How Robbie Cooke got the top job at Tatts

Robbie Cooke’s rise to the top of a nearly $4 billion company, Tatts Group, is a story of seizing opportunity. When he takes up the CEO role in January 2013, he will be returning to the gaming sector after seven years in the online travel booking business, Wotif.

“I didn’t plan to return,” Cooke tells LeadingCompany today. “I always had a plan, from very early on, to be in business, but beyond that it is very difficult to plot out a course. Opportunities come up and you have to be prepared to back yourself and your capabilities, but you can’t plan.” (See today's story: the Risks and rewards of a careerboomerang.)

Cooke says he was approached for the leader’s role at Tatts shortly after the company announced the departure of its current CEO, Dick McIlwain, in May this year. (McIlwain was not involved in appointing Cooke to replace him, Tatts chairman Harry Boon told newspapers today.)

Cooke says the Tatts job is “the perfect opportunity” and he would not have taken it if it was anything but that. “I have spent a long time thinking about this, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it is the perfect opportunity. It is.”

Cooke will return to a workforce with many faces familiar from the UNiTAB days. “I worked in the industry at UNiTAB until it merged with what was then called Tatterstalls Holding, from 1999 to 2005. I joined on the day it floated as a strategist and general counsel.”

Over the next six years, working with McIlwain, who was UNiTAB’s managing director, the company bought the TABs in the Northern Territory, South Australia and the gaming machine licence in New South Wales. “It was a very exciting time in the industry, and I learned it from the ground up,” says Cooke. “I am going back to a business I have worked in before. There is the aspect that a lot of people in the organisation, colleagues, are still there, so I am going back somewhere with a bit of a network.

“It is an industry I really enjoyed, but of course it has got some extra parts to it now.”

Cooke is referring to Tatts’ nascent online business. Currently 6% of its nearly $4 billion in revenue comes from online lotteries, and 16% from online fixed-odds betting and the totalisator (TAB) business.

“The thing that is really attractive is the opportunity to take what I have learned in the online environment at Wotif and assist the Tatts business in growing its online presence. It is a great opportunity for Tatts.”

Cooke says the decision to leave Wotif was hard, but he felt he had passed the CEO tenure time limit. “I used to say five years was the tenure for CEOs, but I think it is less now. I love the [Wotif] business. I put together the team, and it is hard to leave something where you have invested heart and soul.

“But it is probably time to exit stage left, and let someone else take the business to the next level.”

Wotif investors are not so sure. The share price fell on the news of Cooke’s departure, but has since stabilised and increased by 1.7% on yesterday’s closing price of $4.11.

At Tatts, investors rejoiced yesterday, but the price has also settled back to just .5% above yesterday’s close.

*This piece was originally published by LeadingCompany.


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