Denise Coates is probably the most successful entrepreneur you have never heard of. She started a business, Bet365, in a Portakabin in a Stoke car park 17 years ago which is now the second largest bookmaker in Britain and one of the largest online operations in the world. She and her family, who still live in Stoke, are now worth between them perhaps half as much as the annual economic output of everyone else in the town. But is she – is anyone – really worth the £217m salary she paid herself this year? That made her Britain’s highest-paid executive by an astonishing margin: the previous record salary had been held by the advertising man Martin Sorrell, who was paid a comparatively pathetic £48.1m last year. For comparison, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, made only $22.3m – and by far the greatest part of that was in stock options. Cristiano Ronaldo, the best-paid sportsman in the world, is arguably overpaid for what he does, with an estimated annual income four times as much as the banker – but that isn’t even half Ms Coates’s.
By all accounts she is a modest and decent person. She built the business from nothing, through hard work and a willingness to make bets rather more sensible than those of her customers. She does not represent the most rapacious and damaging forms of the industry, the fixed-odds betting terminals. Unlike her rivals, she has not moved operations abroad to dodge tax. But to take nearly half the year’s profits as salary for herself is a cause for bogglement. It outrages any egalitarian instinct. There comes a point where the sheer quantity of money defeats the imagination. How much work would be needed to spend all that, and, to spend it all again next year? Her success makes a serious point about inequality. If anyone deserves to be so rich, she does. Yet instinct tells us no one does, and instinct here is right.