Ross Reyburn meets Jason Kirsch, a man out to change perceptions about the leisure business.
"If you came here on a Friday, Saturday night, it is a quality sort of wine bar environment. New customers nine times out of ten are surprised."
Some might find it difficult to guess the location but we are having a morning coffee at Maxims Casino in Norfolk Road, in Birmingham’s Edgbaston district a few hours before the noon opening time. And Jason Kirsch, regional operations director for Genting Stanley’s casino operation, is out to dispel a few myths about the world of gambling.
"I learned very quickly that the traditional reputation of casinos was incorrect," he says. "That James Bond image of dark, dingy and smoky casinos is wrong.
"Ultimately our business is based on gambling but we are trying to diversify as much as we can. Our ideal customer is not necessarily someone who is just a gambler.
"The casino industry is just another leisure pastime for many people. We’ve got excellent state-of-the-art facilities. There is so much more than gaming. We have bars, great restaurants and live entertainment – singers, pianists, tribute acts – in many casinos."
Kirsch’s early life offered little indication that he would end up working in the world of gambling. Born in Birmingham, he is the son of a retired jewellery wholesaler.
His family lived in Kings Norton but later moved to Solihull. In his youth he came to know the city’s Jewellery Quarter well as his father had an office in Vyse Street.
"It was a really vibrant area but I never had the urge to go into the business."
A keen sportsman, Kirsch enjoyed football, tennis and also rugby.
"I played club rugby as a fly-half for a few years after leaving school and these days I enjoy playing racketball."
His mother and his aunt, Ruth and Susan Abrahams, both played at Junior Wimbledon and represented Warwickshire at tennis and his brother Damian, a qualified tennis coach, also played at county level.
Kirsch has not forgotten his Jewish roots. Born into a family that was part of Birmingham’s influential but surprisingly small Jewish community, today he lives in Monkspath, Solihull, with his wife and their twins and is an active member of Solihull Synagogue.
"The Birmingham Jewish community is very mature," he says. "The Solihull Jewish community has many more younger families and children – it is seen as thriving."
In his schooldays, he left Ardenhurst School in Henley-in-Arden with seven GCSEs and went on to get A-levels in English, economics and general studies at Solihull Sixth Form College.
At the age of 19, he was chosen as a management trainee with the John Lewis Partnership.
"John Lewis with Marks & Spencer were considered the two prestige management training scheme to get on to.
"I recall a stat of less than one in ten applicants who reached the interview stage were getting on the scheme. I was a trainee for 12 months and I then spent four years doing various management roles around the country predominantly with Waitrose."
He quickly rose up the ranks with a series of department managerial positions around the country offering him very different experiences.
"I was produce manager in the Marlborough Waitrose for 18 months," he recalls. "It was completely different to where I was from – it was a market town and it was my first real experience of finding my feet as manager. I was 21, 22.
"I enjoyed the diversity of it all dealing with such a wide range of people. It was question of involving people and getting them to understand you are there for the same objective as they are. Being prepared to be flexible and listening to people’s ideas is important.
"I remember having a lady while I was in Wantage who couldn’t grasp the concept of someone who was young enough to be her son being her boss. She made that clear to all those who would listen!.
"It was very logistical – if you got it wrong it impacted on so many other people. I remember hearing one of the managers in another branch missed the cut-off point for ordering turkeys pre-Christmas."
At the end of his five years with the John Lewis Partnership in 1992, he was warehouse manager in the Waitrose supermarket chain’s Wantage branch in Nottinghamshire responsible for the store’s entire stock. And he sought a change, joining the management fast track programme run by the toy shop chain Toys R Us.
"I was 24 and there wasn’t a general manager in the John Lewis Partnership who was under 45 years old so I would have had a very long wait," he points out.
Within three years, Kirsch was running the Thurrock branch and after five years he was the company’s youngest national sales director responsible for some 65 stores earning £55,000 a year.
"It was a very demanding job I worked 80 or 90 hours a week especially at peak times such as Christmas. But I was a single guy who would go around the country at the drop of a hat to further my career."
In 2002, Jason Kirsch entered new territory when he was headhunted by a Cheshire recruitment agency on behalf of Genting Stanley, the largest casino operator in Britain whose headquarters then where in Liverpool before the move to Star City, Birmingham, this year.
"I had never gambled, never been in a casino or a bookmakers but I saw a great opportunity," he says.
