modified our pricing. The market has become more competitive and we've changed our pricing policy to ensure that we were as competitively priced as the other leaders in the sector.

In addition to that, promotions. There is always a reason to come and play at Party, 24/7. We have month-long promotions that stimulate VIPs, novices and mid-level players.

And last but not least, increasing the size and the capabilities of our Poker management team. I have been with four online gaming companies now, four different Poker networks, and I've never seen a team who is more passionate about the Poker product, worked as hard to make sure that we are a leader in the sector. And yes, we're number three today, but if you take out the US operators, we're actually number one.

Q. We also saw you buy World Poker Tour Enterprises. What's your strategy for that business? And have there been any regulatory issues with the US?
A. I'm going to answer the question in reverse order. First and foremost, there have been no regulatory issues. The World Poker Tour and its business is legal within the United States, and within the European community. The strategy for the World Poker Tour is fairly simple. If you take a look at the US as a case in point, and take a look at the most popular Poker brands in the United States, certainly Party would be top five. And also, World Poker Tour would be top five.

The World Poker Tour has 12 land-based events in the US. We will continue to operate those land-based events. They'll be standalone, branded World Poker Tour and their sponsors only. You will not see PartyPoker all over them. We're quite proud to have probably the best land-based tour events in the world, and we want to preserve that and grow it. We'll be growing it into Europe, with the addition of 10 land-based events.

Now, some of the European events will be sponsored by PartyPoker, and again, our focus is growing our Poker network throughout Europe. But we will also have third parties, online operators sponsor some of those events. So we are embracing our competition. We want them to participate in the land-based sponsorship, the TV sponsorship of the World Poker Tour events. So it is going to be, in one respect, business as usual for the World Poker Tour.

There is an online element that we're quite keen about in the United States, and that is the second aspect of the strategy. Subscription Poker is legal in 37 states in the US. The World Poker Tour operates in those states under the Club WPT brand. PartyPoker has a database of 12 million registered users. Our desire is to cross-pollinate the World Poker Tour subscription product into our 12 million person database. And remind those 12 million consumers that PartyPoker still exists, hopefully get them educated and interested in Poker again by getting them playing a legal subscription model, and positioning the brand for the long term - hopefully the short term, when the US market reopens.

Q. And you launched 80 games in Casino last year, which have shown strong growth. But what's your strategy there to ensure that level of growth?
A. We're excited about our Casino business. What did we have? 12% year-over-year growth and we had quarter-over-quarter growth all the way through the year. The strategy is threefold.

New content. 80 new games last year. We'll have 50 new games this year. The content will be exciting. It will be branded content. Some of the branded content will be those trusted Hollywood brands that you saw come from us last year - Terminator, Sinatra, Rambo to name a few. There will also be some internally developed brands from the PartyGaming game studio.

The second aspect of the strategy is focused on having life-changing events. It's a jackpot-based strategy. Last year, we had one of the largest jackpot wins in online gaming history. The jackpot was just shy of US$5 million. Today we have the largest reset value in our Melon Madness Jackpot. It resets or starts at US$1.5 million. Nobody else can match that in the sector. So we will continue to bring those life-changing events to the consumer.

And the last aspect of the strategy - and this is what excites me most - is dedicated Casino marketing. Now, here is why this is important. Historically, we've acquired all of our Casino players from our Poker database. That's been great, because our cost of acquisitions hasn't been particularly high, but it hasn't been particularly good for our Poker liquidity in a challenged competitive environment where we need to grow that liquidity. What we've now started to do is go and acquire pure-play Casino players. The magic of a pure-play Casino player? Their lifetime value is twice that of a Poker consumer who moves over to Casino.

So our Casino offering will grow in 2010 and beyond.

Q. Bingo performance has been transformed by the acquisition of Cashcade, but how international is Bingo? And what's the growth opportunity there?
A. Very exciting acquisition for us. We're now a market leader in the online Bingo space. We're arguably the largest network in the United Kingdom. The UK market is probably about US$400m in 2009. Now, what's fascinating about this: the worldwide online Bingo market is US$1.7bn.

