Although the brand has been absent from our high streets and from the internet since 2018, Stan James was a well-loved bookmaker amongst UK punters for 40 years.
Steve Fisher started the business as an equal partnership with James Holder, but since James passed away long before the brand was sold, it is Steve Fisher who was the longest serving man at the top.
Grown from a single betting shop opened in the early 70s, the Stan James business rose to prominence through savvy acquisitions and a willingness to be bold when it came to trying new things.
Telephone betting was one of their biggest successes, but they weren’t exactly slow off the mark in utilising the internet either, initially just for advertising but launching a fully operational online sportsbook in 2003.
They even made the most of teletext if you are old enough to remember that.
Stan James was popular because punters knew it was a family-owned brand, and their no-nonsense approach appealed to people who were not interested in the bells and whistles other bookmakers sometimes tried to dazzle bettors with.
Their friendly tone in marketing and when it came to customer service, along with their reputation for fairness and honesty were just some of the strengths of the Stan James business.
Two Friends Walk into a Bookmakers…
Steve Fisher was born in 1944, and at the age of 30 himself and his friend and business partner, James Holder, started a company they could never have imagined would turn into the industry disruptor it did.
Both well educated, they enjoyed a bet and thought they could do better than the bookmakers currently serving their local area around Oxfordshire, so they decided to go into the bookmaking business themselves.
Their first shops were well located in Wantage, Oxfordshire, and in Compton, Berkshire, surrounded by race horse trainers and their staff, who all liked to bet on the horses they worked with as well as on the sport in general.
Another early established shop was opened in Marlborough, which was no accident either, since a lot of those who attended the public school there had fathers who were wealthy race horse owners who, again, enjoyed a bet.
So while the likes of Betfred focussed on the working classes as a target market and found locations with plenty of footfall, Steve Fisher and James Holder went after those directly connected with the industry and who had a bit more disposable income – initially at least.
But what about the name?
Was Stan James a real person the two founders were somehow connected to?
No. Stan James is simply an amalgamation of the names of the founders; ST from Steve Fisher, AN from his wife Anne, and JAMES from James Holder.
They were going to go for Steve James but Steve’s wife Anne put her foot down since she was technically a partner is the business too.
So Stan James was created, and for a good few decades the business grew steadily to become a local chain no different from hundreds of others around the country.
This was back in the days when independent bookmakers were a much more common site, and the industry had not yet become as corporate as it is today.
It’s not clear exactly when it happened, but at some point before 1988, Fisher’s co-founder, James Holder passed away. The details are not known, but in that year the company went through a bit of a change and all existing shares were split between Steve, his wife Anne, and their children, Peter and Diane.
Both James Holder and Steve Fisher preferred to remain in the background, they weren’t showmen like Fred Done or Victor Chandler so there is much less information out there on them both; hence why there is so little on Holder in this article, and not a great deal on Fisher’s personal life either for that matter.
Nevertheless, we know that Steve Fisher was running Stan James without his long-time business partner for the majority of its existence.
Not that this stopped the business doing well. Stan James would be at the forefront of what the industry would become; inventing live betting and even, to a point, inventing online betting before anyone considered it could be a possibility.
Inventing Live Betting with Teletext
Although we are spoiled for choice with betting options these days, up until as recently as the 90s most bookies only offered odds on horse racing, greyhound racing, a bit of football, and not much else.
When Sky Sports was launched and began showing more niche live sports that many people had never seen before, this accessibility to new forms of sporting entertainment created an appetite to bet on them as well.
Steve Fisher made sure Stan James was ahead of the curve in this respect, and began to offer live odds on fixtures in all sorts of sports that were already taking place. Punters suddenly had a lot more choice when it came to their betting.
Back before the internet, getting access to information was much more difficult and sooo much slower, so how did Fisher manage this?
He used teletext; a sort of early website homepage that was accessible on your television, showing mostly written information and a few rudimentary (and heavily pixelated) images. It sounds rubbish now but it was a big deal back then.
Fisher realised he could use Teletext to get live information out to punters all over the country, who could then phone in their bets using a telephone. Stan James centralised their telebetting service in 1992, even developing their own software, whereas before, each shop would have had to take telephone bets independently.
With a centralised system and only one number for punters to call, Stan James would no longer be restricted to taking bets at the locations of their shops, which meant more money flowing into the business.
Fisher set about putting adverts in publications that were popular with punters, telling them which teletext page to go to in order to view Stan James’ live odds.
