NetEnt bets big on Red Tiger

12 September 2019

NetEnt’s acquisition of Red Tiger Gaming was notable not only because it was the company’s first M&A activity in its existence, but also because it sees it take charge of one of the sector’s most exciting suppliers. Jake Pollard discusses the rationale behind the deal, and how the two businesses will work together going forward, with chief executive Therese Hillman.

NetEnt’s acquisition of the online slots specialist Red Tiger Gaming for up to £220m can be viewed in either of two ways.

That of a company that’s been on a bad run recently and is ‘splashing the cash’ as it attempts to return to growth. Or a very shrewd move by a progressive igaming company that has the foresight to plan for its long-term prospects even when not doing great and has acquired one of the sector’s leading slots studios at a reasonable price.

On the conference call discussing the acquisition, NetEnt chief executive Therese Hillman (pictured) told analysts the rationale for the deal was that the “industry was changing rapidly, as regulation spreads across most regions. This agreement enables NetEnt to increase market share” across the board and adds a very strong product portfolio to its existing games catalogue.

Hillman said the two entities would remain distinct from one another. There would be synergies in terms of revenues and costs, products, merging the talents and experience of the two companies and fusing the strong technology expertise that will be at its disposal.

But NetEnt and Red Tiger would remain as two different groups under the same umbrella and, in effect, be competing against each other when it comes to financial performance and signing clients.

“NetEnt and Red Tiger will continue on their own corporate paths,” Hillman told iGamingBusiness.com.

“Red Tiger will benefit from the investments we have made in regulated markets, where we have good reach with presence in 23 markets and will get enhanced scale and distribution to more customers, while NetEnt will benefit from Red Tiger’s innovative content and further scale.”

She added that the combination of strong clients and products between the two companies would be mutually beneficial. The obvious question this internal competition raises is that it could pave the way for serious conflicts between the group’s different teams.

“Enough potential to make it happen”
With both brands relying on the same tech, customer support, content and design teams, could the push and pull and small frictions of everyday business spiral into vicious office politics?

“Looking at the Red Tiger and NetEnt integration pipelines, the demand will be there from NetEnt customers”, Hillman says, with the latter’s clients happy to take Red Tiger’s products, thus bringing additional scale and income to the overall entity.

When it comes to the internal dealings between two brands and the management of projects that rely on the same human resources, Hillman says: “We want to keep both companies competitive and ensure that where there are synergies we realise them.

“We will plan for it, but keep in mind that the environment has to be healthy and competitive between the two if we are to build something strong.”

In other words, healthy competition never hurt anyone and NetEnt also doesn’t want to interfere in Red Tiger’s corporate culture and growth trajectory.

However, the NetEnt boss admits that the most challenging task is likely to be “prioritisation: what to work on, when to allocate resources and budget and manage tech, sprint projects and the like”.

Isn’t the combination of internal competitors wanting to grow but working for an umbrella group that is simultaneously looking for tech and cost synergies very difficult to get right?

“It is, but both have enough potential to make it happen,” she says. “For Red Tiger the regulated markets and the speed at which they can enter them thanks to NetEnt’s compliance, regulatory and intellectual property knowledge represent a fantastic opportunity.”

Regulated focus
Speaking of regulation, Hillman said the combined group’s focus would now be on regulated markets, specifically the UK, Sweden and the other Nordic markets and of course the US; and that Red Tiger’s exposure to unregulated countries, Asian ones in the main, would be wound down.

Red Tiger’s activity in Asia “used to be much higher a couple of years ago and is decreasing at a fast rate” Hillman says.

“It is now very low across the combined group and this is why the acquisition was even more attractive as we started looking at it and going through the detail. We expected Asian exposure to be much higher than it was.”

With NetEnt’s focus on regulated activity this is good news. But there are potential headwinds, such as the higher costs, taxes and heavier operational procedures regulated markets bring. Then there are with NetEnt’s underwhelming results in Sweden since (re-)regulation of the igaming sector and the UK sector facing serious reputational issues and a wall of political, public and lobbying opposition. Not to mention the potential impact a no deal Brexit scenario would have on consumers’ disposable incomes. Isn’t the group just making life hard for itself?

“It’s a matter of focus and corporate strategy,” Hillman explains. “We have the capacity to absorb the costs and regulatory guidelines and when it comes to taxes, we have the volume that gives us reach and scale and the infrastructure to process them. And if you have good products, as NetEnt does, the market will have them and the business will grow.”

In other words, NetEnt can handle the regulatory burdens, but just as importantly, doesn’t want to be dealing with unregulated activity and the associated risk.

As for NetEnt’s main market of Sweden, the sector has been vocal in its complaints about a lack of regulatory clarity and overly harsh sanctions. What did Hillman think of the Swedish authorities’ comments that operators and suppliers were “simply “unaccustomed” to its regulatory approach”?

Hillman is succinct but answers clearly (and in good humour): “We operate in 23 regulated markets so it’s somewhat insulting to our compliance and regulatory teams to read such comments.”

As for the NetEnt-Red Tiger entity and its focus on regulated markets, “there is no doubt these are challenging, some of our core markets are hurt by new regulations, but we’re focusing on the long term and not just on the share price”, Hillman says.

“In addition, those with scale will be the likely winners, which will also enable us to focus on producing innovative, high quality products”.

In the meantime the priority will be “ensuring player channelisation” in those regulated markets, while the delicate task of prioritisation and integrating Red Tiger goes on in the background.