British billionaire Peter Done never forgets his older brother Fred, pressing a pillow to his face during a fight when they were kids.
The two shared the same bed. And it was like that until they turned 15 years old. Her two other sisters also slept in the same room.
The Done family lived in a small house in Ordsall, known as the “Salford slum”, in the Manchester metropolitan area of northern England.
“I still have claustrophobia because of the pillow,” laughs Done Júnior. “I was probably a little cheeky and he was bigger than me.”
But it was the successful relationship with his brother that would be the key to his professional success. The brothers found their way out of poverty by building an empire of bookmakers, amassing a family fortune of billions of pounds and becoming a regular on the Sunday Times’ richest list.
The Done brothers left school at age 15.
However, they found employment at a Manchester sportsbook chain. Like pubs, these establishments thrived in poor areas. They were not legalized in the UK until 1961. There were concerns about their social impact as well as the very morality of the game.
At 17, Peter was already running a bookmaker, although he could not legally enter its premises.
The owner of the establishment valued him for his math skills. He took care of accounting, mentally analyzing the numbers, profits and losses.
In the late 1960s, these places were intimidating to work—even for a teenager. They were dominated by men and the decor often resembled that of a prison. The atmosphere could turn violent at any time, but especially after 3 pm on a Saturday, when people were leaving pubs, Peter recalls.
“You couldn’t show weakness,” he says, “because then these tough guys would realize you were too docile.”
Both Peter and Fred showed a talent for running these places, and when Peter turned 21 in 1967, the two opened their own bookmakers. They bought her for £4,000—£1,000 being the deposit money Peter had saved to buy a house with his wife. They called her Betfred.
He says he wasn’t afraid to take that risk because he already had six years of experience in the field and always believed he could run a bookmaker better than his bosses, if given the opportunity.
It was at this time that Peter says he learned lessons he still values today.
The main one, he says, is always customer service, because that’s what brings people back.
“We call our customers ‘sir’ and at that time that didn’t happen.”
“If a bettor had a big win, the bookmaker used to throw money at him and say, ‘Don’t come back!’ while we would say: ‘here is your money, enjoy!’
“They were surprised. But we knew they would come back and over time the bookmaker always wins.”
The brothers also disliked the decor of many bookmakers at that time. They looked like “shacks,” recalls Peter.
“We raised the bar, we had rugs”, he says.
The formula worked and the brothers gradually bought more stores, the first being run by their sisters, consolidating the family business. By the mid-1980s, they had over 70 stores.
But it was an incident during this constant expansion that led Peter to leave the gambling world behind. The brothers had to extra-judicially settle a dispute with an employee of a new store they were taking over.
The process left wounds that took time to heal. This led them to invest in a new business that outsourced Human Resources services.
The company would gain the name Peninsula, of which Peter has been CEO for 35 years. Its newly built headquarters is a skyscraper of gleaming glass and dominates the Manchester skyline, north of Victoria Station.
From Peter’s office, you can see Ordsall, where he grew up. Peninsula has expanded over the years and now has over 3,000 employees, serving over 100,000 companies worldwide, 40,000 of them in the UK.
Peninsula Group has its own office, just north of Victoria Station
Recently, during the pandemic, the company’s customer base grew by more than 12% as companies around the world had to update their HR and safety policies, whether it’s about working at home, social distancing or immunization rules. Over time, his bet in this sector seems to have paid off.
However, in the mid-1980s, while the company’s future was showing promising signs, the opportunities for success were unclear and the brothers had to make a choice. Who would manage it?
The decision on who should leave Betfred was decided as a real gamble.
“Fred said ‘Let’s decide on coin toss.’ He won and said ‘go away’ before I could say anything,” says Peter, laughing.
So he left the management of Betfred to his older brother, although he remains its main shareholder.
But did your departure mean stepping out of your older brother’s shadow? Was it, after all, a bet in itself?
“First of all, ever since we were kids, when I pressed the pillow to my face, I wanted to dominate, but I wouldn’t let it,” says Peter bluntly.
Was it then a desire to leave behind the stigma of the game, which plagues many communities and, above all, as studies have shown, the deprived areas where it grew up?
Peter says that was not the case. “Betting has a bad reputation, but the vast majority of people who go to a bookmaker do it for fun and don’t spend more than they can.”
Peter’s explanation for leaving the sector in which he started his career in the business world is simpler.
He says that he preferred the possibilities that were opening up in the world of Human Resources and was excited about the challenge of expanding a new business.
However, Peter still uses the lessons he learned as a teenager in the bookmakers, although his workplace today is totally different.
The Peninsula’s setup is more akin to a typical call-center, with rows of people side by side chatting through headphones. Everything is bright and bright and the walls are covered in motivational slogans. And there are rugs.
“It’s all about updating and generating constant revenue”, explains Peter, when talking about the chances of success of the business. Peninsula customers are no different than 60s bookmakers in that sense. The quality of service determines whether anyone returns. And it’s cheaper to retain an old customer than to get a new one.
One business advice Done has learned in recent years, however, is that you can only get good service at scale if you treat your employees well and encourage them—so he pursues high staff retention and adopts an overt reward policy. to those who provide a good service.
One of the rewards for his success in business is being able to socialize with people from the Manchester United football club, a team he has supported since childhood. Peter is a regular at the Old Trafford stadium, along with his brother, mingling with important figures from the club, past and present.
A close friend is legendary trainer Sir Alex Ferguson, who gave him some memorable advice when they vacationed together a few years ago. Ferguson said, “Stay in control and make decisions, even if they’re wrong. The worst thing is not making a decision.”
Peter says he followed that advice to the letter, not least because his family kept control — of every business they created. And as for decision making, he argues that he always chose the future he wanted to follow, even though part of it was decided on a coin flip.
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