The future of gambling in B.C.

The British Columbia Lottery Corporation’s new boss, Jim Lightbody, on the future of gambling in this province—and how lottery tickets are like laundry detergent

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC)—the organization charged with running the province’s casinos, e-gambling sites and lottery product sales. It is one of B.C.’s most profitable Crown corporations—delivering almost $1.2 billion in net income on revenues of around $2.8 billion. But the organization is not without controversy. Despite its dividends to the treasury, many worry about the social costs associated with gambling—be it addiction or organized crime—and the government’s reliance on revenues derived from this so-called vice. On a management level, there was recent controversy surrounding Lightbody’s predecessor, Michael Graydon, who negotiated his terms of employment with Paragon Gaming—a company BCLC regulates—while still in the CEO’s chair. Still, 54-year-old Lightbody—a former amateur lacrosse player and 14-year BCLC veteran, appointed president and CEO on April 1—is optimistic about the future of gambling in B.C. and its ability to bring home the bacon for taxpayers.

You spent 16 years in the packaged goods industry—marketing laundry products for Procter & Gamble and selling confectionery for Nabob. What did you learn?
The one thing those organizations recognized was the value of diversified businesses and differentiated brands. That’s also what we’re trying to do at BCLC: make sure we have a diversified lineup of businesses and products. Our lottery business is really akin to consumer packaged goods. The principles are the same—on advertising and promotion, on ensuring that your product is well-distributed, on introducing new products to stay at the forefront. With, our e-gaming business, we have a one-to-one relationship with consumers and sell directly to them. And with casinos we’ve adopted the franchise model—determining where the properties are going and what they’re going to be, and then letting private operators—Great Canadian Gaming, Paragon or Gateway Casinos—buy the land, build the building and provide the staff.

Still, there are differences between your former work and what you’re doing now. For one thing, there’s a rather unique dual mission at BCLC: deliver profits to the government but also manage the social fallout of gambling. How do you manage those competing objectives?
For the people who are going to choose to play our product, we have to ensure that they are making that choice in an informed manner. We look at it as more of a communications challenge: inform people about the odds, about tips for how to play—and on how they can recognize where they may be getting into some sort of trouble, so that they can really help themselves.

Part of BCLC’s recent success can be attributed to a sharp rise in the number of high rollers. With high rollers, however, comes the risk of organized crime. How real a problem is that, and what are you doing about it?
Keeping our properties safe is at the top of our agenda. If you think about somebody who wants to launder money, there’s probably a lot better places than a casino, where you come in and you’re under a camera. If you’re going to make transactions of $10,000 or more over a 24-hour period, then we want to know not only who you are but what your source of income is. And that’s not a like-to-have; we must have it, otherwise we’re not going to accept your money. We’ve also got a relationship with law enforcement agencies where we’ve said, “We want to know your list of bad guys.” And we’ve proactively banned those people.

Who are the high rollers then?
It’s actually very legitimate business people who are very, very wealthy, who are coming to the Lower Mainland, and this is their form of entertainment. [Las Vegas casino magnate] Steve Wynn just won the right to open a casino just outside of Boston, and during the tribunal that determined whether or not he was going to be selected he was asked, “Why Boston?” He said, “There’s only two places in North America that I would open another casino outside of Las Vegas: Greater Boston and Greater Vancouver.” And for the same reason: very wealthy Asians are sending their kids to school in those markets—and then they’re coming to visit. He said, “I want to give them a place to entertain themselves.”

Is there a concern that as the Chinese economy slows, you lose a chunk of that money?
Yes. We are riding this wave right now on our high-limit table business, and we’re going to continue to take care of that, but the importance of a diversified business does not go unnoticed here. So we need to make sure that we’re working on our mainstream casino customers as well as our lottery business. One of the important things we’re looking at now is, How do we leverage the power of our digital space and the PlayNow platform to do that? How do we use that digital asset to make going to a casino that much more enjoyable? Or how do we make buying the lottery ticket in a convenience store that much better?

You served for over a year as “interim CEO” until your position was made permanent in April. What did that feel like?
The world’s longest interview! But really, one of the things I learned playing sports is that you have to have self-confidence or you’re done. I remained focused on making sure that I was doing the role I was being asked to do. And if I did it well, then I would make it a really easy decision for our board of directors. Luckily that’s the way it worked out.