Lahcene Merzoug talks to EGR Intel about the operator’s ambitious growth plans and the future of the online casino industry post-Covid-19.
Lahcene Merzoug made his igaming industry comeback by landing the chief executive position at Malta-based online casino disruptor Betpoint Group in Q2.
The well-known industry exec had been operating behind the scenes since departing ComeOn Group in November 2020 by investing in a number of personal passions, including online gambling content provider and events start-up iGaming NEXT.
Merzoug is planning to be back with a bang at Betpoint Group and is excited to embark upon an aggressive growth drive with the backing of the operator’s passive investor owners.
Below, the former CMO of Mr Green Media, Mr Green’s internal media agency, talks company culture, coping in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and assembling a strategic management dream team in Malta.
EGR Intel: What attracted you to the role and to the company?
Lahcene Merzoug (LM): Many things to be honest but I would say that the main draw was the organisation’s long-term goals and ambitions. Because I think it’s rare to see small-to-medium-sized operators, at least nowadays, be bold and very determined to make a significant mark on the industry by really trying to become one of the power players.
EGR Intel: Why do you think that is?
LM: We can always speculate but I believe it’s often because companies have owners or shareholders they want to please and then they prioritise dividends over growth. But growth, at least most of the time, requires investment. It can be hard to justify if the owners want costs to be controlled so the shareholders can continue to be paid out, or in many cases, which we see in our industry, there is a public market with all their expectations, and those expectations are quite high after the boom we experienced in our industry. If you have a long-term strategy that you believe in, and that’s backed by the owners of the business, the pay-out might come a bit later, but I believe its growth can be much greater.
EGR Intel: On that subject, Betpoint is a private company. Can you reveal much about the owners and do you have a good relationship with them?
LM: Very good. It’s several passive investors and the management has an ownership stake as well, but management runs the full operation from A to Z. Everyone here is super entrepreneurial and passionate and that is absolutely vital when you’re taking on a journey such as the one we have mapped out for Betpoint now.
EGR Intel: How many staff work throughout the business?
LM: We’re just below 100 now, but with a plan to grow quite a lot organically and also through M&A activity in the coming years.
EGR Intel: What about the executive team?
LM: I’m building it from scratch and for this journey we require a very strong, scalable foundation. I’m trying to build somewhat of a dream team when it comes to the management team, so you’ll see a lot of news flashes from us in the coming six to 12 months at least.
EGR Intel: Is Betpoint Group’s technology proprietary or supplied by a provider?
LM: We use a provider and it comes from a third-party platform.
EGR Intel: This is your second CEO role following two years with ComeOn Group. What did you learn?
LM: Even if you’re a C-level executive at other companies, normally it is like being a CEO for that little part of the company, especially if you have a CEO above you that trusts you and I think that is crucial. A CEO can’t be everywhere and do everything. I came from ComeOn which is a huge company with a great culture. I learned a lot, including how to be super-efficient with not a lot of headcount. If you have a great company culture, people will stick with you and work really hard.
EGR Intel: You have mentioned Betpoint’s growth journey. What are you trying to achieve at the company?
LM: Right now, we’re building that scalable foundation we spoke about, and I think that covers everything from platform and technologies to our brand and marketing activity. It’s all about getting skilled and talented people to sign up with Betpoint Group. Recruiting top talent takes a bit of time because it’s all about finding that right match. We are looking for experts in their respective fields that are hungry to use what they have learned to take our company to the next level. Equally important is that the candidate understands our journey and feels attracted to taking part in it. Me and my HR director normally say that a good personality is as important as professional skills because teamwork and great company culture is everything for us. It is even more important when you’re a smaller business, I would say.
EGR Intel: Do you find it a challenge to source that top talent in Malta where the igaming landscape is so competitive?
LM: It is very hard but then you have different solutions to the tech problem. Should you have your own platform? Should you use a third-party platform? You can even have your own platform but outsource the work to big companies in Ukraine or Poland. There are different solutions. You could just have strategic leadership in Malta, for example, so there are quite a lot of ways of looking at it.
EGR Intel: Which markets is Betpoint Group currently live in and does it have any plans to expand into new ones by the end of this year?
