The story of Betfred is a real rags to riches tale of two brothers done good, but it’s the older of the pair, Fred, who has always been the face of the brand.
These days, Betfred is one of the top 3 betting brands on the British high streets, with pretty much everyone in the country recognising their logo and many even recognising their founder and CEO, Fred Done, thanks to his media presence.
It has taken over 50 years for them to get to this point though, starting in the slums of Salford in the 1960’s, and growing to become a business worth billions of pounds.
A big part of what has got them here, was the Done brother’s mentality towards their customers.
Back in the early days, most bookmakers took a ‘no mercy’ approach to their punters, but Fred and Peter did the opposite. They were polite, they were friendly, and when they paid out they always did it with a smile.
What’s more, unlike the other bookmakers at the time whose shops often resembled prison cells, the Done brothers laid carpets and kept their shops clean and pleasant to be in.
The Done family were involved in gambling long before Fred and Peter’s first bookie shop opened its doors though, so we will go right back to the start and see how it all came to be.
Just how did a dyslexic lad from Oddsall, who shared a bedroom with 3 other children, turn into the billionaire owner of one of the biggest betting brands in British history?
How Fred Done Became a Bookmaker
Born in 1943, Fred Done grew up in a rough area of Salford with his brother Peter, sister Audrey, and another sibling.
His family were poor, but his father was, as they used to say back then, ‘in the game’. This meant he was an illegal bookmaker, so even before he left school, Fred Done would be out on his bicycle aged 12 and collecting bets from men at the pubs and factories.
Sometimes their father did well and sometimes he didn’t, so the lifestyle was up and down, but whenever the family did have cash in their pockets it didn’t last for long. Fred has said that his father was a terrific bookmaker, but not a brilliant businessman – Fred, on the other hand, was brilliant at both.
When he left school in 1957 aged 15, he already had £1,000 to his name thanks to his savvy nature and hard work as an illegal bookmaker’s runner, and he found legitimate work at an engineering firm as a draftsman.
He hated it, and just 6 months later he was gone and back working in betting.
Off course bookmaking became legal just a few years later, and with his experience, Fred easily got a job at one of the early bookmakers shops and quickly climbed the ranks to manager, but he was working for somebody named Ernie Peters rather than for himself.
This was about to change.
You could say that the story of Betfred started on the 30th of July, 1966.
Eagle eyed football fans might recognise that date and associate it with something else though; because it’s the day that England won the World Cup.
However, had England lost out to West Germany in that final game, Betfred might never have existed, because it was largely with the winnings from a £200 bet placed on England at 8/1, that Fred Done and his brother Peter bought their first bookies shop for £4,000.
Their winnings came to £1,600 and they managed to scrape together another £400 to make £2,000 (around £40,000 today). This left them £2,000 short, but the bookie they were buying the shop from, Mr Fletcher, allowed them to pay the rest off weekly for a 10% surcharge.
They accepted this deal and paid off their debt religiously, and although they didn’t know it at the time, they had just started what would become one of the most successful bookmaking brands in the world.
Done Brothers Bookmaking
At the start of its life, Fred and Peter Done’s bookie business was called Done Bookmakers – the Betfred name change came much later – and when they opened their doors they had just £75 in the bank, so any big bets needed to be phoned in to more established bookies as a form of insurance.
These were tight times, but by the mid-70s the business was starting to grow, and they built their portfolio up to 4 or 5 shops. Still, they weren’t exactly rich, and although bookmaking was now a legitimate way to make a living, it had not shaken off the rough edges of its’ illegal days, so trouble wasn’t uncommon and the brothers still had to get their hands dirty now and again.
One day, a man was sent to place a £50 horse racing bet on behalf of someone else in Fred’s shop. He was under instructions not to make the bet if the odds were less than 2/1, but didn’t really understand, so placed the bet anyway even though the horse was priced at 4/9.
Half way through the race the man came back in and tried to cancel the bet, but Fred tells him it’s too late as the race is already off. The horse loses.
The man whose money it was later turns up himself demanding to be refunded, and when he is denied, punches Fred in the face. The police were called and turfed him out, but he returned after hours with a knife and stabbed Fred 3 times in the head, once in the back, and once in the hand – all in front of Fred’s wife Mo who was 8 months pregnant.
It took 32 stitches to put him back together, and the man who attacked him got 4 years in prison, but when he got out of jail, unbelievably, he called Fred on the phone and demanded his money back again.
A concerned Fred asked a few ‘friends’ to go and talk some sense into him after that, and the guy was never heard of again, but it had almost cost Fred Done his life, and was a stark reminder of how dangerous the job could still be.
Thankfully, this sort of thing became rarer and rarer as the years rolled on, and by the mid-80s the Done Bookmaking chain was around 70 shops strong, all in and around the North West.
Fred was widely known as ‘the bonus king’ by this point too, a tag he still uses today, thanks to his continuous offers and his invention of the Lucky 15 bet – yep, that exists because of Fred Done – so business was good.
Then, an incident with a former employee that had to be settled out of court led to a big change. The brothers took very expensive legal advice on an employment tribunal that did not turn out well, costing them £9,000 (about £37k today) half of which was fees.
Fred and Peter felt burned by this event, and set up Peninsula in 1984 in response. This is a business that outsources HR services to other businesses, paying legal costs should any HR issues arise, with their customers paying a monthly subscription.
