When it comes to founder owners of big bookmaking brands, they tend to fall into one of two camps.
You get the Victor Chandlers and Fred Dones of the world, who are happy to be the face of their company and do a bit of publicity, and then you get people like John Boyle, who prefer to run their business from behind the brand, without making themselves known to the public.
While John Boyle might like to stay quietly behind the scenes himself though, his company, BoyleSports, has a very different personality.
Rapid expansion and an emphasis on customer service couple with highly trained staff have led BoyleSports to become the largest independently owned bookmaking brand in Ireland, and they are only getting bigger.
For Brits, BoyleSports might not be a bookie that is familiar, but that’s probably because they only opened their first retail outlet here in 2019, at a time when most other high street brands were closing stores. Thanks to their website though, they had begun poaching British gamblers before then.
John Boyle stepped down as CEO of BoyleSports in 2017, but he still owns the company and is very much involved in what goes on.
It all started though, with a single betting shop.
John Boyle’s Early Life
Born one of 7 children in Camlough in County Armagh, Ireland, John Boyle was the son of a publican and a nurse, while various other relatives ran grocery shops, and he would help them to count the small change.
His father would also take him to the greyhound tracks, as he also worked as a greyhound trainer, so John would enjoy a bet from an early age.
He was naturally good at maths, although he did not enjoy school on the whole, and at one point he even ran away to avoid it. At 15 years old, John Boyle and his cousin made their way to the Isle of Man, where they worked for 6 months before returning home.
His father had moved on from the pub trade and had opened as a bookmaker, where as a teenager, John Boyle would work part time, so he picked up the basics of running a bookies by default.
It wasn’t a job he stuck at full time though, and by the age of 23, John Boyle was married with two children and working as a bread van driver. Sadly, he also had an alcohol dependency problem, and what with needing to drive a van all day, this became something of an issue.
Boyle lost his job in 1981, and struggled to make ends meet to provide for his family – he was in crisis for a time.
He worked hard on getting himself sober, and was doing well having not touch alcohol for nearly a year, when the opportunity to buy a shop in his local town of Markethill, County Armagh, came up. This was in 1982.
Boyle remembered one of his trips to the greyhound tracks in his youth, when he was introduced to a bookmaker, and was later told that the man was a millionaire. This would be his inspiration.
He didn’t have the money himself though, so John Boyle borrowed £6,000 from his father and another £12,000 from the bank, and opened his first bookmakers aged 25 years old.
Interestingly, this would remain BoyleSports only bookie in Northern Ireland for almost 30 years, because once John Boyle was ready to expand, he went South.
What with the Republic of Ireland being a different country to Northern Ireland, the rules around gambling were different too.
Gambling licenses were easy to obtain and free in the south, but cost a pretty penny and involved a complicated application process in the North, so like any sensible businessman, John Boyle chose the cheapest option.
After seven years in business, John Boyle’s health was now under control and his betting shop was doing well, so it was time to expand and open more shops, which he did in 1996 in Drogheda, County Leith.
This was as much to save himself from the boredom that was creeping in than anything though. John Boyle was not really enjoying being a bookmaker anymore due to the long hours and repetitive work.
However, with no real CV to speak of, he couldn’t get out of the trade and do something else and he needed a steady job.
A friend advised him that if he wasn’t going to get out of it, he should get into it. So John found his second and third shop through a contact of his brother, and began the process of becoming a businessman who ran a bookmaking chain, rather than solely being a bookmaker.
His mini bookmaking empire grew to a handful of shops, enough that John could justify hiring other people to run them and pay himself to run the overall business instead, which he enjoyed much more.
It gave him time and space to focus on other things, such as how to beat the competition and make Boyelsports a more attractive prospect to punters.
Customer Service the Key to Expansion
John Boyle always saw bookmakers shops as being social clubs as well as a place to make a wager; a place where people would come to talk with other like-minded sports fans and exchange tips or ideas.