LM: Right now, we have an MGA licence and we reach all the possible markets out there that you can reach with an MGA market licence. But the big goal is to go into a lot of locally licensed markets and we have a clear roadmap for that. We have done a few licence applications already and the plan is to launch in a few locally regulated markets per year. Then our M&A strategy will also include buying companies that are already licensed.Recruiting top talent takes a bit of time because it’s all about finding that right match. We are looking for experts in their respective fields that are hungry to use what they have learned to take our company to the next level
EGR Intel: Talk us through the Betpoint brand portfolio.
LM: We’ve built our roster of online casino brands to ensure that they appeal to as wide an audience as possible. I think the online casino space is somewhat chaotic and crowded at points. So, with each brand we launched, we tried to go back to basics when we made it. It should be as easy as possible for players to use and it should be entertaining in the way that a group of players seeks out. 21.com was the first casino we launched back in 2018 and it is our flagship brand. It has a very classic design and clear navigation. Then, in 2019, we launched our second brand, JustSpin, which has positioned itself as being more fun and entertaining and edgy and is more a casino for casual players. Then NitroCasino made its debut in early 2020 and it appeals to younger players as it offers that fast-paced thrill they are seeking. It has proven to be a huge success. Then we have two more brands, NeonVegas, which captures the spirit of the Vegas Strip with the retro look and UltraCasino, which is the most recent brand having launched in October of last year. That site is all about rewarding players with a good loyalty programme.
EGR Intel: A lot of the brands promise a high-octane experience. How do you balance that with responsible gambling requirements?
LM: Nowadays, compliance is everything. I’ve been in the industry a while to see how it’s changed. A lot of people make the comparison with the banking sector and it really is true in terms of how hard we are controlled right now. Every company has taken steps to be more compliant and for us it’s a must. We talked about scalability in the beginning and RG and compliance teams need to be in place to handle that and will be very important for us.
EGR Intel: We have touched briefly on Covid-19 but how did the pandemic impact the company?
LM: I think like most organisations, even outside of our industry, Covid-19 had a huge impact, both physically and psychologically. We had to close our offices and send employees home to work and it wasn’t without its challenges in the beginning. But we went on to do great things and all the team members had what they needed to work from home and it was important for us that they were happy and healthy at all times. I think everybody thought it was interesting to see just how efficient employees can be when working from home and of course we learned a lot during that period. For us, it’s been mostly positive and today we are a more agile and modern business as a result of it.
EGR Intel: How is Malta’s vaccine drive progressing?
LM: Sometimes people complain over Malta not being efficient, but they have outperformed themselves. It’s incredible. I’ve taken both my shots and they have opened it out for everyone 16 years and above. I think they will reach the 70% herd immunity in July.
EGR Intel: Are you back in the office or have you been back in the office for a while?
LM: No, we still have some restrictions. We have to rotate because now a lot of people want to come back but we obviously need to abide by Covid regulations. The number of people allowed all depends on the square metre also, but you have to sign up before if you want to go into the office. You still have to socially distance and there are sanitisers on the desks. But at least you can go out and have dinner now and stay out until midnight.
EGR Intel: Do you enjoy homeworking?
LM: I think for my position it is good to do sometimes but I like to be in the office. It’s easier, especially if you’re working for a company that really wants to grow because you can grab people and jump into a room with a whiteboard. I have an open-door policy wherever I work. Spending half a day every now and then working from home is good, but there needs to be a balance. Everybody is missing being able to interact and socialise with people so hopefully people will want to come back to the office again after this.
EGR Intel: Are you concerned we might see a downturn in online casino once society opens up this summer when there are non-digital industries competing for leisure spend once again?
LM: What happened during Covid is that players who had never tried an online casino before tried it and many of them will see that it is a superior experience. It was a bit like when we were using bonuses. We used bonuses to let people try our product because we were so proud of it and we wanted to show how good it is. Covid actually helped us a little bit with that because people came online and tried our product and I’m sure some of them will stick around because they liked it.
EGR Intel: What do you think the online casino trends will be for the rest of this year?
LM: We will continue to see a lot of consolidation and M&A activity ramping up. My hope at least is that these now huge games providers continue to innovate, while smaller studios continue to come up to try and push the boundaries. I’m hoping the big ones don’t become too lazy and that we continue to see a lot of cool games coming out.