Once on the page, the customer could see the odds available as well as the number to call to make a bet, and then phone through their wager.
It was revolutionary, and other bookies scrambled to copy the trick.
So the mid to late 90s was a defining period for Steve Fisher and Stan James, and Fisher was an important figure in the industry in general too. He was the vice president of the bookmakers trade association in 1999, and did a lot of lobbying around the duties paid on gambling which helped lead to the big tax changes in 2001, so Fisher was pushing boundaries on the regulation side of things too.
Expansion and Going Online
Being the first bookie to come up with this neat idea, and given that their brand was now known to punters UK wide thanks to teletext being a national service, Stan James had quickly built a reputation as trailblazers.
This allowed them to expand their retail business with the knowledge that the brand would be recognised in new areas away from their traditional customer base.
They had a smallish portfolio of shops in and around the Oxfordshire and Berkshire regions, but now they could take advantage of opportunities much further afield, and ended up building a fleet of 112 high street bookies at their peak.
This was done via a mixture of opening new shops and buying shops from retiring or struggling bookmakers, such as their takeover of Pagebet’s 27 shops after they went bust in 2010.
Of course, the internet was upon us by the late 90s and early 2000s, and although a sports betting platform was not immediately a possibility, Steve Fisher made sure Stan James had a presence on the web as early as 1997.
He would advertise their telephone betting service on the internet in much the same way as he had done using print media and latterly, teletext.
The Gibraltar based call centre never closed, and the phone lines remained busy even after the company launched their first online sportsbook in 2003 – one of the very first bookmakers to do so. This helped boost Stan James sales to £319.5 million by 2006.
To strengthen their online product, they even shelled out millions in acquisitions, most notably that of telephone and online bookmaker Betdirect (from 32Red), and a London based online outfit called Betterbet.
Stan James even made the move abroad, offering their website across countries in Europe like Germany and Spain, and even taking a few tentative steps into the retail market over there.
As Stan James was a big hitter in the bookmaking world by the mid 2000s, they could also afford to sponsor big sporting events like the Darts World Matchplay, the King George VI Chase at Kempton, the Guineas Festival at Newmarket, and even a long running sponsorship of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham from 2010 – 2018.
Their most notable bit of marketing however, and a further sign that they had well and truly arrived, was their national television advertising campaign titled; Who Are You With?
The premise saw two mates, Stand and James, naturally, talking about what they were going to bet on and why. Stan was the wild one who trusted his gut and bet with his heart, James was the number cruncher who studied stats and bet with his head.
The adverts were very entertaining – they would give Paddy Power a run for their money these days – and they certainly got people talking, sending more punters in Stan James’ direction.
Unibet Buy the Stan James Brand
The fact that Fisher’s company was doing so well made it a natural target for bigger fish in the bookmaking industry, especially in an era where holding companies were beginning to take over, buying up brands big and small seemingly every few weeks.
In 2015, Unibet purchased the Stan James’ online business and the rights to the brand name, but the deal did not include the high street shops, so the company was effectively split in two.
This created a strange transitional period where the Stan James website and the Stan James high street bookies were actually owned by two completely different businesses despite bearing the same name.
The high street side even continued to expand during this period, buying 37 shops from Ladbrokes and Coral who were going through a merger themselves and needed to scale down to satisfy the markets and competition authority.
This transitional period only lasted until the start of 2017, however, by which point all of the high street shops needed to be re-branded from Stan James to an as yet undetermined new name.
Steve Fisher was still in charge of his business and was quoted saying that the re-brand would cost over £1 million, which was a substantial amount especially considering the government was upping taxes and tightening regulation on gambling at the time.
It must have been irritating then that just a year later, the Stan James brand was retired by Unibet, who ported all Stan James customers over to their main brand and closed the website, making the brand defunct.
The shops had already been rebranded by this point though, and the name chosen for the rebrand was MegaBet.
In 2022 MegaBet rebranded again, this time to BetZone, but is still in operation today. So while the Stan James brand is gone, the business that ran it is still very much alive and well.
Steve Fisher is too, although he eventually left his business completely in 2019, although while he might have retired from bookmaking he has not left the industry completely.
Steve Fisher is still a director and secretary of Wansdyke Farms Ltd, a company that breeds and raises horses based in Wantage, the same area as one of Stan James’ very first betting shops.
He has also been the sole company director of Secure Data Management Services Ltd since 2016, but since he is now in his 80s, we can’t imagine he is working too hard these days.