Perhaps this is why his emphasis on customer service and comfort within his shops was so strong.
That and the fact that, when BoyleSports was establishing itself, there wasn’t the same sort of technology around, so bookies weren’t able to distract customers with numerous TVs showing all the sport and such like.
A trustworthy bookmaker with knowledgeable and friendly staff, offering good odds in a comfortable environment was what won the day back then. So Boyle carpeted his outlets and added sofas, began offering teas and coffee’s and biscuits, that sort of thing.
He also made sure his shop staff were incredibly well trained; able to talk to experienced punters about the more complex matters, but equally able to welcome new or more recreational bettors to the shops.
He looked after them too, with bonuses and good treatment, so that his employees were happy to be at work, creating a much more pleasant atmosphere.
This is why, when big horse racing events occurred, his shops would be packed, and Boyle very astutely reinvested the money from those boom days into opening more shops, knowing that this would increase his revenue going forwards.
This 1990s went by with a slow and steady progression, increasingly the portfolio almost one shop at a time, but by the time 2004 rolled around those first few bookies had turned into a chain of 77.
On top of this, BoyleSports now had a website and a telephone betting service, allowing the company to take bets from all over the place, not just where they had a physical presence.
Business was good.
John Boyle’s first 20 years as a bookmaker had been very successful indeed by anyone’s standards, but his next 20 would take things to a whole different level.
Biggest Bookie in Ireland and Expanding to the UK
In 2006, John Boyle opened his 100th BoyleSports betting office. It was a major milestone, but one he would eclipse soon enough.
BoyleSports was now a much bigger business than he could have dreamed of, and with that, came access to more funds and resources; so buying out rival bookmaking firms was now on the cards.
In 2011 BoyleSports acquired Celtic Bookmakers, who were in financial difficulty, adding 17 more stores to the portfolio overnight.
Something similar happened just a few months later, when William Hill had to offload 15 stores in Ireland which BoyleSports gladly took, increasing their total store count to 176 – they had increased their retail portfolio by 99 shops in just seven years.
The brand passed to 200 store milestone in 2015, making them the biggest high street bookie in Ireland, and although local expansion was an ongoing priority, John Boyle had always wanted to expand into England should the right opportunity arise.
He actually stepped down as CEO of BoyleSports in 2017, with his son in law Conor Gray taking over and John going into an Executive Chairman role, but this didn’t stop him being involved with the business.
So when the chance to buy out a midlands based bookie in England came about, John Boyle took his shot.
BoyleSports acquired the chain of 13 Wilf Gilbert stores in 2019, giving them a strong foothold in England for the first time, and they marked the occasion by cleverly becoming the shirt sponsor for Birmingham City, a midlands-based football club.
As the years went on, they added to their UK based fleet with the acquisitions of Lewis Bet, not to mention taking a further 33 betting shops in Northern Ireland off William Hill’s hands. However, organic growth has always been important to John Boyle, so they didn’t just rely on acquisitions.
After establishing themselves in the UK, BoyleSports went on the hunt for prime high street locations where they could open brand new stores, and built their UK portfolio up to 46 by 2023.
Added to their 45 Northern Irish shops and their 277 in the Republic, BoyleSports had grown to be 368 stores strong by 2023 – and that doesn’t take into account their on-course shops, the bingo halls they own (they bought Cosmo Bingo in England in 2019) or their online business.
As for John Boyle, he remains in an executive position at the company, but his main interests these days are around running mindfulness and lifestyle programs, and positive thinking.
This is something he was inspired to become involved in after nailing his alcohol addiction, and he has promoted mindfulness and the like ever since, even putting his staff through courses to help them become more connected with themselves.
With over 1,200 staff, that must have been quite the course to run.
He lives in Rostrevor, County Down, is a regular gym goer, and enjoys time with his many grandchildren from his seven children, with self-development and self-improvement always at the forefront of his mind.