I have to say it was a real pleasure to travel to Yarmouth to meet Dianne Thompson CBE. And without hesitation I must add that I really hope to meet Dianne again, but this time at her office in Watford. That would almost certainly mean that I had won in excess of £50,000, and probably a million pounds or more, playing the Lottery!
Dianne is chief executive of Camelot, the company responsible for running Lotto, Thunderball, Scratch Cards and the Euro Millions lotteries, and as such is responsible for handing over those massive life-changing cheques to the lucky jackpot winners.
She has been with Camelot since 1996, and has not only made hundreds of people happy by telling them they have hit the jackpot, but has also seen attempted scams and frauds, and nearly saw the collapse of Camelot when it appeared the lottery licence had been lost to Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.
Camelot survived, Dianne took charge, and now she gives Island Life readers an intriguing insight into life at Lottery HQ.
So what happens when you check your lottery numbers and suddenly realise – it is you! That is when Dianne and her team swing into action to ensure as smooth a passage as possible. She explained: “If the win is over £50,000 then you have to interact with us. That is good because it enables us to assess who needs help. Of course not everyone does, because there are winners who are already millionaires, and just pop their winnings into the bank with the rest of their money.
“But for other people £50,000 changes their life. In fact one lady on a remote Scottish island once won £4,200. Her eyesight had failed and she could no longer drive her car, so she bought a state of the art tricycle to get around. For her, that was life changing!”
Dianne continued: “Big winners phone us and speak to an advisor, who takes them through a series of basic security questions. As you can imagine every Saturday night we get a lot of people who have had a bit too much to drink trying to tell us they have won. The only thing I don’t know about a winning ticket is who bought it. I know where it was bought; what day of the week; what time of day, lucky dip or your own numbers – I know all that instantly.
“So if someone can answer three or four questions relating to that information over the phone we know they are genuine. Then within half an hour of the call coming in one of our winner’s advisers is in touch to talk through the process, and assess what we need to do to help them – if they want anonymity or whatever. We can whip people away and put them in a safe house so no one can find them for a while if that is what they want.
“But most of the time people are at home, in shock. We give them the choice of seeing them at their home, or they can come to our offices. One winning syndicate of builders came to our office one Monday morning, received their cheque, and asked to celebrate with champagne and chips. But they didn’t like the champagne and quietly tipped it into a nearby plant pot.”
Publicity after a big win is always a key issue, and Camelot are not allowed to try to persuade winners to go public, although obviously it helps the company if there are pictures of nice, smiley winners clutching huge cheques. But in fact of all the big winners, only 20 per cent agree to publicity.
“The people who take publicity usually fall into three categories,” explained Dianne. “They are usually in a syndicate, and one of them will say something; if a win is so huge that if you are going to get any benefit from it you have to be known, and if you get ‘shopped’ by someone who has found out. The latter tend to be distant relatives or neighbours, who are not going to get a cut, so they sell the story to a newspaper for £500.”
Camelot also run a ‘Millionaires’ Club’ which brings together big winners a couple of times a year to meet one another in similar circumstances. They also encourage big winners just to ‘get away from it all’ for a couple of weeks, rather than make hasty promises or commitments. Afterwards financial advice is always at hand.
But at the end of it all it is up to the winner to decide what to do – just walk away or continue to be part of the ‘Camelot family’, as Dianne calls it. She added: “I think it is one of the best jobs in the world being a winner’s adviser – giving people very good news.”
Inevitably there have been a few attempted scams, including retailers who have checked a ticket, told customers it is not worth anything, and then tried to cash it in themselves. But Camelot’s tight security virtually always ensures the fraudsters are caught.
“There was one such case when a worker in a superstore kept a ticket and tried to cash it in. He was caught, and we managed to track down the lady who had bought the ticket through a till transaction. She had a pleasant surprise when one of our advisers knocked on her door and told her she had won a million,” smiled Dianne.
Since the Lottery began, Camelot have raised £28billion for good causes, with some £44million of lottery funding having come to the Island, with Quarr Abbey, Brading Roman Villa, Yarmouth Pier and IW Zoo among the beneficiaries. The Lottery also contributed a staggering £2.2billion towards the cost of the London Olympics.
One of Dianne’s first associations with the Island came in the early 1990s when she worked as a marketing director for Signet, owners of Ratner’s jewellers. She was part of the team that tried to save the company after owner Gerald Ratner infamously revealed his goods were cheap because they were ‘crap’, and claimed the only difference between an M&S prawn sandwich and the earrings he sold for £2.99 was that the sandwich would last longer!
“I was looking for somewhere to go for a couple of days to sort out the strategy to save Ratner’s, so we came to the George Hotel in Yarmouth to do two days’ solid work, but did the lot in eight hours because the Island was so inspiring,” she recalls. Now Dianne has a home in Yarmouth and ‘escapes’ here as often as she can.
After the Ratner’s saga, which overall took Dianne three years to sort, she was head-hunted to join Camelot in 1996, two years after its launch. As someone who likes a ‘trouble-shooting’ challenge and could see nothing wrong with Camelot, she was initially reluctant to take the step. However, she made the move and within two years the Lottery was in decline and Camelot was hit by controversy, including ‘fat cat’ rows.
Then in 2000 came another potentially huge hammer blow when Camelot lost the UK licence to Richard Branson’s Virgin. Dianne recalls: “We lost, but our regulator said neither bid was good enough; there were flaws in both, so they were stopping the competition. They gave one bidder the opportunity to improve the bid, and that was Richard. So we were out – finished!
“But we decided to fight the decision because otherwise it would have meant the end of our business with 800 jobs at stake. We won the judicial review which meant the regulator had to give us both a month to improve our bids, and this time we won.”
Dianne immediately stepped up from commercial director to become chief executive, taking up her new role on December 19, 2000. Inevitably Dianne has seen massive changes during her time at Camelot. The lottery got back into growth in 2003, with Camelot constantly looking for ways of refreshing the interest and keep consumers interested. Now Lotto is the biggest single product across the UK, with Scratch Cards, Thunderball and Euro Millions also in the top 10.
Before joining Camelot, Dianne used to play the lottery. She still has her ticket from the first ever draw, hoping it would be worth something one day. Alas, millions of others also kept their tickets from that first draw. In her CE role, she is not allowed to play the lottery. She looked at me and with a big smile she said: “No, it can’t be me – but it could be you!”