So strategically, where are we going with this business? Well, we definitely want to capture more share in the United Kingdom, and we will this year. But we're going to take that business into other European markets, so you'll likely see us go into the Nordic territories and perhaps Spain in 2010.

Q. You've talked a lot about expanding your position in Sports Betting, and last year speculation was rife about a possible merger with bwin. What happened on that?
A. In fact, we've talked to a number of participants in the marketplace and continue to do so. There have been rumours about bwin and many others. The reality of it is where we stand today we have a number of discussions that are ongoing. Everything is at a preliminary stage. So, M&A continues to be a material part of our strategy moving forward, but we need the right set of circumstances for a deal to happen. So stay tuned.
B2B and B2G
Q. You say you’ve done five B2B deals in 2009, excluding those that came with the acquisition of Cashcade. How significant are they?
A. If I may, just for a moment, just state that we’re particularly proud of our B2B business vertical. Why? Because it was part of our new strategy that we announced in August of 2008. And here we are, a year and a half later, and we set that strategy up by saying we wanted to do five meaningful deals in the first year. And we did them.

You’ll never see us do double digits in terms of the number of new partners we’re bringing into our B2B business. The objective in 2009 was five deals, and that’s exactly what we did. The objective in 2010 is five deals. Our mission is to find five B2B partners who are ready and willing to invest in their online brand and drive a successful business. It is a situation where, in fact, less is more.

All of this, the five that we have, the five that we’ll do in 2010, will contribute as a foundation to our plan to achieve in excess of US$30m revenue from our B2B business in 2012.

Q. Turning to your B2G vertical, some commentators believe signing agreements with governments is restricting your potential earnings in a free market, and restricting your liquidity pool. What’s your view on this? And do you intend to continue a strategy of B2G as your preferred entry into a market?
A. I’m going to take you back to our strategy session in 2008. The executive team sat down and we took at look at the competitive environment and we said, “Let’s move five years out in trying to understand what this marketplace looks like.” The first thing we agreed on was the marketplace within Europe would regulate, and potentially within the United States and the rest of the world. In a regulated market, who are we going to have to compete against? We’re going to have to compete against media organisations, trusted brands like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo - and governments - including state lottery operators and government operators for online gaming services.

So we won’t get to dictate what is the best way to enter into these markets. They’re going to regulate. And the regulations, as they are in Europe today, vary from country to country. Is it a preferred approach? Our preferred approach is in fact to operate in regulated marketplaces because there is certainty. But there’s something also more valuable in a regulated market – the ability to freely advertise.

So our strategy right now is without question to focus on our B2B offering. So we’ll tackle those trusted brands and those media channels that want to get into the online sector. But also our B2G. It’s a natural. We’ve positioned our business beautifully for it for 2010. And what we will do, with both the B2B and the B2G, is marry them up with our liquidity pool that we generate from B2C. And hence, as we’re doing in Italy today, provide the consumer with the best possible experience.

Regulation and industry consolidation
Q. How much time are you devoting to the US at the moment? You’ve got your non-prosecution deal now agreed. You’ve got the World Poker Tour deal under your belt. The Barney Frank bill is in motion, for instance. You’re well-placed for a comeback, aren’t you?
A. We are still very much a European-focused business. That is how we’ll pay the bills throughout 2010 and beyond. That being said, we can’t ignore the opportunity in the United States. Truth be told, if I take you back to 2006, on a run rate basis, our business would have done US$1.2b worth of revenue and generated three-quarters of a billion dollars (US$750m) of EBITDA. The PartyPoker brand is still one of the most popular – if not the most popular – Poker brand in that marketplace.

So what have we done? We now have an office in Los Angeles. We have 38 employees. We’ve moved one of our executives, in fact an individual who used to run PartyPoker when we were in the US, over to our LA office. We’re propagating Poker through our subscription model right now in the WTP. We’re actively talking to land-based operators and others who are potentially interested in getting into this marketplace when it regulates.

So we’re sowing the seeds, if you will, right now and planting trees, preparing ourselves for re-entry. If and when it regulates, we’ll be there.

