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William Hill to close 119 shops but will repay £24.5m furlough funds

William Hill: have experienced a "robust recovery" since the return of mainstream sport
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William Hill are to close another 119 betting shops as profits plunged at the bookmaker due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the company is to repay £24.5 million in furlough funds to the government following what they described as a "robust recovery" in recent weeks since the return of mainstream sport and betting shops reopening.

Unveiling their financial results for the first six months of 2020, William Hill said net revenue had fallen by 32 per cent to £554.4m, while adjusted operating profit was down 85 per cent to £11.4m, although the bookmaker said that was ahead of expectations.

Chief executive Ulrik Bengtsson said he was delighted with the company's performance.

He told the Racing Post: "It has probably been the most difficult circumstances of my and many of my colleagues' professional lives to guide the company through all this. Coming out the way we did and actually making a small profit in the period is incredible.

"We traded really well before the pandemic. During the pandemic we showed great cost control and then we recovered very quickly.

"If you look a little bit further down the numbers I'm really pleased with our online business because they actually grew profit by three per cent in an incredibly difficult period, which is remarkable."

Bengtsson said the furlough scheme had meant they could protect the jobs of 7,000 retail staff and the strength of their recovery meant they would repay the furlough funds received from the government.

William Hill chief executive Ulrik Bengtsson: "During the pandemic we showed great cost control and then recovered quickly"

"I think that's the right thing to do," he added.

Last year William Hill closed 713 betting shops in response to the financial blow from the government's crackdown on FOBTs.

The bookmaker's betting shops were able to re-open after lockdown on June 15 and the company reported "flat" like-for-like net revenue during the last two weeks of the reporting period as the estate began trading again.

However, they said they anticipated that footfall would not return to pre-Covid levels in the longer term and 119 shops would remain closed, with the "majority" of employees affected redeployed in the estate.

Describing the effect of the pandemic on Hills' betting shops, Bengtsson said: "One learning is that footfall is down. Another is the dwell time is down. People don't dwell in the shops in the same way. That is changing behaviour but equally we have seen staking go up. It all has to be seen in the broader context of Covid."

William Hill are merging their UK online and retail divisions and Bengtsson added: "More broadly I think our shops can do a lot more than they do today and as such are a very important part of the ecosystem in the future."

Bengtsson said the return of sport, including racing, after lockdown had an "immediate impact" for the company.

"Overall it is all positive and we are very happy racing is back," he added. "It has always been and is a very important product for William Hill."

Serpentine's Investec Derby win is understood to have been the firm's best result in the race since William Hill were founded in 1934.

Statutory operating profit of £148.5m included recognition of the £201.6m VAT refund the company received earlier this year, offset by an £81.9m impairment of the UK betting shop estate.

In June, William Hill also raised £224 million through a share placement to strengthen their balance sheet and boost their plans for expansion in the US, where they now operate in 13 states.

Bengtsson said: "It's still early days in the US but we feel very confident with our position at this point in time."

Goodbody gaming and leisure analyst Gavin Kelleher described the results as "very reassuring", while William Hill's share price ended the day up nearly nine per cent at 127.6p.

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Coming out the way we did and actually making a small profit in the period is incredible
E.W. Terms