TAB possibly worst run business in New Zealand

by Brian de Lore
Published 5th June 2020

If you have a successful business you’re looking to run into the ground and send broke, the New Zealand TAB has almost completed writing the perfect blueprint, but don’t call its helpline for the recipe because it’s become famous for providing no help.

In fact, the helpline at the TAB has brought to light numerous recent stories of the phone ringing unanswered or operators arguing with disgruntled punters rather than appeasing them, and even hanging it in their ear.

Punters consulted to write this blog produced one who claimed eight of his previous ten calls to the helpline had gone unanswered.

An overabundance of stories about the poor treatment of customers and a reduction in services can only be a reflection of a leadership team that doesn’t care about the bottom-line result.

Rumblings about a toxic culture within the walls of the TAB from various disgruntled TAB employees…

It’s not a new thing. Rumblings about a toxic culture within the walls of the TAB from various disgruntled TAB employees have been audible most the way through the John Allen reign of terror, and since. Good people are known to have left voluntarily, and others who have expressed disagreement in policy direction have experienced the shove.

And now, the customer interface which is where any successful organisation meets its customers and keeps them happy, has been dismantled to save around five percent of the TAB’s annual cost. The reason offered to The Optimist: Executive Chair Dean McKenzie didn’t tackle the problem of redundancies himself but gave the cost-cutting assignment to his executive team, hence Stephen Henry addressing the staff at redundancy meetings and not McKenzie himself.

Any well-run organisation displaying strong leadership would have started with the executive team and worked its way down – not the other way around. The TAB has lost its way because it has focused on IT development with a strange, misguided and overblown self-belief they had the expertise to develop a FOB that would compete in the global wagering market.

Vanity overcame logic, however, and the customer became the casualty. Strange is it not, that of all the businesses that should require extra careful customer attention, The TAB NZs focus on its VIP and Elite Customers while ignoring all us ‘mug punters’ has surely backfired with the loss of 35 percent of its customer base. Don’t accept that COVID-19 was the cause.

John Allen: …the top 1.5 percent of our customers produce 56 percent of our turnover.

Two and a half years ago, the then CEO John Allen said the most accurate thing he ever said: “We need new customers otherwise we are vulnerable to that very small number of elite customers – the top 1.5 percent of our customers produce 56 percent of our turnover. And they are being sought by every betting agency in the world.”  

Needing them and getting them were two separate destinations, but Allen never accepted that scale was against all his plans, and overseas IT development and massive marketing budgets were obstacles too big to conquer. Between Tabcorp and Australian betting operators, the spend on marketing is currently $300 million per annum.

Allen should have heeded his own advice, which in reality, was the advice of his executive team because he didn’t know the business. But his executive team was made up of several former associates at NZ Post/Kiwibank brought with him from his days of NZ Post and a couple of relatively inexperienced employees from Tom Waterhouse Bookmaking in Sydney.

Punters have never been loyal animals, and the depletion of customers has been across the board. Allen, at that time, also talked about his VIP customers:  “the VIP customers who are very large punters – 20 or 30 of them around the world – they are betting on our products if we are competitive as long as they get all the data they require.”

Sportsbet in Australia offered the same man a free $1,500 bet if he deposited $1,000.

Offering substantial rebates to the biggest punters has proved a false economy, and it raises the question of how many of the VIPs remain? One of the Elite customers was this week offered a free $50 bet on the TAB NZ if he deposited $100 into his account. On the same day, Sportsbet in Australia offered the same man a free $1,500 bet if he deposited $1,000. Who’s winning that battle?

The so-called ‘mug punters’ now have no weekly printed formguide to purchase, no radio trackside interviews and talkback, a FOB platform that offers poor odds on a poorly designed website that continually gets ‘hung,’ the closure of more TAB retail outlets and the promise of no live betting operators on-course but instead ‘betting pods’ or self-service terminals that are cumbersome to use and don’t payout.

It’s hard to fathom why years ago the television exposure of racing to the general public was extinguished when Trackside went from free-to-air to pay-TV with the Sky package. How do you get new racegoers interested if the product isn’t free to view?

Then consider that all telephone betting has ceased, including the exempted special cases, and TAB NZ is the only betting operator that charges a debit/credit card fee of $2.15 regardless of whether you deposit $10 or $100, and you reach the conclusion it must now be really managed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which has set out to discourage all betting.

…two earn just under $300,000 while the other six earn over $300,000 and reputedly up to $620,000

But that was last week’s joke. This week we still have to consider that the people making these decisions are basically the same eight executives, of which two earn just under $300,000 while the other six earn over $300,000 and reputedly up to $620,000 (McKenzie).

McKenzie said in his Update on May 26th, “An independent review of the structure of the Executive Leadership team is underway with consultation on any proposed changes expected to start next week.”

Why an independent review? McKenzie is in the job and should by now have worked out how to run it on a shoestring, which he really should have had worked out a year ago. But if making a decision is the issue, then using a paid consultant is historically typical for this organisation.

One former employee passed the comment that if the entire executive team stayed in bed for a month, it would not be detrimental to the TABs performance. The inference was that if the computer was operational, the business would run itself – and as good a cash business as the TAB could be,  it was only ever big enough to feed a few platoons, not an entire army.

Getting the customers back and revenue up to a sustainable level is problematic. COVID-19 has interrupted racing and changed habits, which may never result in a return to our former ways and, in particular relevance to racing, betting practices. Punters have generally concluded they are getting no service and a lousy deal from TAB NZ, and anecdotally the evidence suggests they are looking off-shore in greater numbers.

The saving grace could be the content of the legislation which will be tabled in parliament early next week

The saving grace could be the content of the legislation which will be tabled in parliament early next week and hopefully get its second reading soon after that. If the rewrite favours the consensus of the almost 1,000 submissions and is passed into law by July 1st as scheduled, racing gets its chance to see the early exit of RITA and the implementation of some positive changes.

A throng of stars needs to align for that rare possibility of hope to become a reality. But while Minister Peters did renew RITA for a further year in a statement he released on Wednesday, when the same announcement appeared on the RITA website later that same day, the caveat on the renewal of RITA appeared in a footnote.

The footnote stated: “The Directors’ terms will end on the enactment of the Racing Industry Bill or on 30 June 2021 – whichever comes first.” The enactment of the Bill is imminent if we are to get a second reading next week.

The Select Committee wasn’t available for comment this week because, under its protocols, it is inappropriate to make comments before the legislation comes up for its second reading. But in previous conversations with both National Select Committee members Andrew Bayly and Ian McKelvie (Shadow Minister for Racing), they are positive about the content.

All this means nothing, however, if an under-performing TAB on the top of RITAs $47 million debt to the ASB Bank trivialises racing in the coming season, because of NZRB/RITAs point-blank refusal to properly investigate the outsourcing/partnering of the TAB and restructuring as outlined in the Messara Review two years ago.

The Review clearly warned the Minister and all of New Zealand that it didn’t have the luxury of waiting, but that warning went unheeded, and today New Zealand racing is paying the price.

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