Q. And what further opportunities are you seeing in Europe?
A. Europe is an exciting place from a regulatory perspective right now. We have got Italy – and Italy is without question the fastest-growing poker market within the European Union. What you have to realise is, it is a regulated market now only for tournament poker. Tournament poker is 25 per cent of our core Poker business. Cash game poker makes up the balance. Cash game poker is in the process of being regulated, and hopefully will be so in the first half of 2010. Also with that, Casino games in the first half of 2010. And, hopefully in the second half, Bingo. So the Italian market is very exciting. We should expect to see some very nice growth coming from that country.

France? Hopefully mid-year will regulate online poker and sports betting. And Denmark, beginning of 2011. We also have the Spanish government, at a federal level, considering how best to manage online poker and regulation. So we’re excited about some of the developments that we’re seeing in the European marketplace.

Management focus and outlook
Q. You now have a COO, Per Widerström. So how are you focused to strategically develop the business in 2010?
A. It’s wonderful having Per. I was happy over 2009 to get actively involved in the operations, dig a little deeper and understand the business and perhaps put “Jim Ryan’s” thumbprint on the few areas that I felt I could contribute. Per, an experienced online gaming executive joining the team, taking over the day-to-day operations, will free me up to do a couple of important things. First and foremost, make sure that we monetise the synergies from the deals that we’ve done in 2009. Secondly, focus on new M&A opportunities. And lastly, contribute to the growth of our B2B and B2G efforts, not only in Europe but hopefully in the United States.

Q. Are you happy with the way the year has started? And what’s your outlook for the business in 2010?
A. We have started this year very positively, and we’re quite confident and optimistic about our growth prospects for the balance of the year.

2009 Full Year Results

Martin Weigold, Group Finance Director

Financial Performance
Q. You've reported above consensus for 2009, but isn't it all really down to cost-cutting? Talk me through the financials.
A. We're very pleased with our performance in 2009. Revenues dropped by 6% and clean EBITDA also dropped by 6%. Operating profit was up by 4%. But, given the economic climate, I think that that's a very solid result. Our Casino vertical had another outstanding year, driven by growth in new player sign-ups, the addition of 80 new games, which really saw the performance of that particular vertical take off.

Bingo was obviously transformed by the acquisition of Cashcade. In Sports we made a lot of progress, mainly in the second half. We started to reap some of the benefits of operational changes that we made earlier in the year. Poker was more difficult. We saw player numbers go backwards until we made changes to the loyalty programme around the middle of the year. And since that point, Poker has returned to growth. So, as I say, overall we're very pleased with the result.

Q. You've also reduced administrative expenses. What have you had to cut? And in order to grow, aren't you going to have to add some of that back in?
A. We're always looking to be more efficient on costs wherever we can, but around the middle part of 2008, we undertook a significant cost reduction programme in anticipation of a worsening economic climate. We looked to take out staff costs, overheads, trying not to touch any areas that were associated with revenue generation within the business. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we're very glad that we did that now because we think that it set us up well in terms of the 2009 performance. Foreign exchange was also a factor I should note though. Foreign exchange actually reduced our costs by around US$17m in the period, so that shouldn't be overlooked either.

Q. You mention foreign exchange. Take us through the currency fluctuations and how they affected the numbers that you are reporting today?
A. Well, around the end of 2008 we saw a substantial strengthening in the value of the dollar. It was almost 25% in the space of one quarter. Because we report our results in dollars that basically meant that the reported revenue figure was around US$30m lower than it would otherwise have been but, having said that, that wasn't the impact at the bottom line because, as I just mentioned, we had a corresponding benefit of the cost line which mitigated some of the impact.

Q. Now in Q4 we saw an uplift in Poker revenue and the business also signalled a return to growth in each of its verticals, but isn't this mostly down to seasonality and one punter's big loss?
A. Certainly in the fourth quarter you would expect to see a seasonal pickup, and there's no doubt about that, but the pickup we saw was much stronger than just seasonality. If you look at the performance of each of the verticals in turn - in Poker, revenues were up by 9% which we're very pleased about, given that we had probably six or seven sequential quarters where Poker has actually gone backwards, so we felt that that was a very important turning point.

