IT takes a powerful imagination to summon the ghosts of Wellington Place .
>Richard Flint returns to Yorkshire roots
>Sky Bet's owner agrees to merger
For more than a century, the site was occupied by a railway station which served as a point of departure for traders and commuters. Older readers might have sepia-tinted memories of the smoke and bustle, which vanished when Leeds Central station closed in the late 1960s. With the station gone, the area around it went into decline.
When I joined The Yorkshire Post in 1997, there was nothing to make you linger there, unless you were an architectural historian who was intrigued by the rugged Victorian remains, such as the old station’s tower, which was built in the 1850s to lift goods on and off the railway.
The tower resembled an ancient mariner, marooned among the uninspiring, and less durable, buildings of the late 20th century. It was a drab area that summed up everything that was wrong and dated about Leeds.
Walk around the site today and the tower remains but everything else has changed beyond recognition. The old railway station site has been transformed into Wellington Place, a business district which may soon rival the Spinningfields financial hub in Manchester.
Stroll around the sleek, towering office buildings today and you will rub shoulders with lawyers, risk managers, and employees working for a company that is set to become the world’s largest online betting firm.
The stunning growth and success of Sky Betting & Gaming, which has been achieved during an era of austerity and Brexit uncertainty, shows Yorkshire-based firms can make a lasting impression on the global stage by being smart, focused and nimble.
Sky Betting & Gaming has seen its staff numbers soar from 150 to 1,300 over the last decade. Under the leadership of Richard Flint, Sky Betting & Gaming earned a place alongside the biggest operators in the gambling industry. Its importance was acknowledged last year, when the Canadian Stars group snapped it up.
A new chapter in the company’s story is about to open. The Paddy Power and Betfair owner Flutter Entertainment has agreed a merger deal with the Stars Group to create an online betting firm with combined annual revenues of £3.8 billion. If the deal is approved by shareholders, it will see Leeds placed at the heart of a global online betting empire.
Not everyone is a fan of betting companies. Richard Flint acknowledged there was work to be done when he told The Yorkshire Post last year that Sky Bet “wanted to make a concerted effort to interact with customers who show signs of harm”.
It has invested millions of pounds in people, systems and the industry’s first ever safer gambling advertising campaign.
Whatever your views on the ethics and morality of gambling, we can all salute the drive and judgement of Mr Flint, who will be joining the combined group as a non-executive director, assuming the deal gets the green light.
In a statement issued to accompany the announcement of the deal, Mr Flint said he was excited by his new role and believes the combination of The Stars Group and Flutter will create a “compelling proposition in global sports betting and gaming.”
Like a commercial property “Field of Dreams” the team behind Wellington Place believed that, if they built high quality office space the occupiers would soon appear. Sky Bet is just one of a host of companies who jumped at the opportunity to establish a base there.
For years, the former railway station site was a place that would probably have scared off investors. Today, Wellington Place is arguably the finest showcase for the vast range of professional services and technology firms that are beating a path to Leeds.
It seems highly unlikely that the new owners of Sky Betting & Gaming will want to do anything to break up a winning team. Far from it.
I understand Flutter regards the Leeds operation as a “very important” part of its new empire.
This empire’s success would have gained more than a gruff nod of approval from the merchants who frequented the Victorian structures that once towered over Wellington Place.