"It was a very very exciting time for the gambling industry. De-regulation was about to happen and it was going to open up hugely a lot of stringent regulations in the 1968 Gambling Act.
"At that time, you had to wait 24 hours before entering a casino after you had joined. There was talk about people walking straight in off the street, a huge amount of previously prohibited advertising and larger premises."
The original government vision of peppering Britain with super casinos opposed by a vigorous Daily Mail anti-gambling campaign has not come to pass as it was abandoned when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister last year.
But despite widespread concerns about gambling’s increased popularity with the relaxation of gambling laws and the rise in internet gambling, Jason Kirsch believes in the principle of customer choice. Neither does he agree with the view that super casinos would have spiralled gambling’s downside as an addiction that wrecks careers and homes.
If people generally were successful at gambling, casinos wouldn’t exist as this is their main source of revenue. However, he is keen to dispel the image of gamblers as losers.
"There was a prevalence study by the government that established that about 68 per cent of the population – about 32 million adults – participate in some form of gambling a year," he says.
"It found the percentage with a gambling problem was between 0.5 and 0.6 per cent. That was all types of gambling including bookmakers and on-line gambling on the internet. Of that figure, casinos only accounted for five per cent so we are talking about around 800 people using Britain’s casinos deemed to have a gambling problem.
"You can’t judge a book by the cover. I remember my first day in the casino industry in Manchester. There was an elderly gentleman pointed out to me who didn’t look like he had two halfpennies to rub together – I was dutifully informed he was one of the UK’s premier high rollers and a multi-millionaire.
"Our customer base is so diverse. We have accountants, doctors, a lot of people from the legal profession and people who just work locally. The serious gambler is hugely in the minority. It is vastly made up of people who just enjoy a flutter.
"It would be naive to say there is no problem. All our managers and staff are trained to spot the very small percentage of people who may have a gambling problem.
"Most people are leisure gamblers who get their entertainment spending £30- £40 a night. The perception that everyone walks out losing is wildly off the mark. We have thousands of people who will win more money than they lose.
"We have a very small mathematical edge but we make the money through the volume of bets," says Kirsch. "A casino can go weeks losing money."
The odds in favour of the casino may indeed seem relatively small – a roullette wheel just has the zero giving it an advantage over evens. The fruit machines pay out 95 per cent in winnings while blackjack does offer an element of skill for the gambler.
But human nature and the lure of making huge amounts puts the odds significantly in favour of the casino. Tales of exceptional winnings are not unusual. Kirsch has heard of the same number coming up five times in a row on a roulette wheel beating astronomical odds.
He remembers seeing a gambler win £270,000 on one spin of the wheel after heavily backing a number and a young man on his first visit to a casino winning nearly £500,000 in the firm’s Reading casino with a £1 stake on New Year’s Eve after a royal flush won him the jackpot in a progressive poker game linked to all the company’s casinos.
As a regional manager, he is covering 14 casinos in the Midlands and the south and has his office at the former Midland Wheel casino in Edgbaston where £1.5 million has been spent on rebranding.
"As the Midland Wheel, it was a beautiful but traditional casino," he says. "We now have more roulette and card tables. We have put in a modern bar and extended the restaurant from 40 to 60 seats.
"It is one of the finest restaurants in the city. At weekends it is full – you have to book."
He feels an industry that had been static for 30 years has been changing quite rapidly. In the past 18 months, profits have been heavily hit by three factors. The attractions of a cleaner environment has negated the initial problems caused by the smoking ban. But the ban on the smaller jackpot slot machines and the casino duty increase have had a major effect on profits, which were £22 million on a £207 million turnover figure in 2007.
"In 2007 casino duty – the tax we pay on our winnings – increased," he says. "It was just after Gordon Brown became prime minister so I guess it was good to vote for the moral high ground to bash casinos. But it massively hit our profitability across the whole industry as the tax varies from 15 per cent upwards."
The old image of casinos as disreputable smoke-filled dens still takes some denting. But Jason Kirsch, whose only concession to personal gambling is the occasional game of blackjack when he is abroad, is a firm believer casinos are in a new era.
"We have to change old perceptions," he says. "You still see more males than females in casinos but the proportion of women has grown noticeably in my time in the industry.
"We are heavily regulated – we can’t have lap dancers under the Gaming Act. It is a far safer environment than many pubs and clubs. We use the word 'entertainment’ a million times a day to try and convey that this is a leisure business. It is so 21st century."