Casino had a great performance - it was up by 17% on the third quarter. And even if you strip out the exceptional result that you refer to, where we had the mega jackpot win and part of that reinvested in December, Casino still grew by 13% quarter on quarter, which I think, you'll agree, is a reasonable result. Sports we were up by 69% Q4 over Q3, driven by operational improvements, reducing our bonus costs and taking steps to improve the margin, particularly on our live book, in line with what we said that we would do earlier in the year. And then, of course, we had huge growth in Bingo on the back of the Cashcade acquisition in July.

Q. So where do you see margins going from here, given the likelihood of increased marketing support for Casino and the need to improve Poker liquidity?
A. Well, margins in the short term will be impacted by the Cashcade acquisition. At the time of the acquisition I did point out that distribution costs were likely to move from around the 40% level, where they were prior to the acquisition, by around 200 basis points to around 42% in 2009. Going forward into 2010, when you've got a full year of Cashcade on board, we would expect distribution expenses to move to the 43% to 45% mark of revenue with a corresponding impact on clean EBITDA margins. So clean EBITDA margins are likely to be around 28%, I would say, in 2010.

Q. And, do you envisage, in order to compete with US-facing sites, having to offer higher bonuses for some time still?
A. Right now we think that our loyalty programme and our VIP incentives are competitive, even with the US-facing sites. I think that that's one of the reasons why we've seen player numbers and revenues pick up in Poker, not just in Q4, but it's continued into the current trading period in January and February. Are they going to increase from their current level? Right now we don't expect that to be the case, but I think it's we need to watch what the competition do and we need to ensure that we remain competitive.
Q. You made two major acquisitions in 2009 - Cashcade and World Poker Tour Enterprises. Are you happy with the ROI on these?
A. Yes, we're very happy. The acquisition of Cashcade will work out to be on a multiple of between 5 and 5.9 times EBITDA, which we think is a very good price for a business which is a market leader and is also a high growth business. It's contributed around US$15m to our EBITDA this year and, of course, we bought it part way through the year, in July. So, very, very pleased with that.

World Poker Tour we acquired for strategic reasons. It's not really going to materially contribute to EBITDA, but we're using it to promote the Poker business very successfully at the moment and it's also coming in handy in discussions with US land-based operators. And we expect it to position us very well for a possible re-entry to the US market.

Q. So are you comfortable you have the capacity to fund similar sized, or even larger acquisitions in 2010?
A. Yes, absolutely. The business is very cash generative. This year we generated over US$120m of operating cash flow. In fact, right now we have the capacity to make another acquisition around the size of Cashcade simply from using our existing cash resources. For more sizeable transactions, then we'd also look to use our equity which, of course, is no longer an issue now that we have the DoJ settlement behind us.
Dividend, current trading and outlook
Q. So no dividend again. What circumstances do you think could make you a dividend stock, not simply a growth stock, and when would that be?
A. Well, right now our shareholders are very clear in that they want to see us consolidate the sector. So whilst the opportunities exist to do that and generate higher returns from consolidating competitors, as opposed to other activities -paying it back to our shareholders by way of a dividend or a share buyback - so we're going to continue to do that. But we do anticipate paying a dividend at some point in the future.

Q. And give us a sense of trading in January and February.
A. Current trading, we're very happy with that performance. It's in line with our expectations. At Poker we've seen further growth. Poker revenues are up around 3%. Player numbers are actually up by 9%. Casino is off a little from the fourth quarter, but that's because the fourth quarter last year was exceptionally strong, as we discussed. Bingo has continued to show strong growth - it's up 9% on the fourth quarter. And Sports Betting, even though the fourth quarter was very strong in its own right, has actually continued to grow and grow by further improvements in the margin. So, we're very happy with performance right now.

Q. So what are your expectations for 2010?
A. For 2010 we expect to see growth across all verticals. Obviously Bingo will grow very strongly because of the acquisition of Cashcade part way through the year. Casino we expect to see strong growth. Poker we expect to grow again, but at more modest rates. And further progression in margins on our Sports book.

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