Supreme Ventures should target entertainment, not just gaming - Ian Levy
Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor
Ian Levy, deputy chairman of Supreme Ventures Limited (SVL), is a successful businessman. He has won a prestigious award from the French government for several lucrative contracts between Jamaica and that country. In an interview with The Gleaner in 2005, Levy said he was brought on board SVL by the late Peter Stewart who asked him whether he would have an interest in a lottery company.
He said that he jumped at the opportunity even though it wasn't his idea, noting that Stewart and the company's Chairman Paul Hoo sought his help to get a licence because of his strong negotiating skills with governments over the years.
Levy subsequently asked then minister of finance if the Jamaica Lottery Company (JLC) had a monopoly and he was told no; that anybody in Jamaica could get a licence provided they could provide proof of ability to run a lottery and that the introduction of a second would not destroy the first. The rest is history; today SVL is celebrating 10 years and Levy's initial vision that it would become the largest gaming and entertainment entity in the Caribbean closely associated with the tourist industry is still alive.
Last Sunday, in the first of a series of articles that reflect on the company's achievements, we spoke to Paul Hoo and CEO Brian George. This week, Levy takes the spotlight with his view on where things stand and where he would like them to be.
Barbara Ellington: Go back to the first day of SVL's operation and tell me how you felt as things got started.
Ian Levy: Absolutely excited on the first day SVL started, I had a lot of hope and belief in and exciting dreams about the future of SVL but from day one my vision of SVL and the direction in which it was to go was not endorsed by my other partners. It was my feeling that it should have gone in the direction of an entertainment and be the leading such entity of the Caribbean and Central America, not just a gaming company. I felt we should focus on anything to do with the promotion of music shows and tourism. That was my dream and still is.
So the other partners felt differently?
They have never endorsed my dream or belief of what SVL should be.
So even in spite of the enormous success of the company today, you still feel that way?
And do you still keep trying to make your vision happen?
Yes, and I still bring ideas to persuade the other directors that this is he way to go.
And they are still in the gaming company mode?
Yes, they still are, hence, lottery, gaming lounges and now sports betting, all different areas of gaming outside of the financial services of remittances and cambios. The key areas are those I mentioned; sports betting involves all sporting activities all over the world. There is a big market for betting on basketball, athletics and other games. The other directors are of the view that sports betting has tremendous possibilities.
How often do you go abroad to visit casinos to see how they do things and what do you think of the possibility of SVL going into large-scale casino gaming of the scope of places like Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada?
Not very often; to take on casino gaming would be extremely costly and SVL could not do this on its own. Whether we could do it as a joint venture with another company is something that we would have to look at but because of the downturn of the international financial markets over the last few years, casinos have not done as well as they used to and Las Vegas was in a loss position up to last year. Many things in our company were put on hold because it requires a lot of disposable income to spend in a casino. And Las Vegas is now an entertainment centre not just gaming.
OK, walk me through two or three of the entertainment products or ventures that you think SVL could undertake.
I think we should get involved in the music industry through the promotion of shows. With all the development of tourism and the rate at which arrival numbers are growing, the entertainment that we offer is not growing at the same pace and sooner or later tourists will become bored.
So, what would you do to entertain them?
I would do major music shows featuring some of the biggest entertainers in the world. I think the hotels need to hire some kind of organised entertainment ensemble on a weekly basis, because all they do now is to try a little thing that is repetitious and boring. I think if there was a proper structured entertainment travelling company, it would offer tremendous possibilities.
I also think we should get involved in developing tourism products such as Dolphin Cove Chukka Caribbean, Mystic Mountain and others; there are possibilities to explore everything in the field of entertainment.
So, where would like to see SVL in the next 10 years?
I would like to see SVL among the top one or two companies in relation to gross turnover; and among the first 10 in relation to profits and I would like to see SVL expand into the other Caribbean islands and Central America. We have made moves towards the latter; we have not been very successful but I think that we still have to pursue them.
How difficult was it at the start to deal with the negative talk (some of it from the church) about gaming and lotteries; do you find that it has died down now?
Absolutely, I don't think the religious fraternity has come out in any great force against the lottery and, in fact, there are some religious groups that have accepted our funds on a constant basis, so I can't see them being hypocritical enough to be accepting our funds while at the same time criticising us. The lottery operates privately or publicly in almost all countries in the world, many of them Christian countries too. We monitor the lottery and have never found anyone so seriously addicted to buying tickets that they would spend the family's grocery money on tickets. We see each purchase and know how it works and there is no one person buying thousands of dollars worth of tickets, so we would know if someone was addicted to buying lottery tickets.
Tell me what you think about the super lotto?
Super lotto has not done as well as we anticipated; it was visualised based on a certain number of people participating and that major country (the Dominican Repubic) that sales would be highest there but the market there has not reacted near where we thought it would and because it has not brought in the numbers, it has instead lengthened the odds and made it more difficult to win.
The Dominican Republic was assumed to be the biggest location for ticket sales because they have the largest population and they have a history of lotteries, so all indicators had pointed to them as the best market for a super lotto. They also buy the regular`lottery.
To date which country is buying the largest number of super lotto tickets?
In proportion to their size, the smaller islands have performed above what we anticipated.
Which could account for why someone from St Martin won the first super lotto jackpot?
Right, But the Dominican Republic was such a large chunk of the whole picture, that is what has affected us.
Do you know the percentage of persons in Jamaica who buys regular lottery tickets that buys super lotto and have you at the board level looked at things and say we have to stop the super lotto?
I don't have those figures but we keep on studying the super lotto to find out what is the best solution. We have not made a final decision yet. In reality, many people do win the lotto because Cash Pot pays out a lot of money to many people daily because there is a high turnover translating to a high percentage of winners.
You are involved in many other businesses, what made you decide to become part of SVL?
As a businessman, my bottom line is profit. I saw where this company offered the possibility for profit and based on the structure of what government was demanding, SVL offered the possibility of helping large sections of society, so indirectly I would be helping many people and we have over the years.
Would you start up another company at this time?
In spite of all the negatives, Jamaica is still one of the best places for success in business and I see areas that offer that possibility; the only thing that would hold me back is my present age, I am not young anymore.
What is your workday like now?
I come to work at six every day and leave at six, I take no breaks or days off. I am hands-on and I work with my son Kent. I don't believe in retirement, the more active you remain, the longer you live. The country needs people who can contribute.
What do you do for fun?
Gardening. I love plants and flowers and I love spending time with my grandchildren.
SVL is like a part of the Jamaican landscape now; surely a lot of the success has to do with staff, describe the people who work for you.
One of the success stories behind SVL is the staff, they are tremendous and our agents have been excellent too; both go hand in hand, I am proud and appreciative of them. Our service provider GTECH makes me feel proud too.
If you could change anything in the SVL, what would it be?
I would aim to make bigger profits, we have had challenges in reinvesting in the business and exploring new markets such as Haiti where we are now looking with great interest. They have a thriving underground lottery, so we would like to get in a formalised one; we are in talks with them now. The government is receptive because they could get significant revenue from it.
Which other Caribbean territory are you looking at now:
Any regrets along the way?
No, just that profits are not what they could be and losing Peter Stewart before he could see where we are today. But, Paul Hoo has done a tremendous job in making us profitable.
Any surprises or challenges?
No surprises but you always have to be reinventing the product to keep interest in it. The challenge in gaming lounges is keeping up with the latest machines and improvement in technology, because it is highly technically controlled.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
Besides turning the company to entertainment, there is not much I would have done differently. In our industry, the health of the economy affects us directly; we depend on disposable income. But in spite the economic downturn, people still find lottery a source of entertainment.