Three years after setting the business up it was clear it needed someone’s full time attention, so Peter went to run it and thus was no longer an active part of the bookmaking business, although he remains a majority shareholder.
This is not a page about Peter Done or Peninsula, but the lesser mentioned Done brother deserves a paragraph or two, because not only did he turn Peninsula into a business valued at over £1 billion, with 3,000+ staff and 100,000+ clients, but he did it from scratch, on his own, and with very little experience.
It could have been the other way around though, since Fred and Peter decided who would go to run Peninsula on the toss of a coin!
A key moment in Betfred’s history, was the first time the company bought shops outside of the North West.
Fred had never been interested in doing business more than 20 miles from where he lived in the past, but when an opportunity to buy 16 shops from a bookie called Robert Walker in Newcastle came up in the mid-90s, he took a risk.
It paid off in more ways than one. Not only did the shops do great business, but Fred also realised that running bookies in other parts of the country was not as much of a headache as he had initially thought.
This inspired Fred to expand further afield, buying out existing brands as well as opening new shops in prime locations. He set up a team specifically for this task, and they would scope out different areas looking for the best spot to place a shop. It had to be close to bus stops or factories or pubs, anywhere there was footfall or where people would congregate.
At one point, he was opening 80 shops a year, and he always focused on value to attract punters, taking 2% less of a margin than most other bookies and always going big on offers and bonuses.
Around the same time, he became much more widely known in person as he was doing interviews on television, sponsoring sporting events, and even featuring in his own advertising every now and again, not to mention his publicity stunts.
His incorrect early pay out on Manchester United in 1998 is a great example. It may have cost him money in the short term, but it did his and Betfred’s reputation the world of good, sending more punters in his direction. He did it again in 2012 and people still talk about it today, including us on this website.
One of Fred’s biggest ever scares came when Frankie Dettori won every race at Ascot in 1996, but due to his astute business mind, he even managed to turn that into a win of sorts.
This was before technology had really taken over the world, so Fred had no idea how bad the situation was until he had spoken to every single shop he owned on the phone and totted up his losses.
It was around £4 million.
Dettori’s seemingly impossible feat had caused several smaller bookmakers to go bankrupt, but Fred knew he could survive it, even though it was really going to hurt.
Sticking to his belief in paying out with a smile, he bought gifts for his biggest winners and paid all his liabilities in just a few days, and then went out and bought a couple of bankrupt bookmakers at bargain prices to help build his business and offset his losses.
Shrewd to say the least.
Rebranding as Betfred
As the millennium celebrations came and went, and the internet started to become a more integral part of people’s lives, bookmakers started going online.
Fred Done was late to this particular party, because his area of expertise was the shops themselves, it was what he knew and what he loved.
However, by 2004 the company went through a major re-branding, changing from Done Bookmakers to Betfred in 2004 (but retaining ‘the bonus king’ as a slogan), and with it, they launched a shiny new online betting website.
A good omen perhaps, is that in the same year a Betfred punter became the first ever betting shop millionaire when he picked up £1,132,657 on a scoop6 – and it was placed in one of Fred’s Salford shops too, right back where it had all begun.
In the same way that Fred had initially been reluctant to expand outside of the Northwest, he had initially been reluctant to go online, but once again, after he had done it, a whole new world of opportunity opened up.
The online side of the business grew at pace along with the rest of the online betting industry, adding new products and bet types, gaining customers in areas where he couldn’t open a shop, and increasing revenues.
In 2011, Betfred achieved something of a coup in the betting world, by taking over the running of the Tote from the UK Government. There were several bidders but Fred came out on top, giving the brand exclusive rights to on course pool betting for 7 years.
It didn’t turn out to be a harmonious union, however, and Betfred ended up selling the Tote on shortly after the 7 year period was up, but it did more good than harm to Betfred’s business overall.
Betfred celebrated 50 years in business in 2017 and peaked at around 1,600 shops in their portfolio, and then in 2019 with the US market looking to open up, Fred decided that he wanted a piece of it, establishing Betfred Sports, a wholly owned Las Vegas based subsidiary focused on the American market.
This was followed by a move to South Africa in 2021 after Betfred bought out Betting World and rebranded it, before then establishing a partnership with LottoStar, the biggest betting company in the country. Betfred already have more than 50 shops in South Africa.
These days, Betfred is a truly global betting brand, and Fred Done is a billionaire, but he still retains his working-class mentality, and his belief that customer service is everything – he still works the occasional half day in his shops at the weekend.
A thoroughly principled man, he is the 5th highest tax payer in the UK and has never tried to shelter his money offshore or avoid tax. Indeed, Betfred’s HQ is still in Warrington, where a good chunk of the company’s 10,000 employees are based.
Fred is one of the few founder owner independent bookmakers left, and he has no intention of ever selling Betfred – or any of his other businesses for that matter.
He has a lot of them, but many are in the construction and property industries.
He is now building sky scrapers across Salford, on the very streets he used to cycle up and down collecting bets for his Dad, as well as giving charitably to local causes and to problem gambling organisations. For example, in 2019 he donated £1.25 million to Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in memory of his wife, Mo, who he had been with for over 60 years after meeting when they were just 15.
As for the company, Betfred now operate around 1,400 shops in the UK, and while their online business has more than caught up with those early adopters and brings in huge amounts of money both in the UK and abroad, the shops themselves will always be Fred Done’s real passion.