Obituary: Cyril Stein, bookmaker and businessman

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Cyril Stein, bookmaker and businessman. Born: 20 February, 1928, in London. Died: 15 February, 2011, in Jerusalem, aged 82.

Cyril Stein, the man who made Ladbrokes the world's biggest bookmaking firm and made betting a mass pursuit in Britain, has died and been buried in Jerusalem, a few days short of his 83rd birthday.

His choice of last residence and burial place was fully appropriate as Stein was an ardent Zionist all his days, investing his own money in buildings on the West Bank and championing the state of Israel at all times.

He once berated the Chief Rabbi, the late Lord Jacobovits, over the latter's apparent sympathy for Palestinian refugees.

Stein was as ruthless in business as he was generous with his wealth - he gave away tens of millions of pounds in his lifetime, much of it to Jewish charities for which he was often a valued committee member.

He was reputedly someone who never forgave a slight, and in all his long business career, only one opponent frequently bested Stein - the legendary Glaswegian bookmaker John Banks.

Their tussles in the 1960s after the legalisation of betting shops were the stuff of soap opera, with the flamboyant Banks seen as the little man taking on the giant Ladbrokes and winning with spectacular coups until he was banned for paying for inside information from a stable.

Stein nevertheless liked to do business in Scotland and recruited a number of Scots into the company over the years, with Ladbrokes still boasting Scottish management at high level.

He also mounted raids on corporate Scotland during the years in which he expanded Ladbrokes from a mere bookmaker to a multi-national behemoth with hotels, DIY stores, casinos, bingo halls, greyhound tracks, football pools and property holdings everywhere.

Stein had been thwarted in his attempt to buy Vernons Pools from the famous racing family, the Sangsters, but after South African entrepreneur Hugo Biermann used his ownership of Falkirk-based Thomson T-Line Caravans to buy Vernons, Stein bided his time and eventually bought Thomson T-Line from Biermann.

For years he also stalked Stakis Hotels, Scotland's biggest hotel company, established by Sir Reo Stakis, who finally sold up to Ladbrokes some years after Stein had officially retired as company chairman in 1994.

As a racehorse owner of note, Stein was also proud that his Santon Brig, trained by Tony Dickinson, won the Scottish Champion Hurdle in 1974.

Born of Russian immigrant stock, Stein was educated at West Ham Grammar School and as he was originally destined for his father Jack's business, the London and Provincial Sporting News Agency, he learned Pitman shorthand.

Instead, he joined the bookmaking business of his uncle Max, who traded as Max Parker.Though always interested in other non-racing businesses, at the age of just 28, he joined his uncle in paying 100,000 for the long-established bookmaking firm Ladbrokes, which had begun trading in 1886 in Ladbroke Hall in Worcestershire and was noted for its clientele being distinctly upper class.

Stein was responsible for making Ladbrokes a "no limit on bets" firm, and also widened the client base, before the legalisation of betting shops in 1961 gave him the opportunity he was looking for.

Ladbrokes bought premises the length and breadth of Britain, and not long after the firm was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1967, it had opened 1,000 shops.

The flotation was oversubscribed 100 times, and with cash flooding in, Stein began his years of expansion so that Ladbrokes became and remains the world's biggest bookmakers - the "Magic Sign" as television pundit John McCririck calls it.

His biggest and most successful gamble was to buy the Hilton hotels outside of the USA for 645 million. When Ladbrokes demerged and the chain was sold 20 years later they fetched around 3.3 billion.

Stein's worst moments came with the loss of his casino licences in London in the late 1970s when Victor Lownes of the rival Playboy casinos objected to the renewal of the Ladbrokes licences due to some fairly suspect practices by Stein's employees poaching his clients.

Stein retaliated, buying evidence that showed Lownes and Playboy had also breached the rules so that they also lost their licences.

Ladbrokes later returned to casino operations, as well as buying unrelated businesses such as Texas Homecare. By 1993, the plc was struggling with debt, and Stein left.

Typically, he bounced back to make a 10m profit for himself with his ownership of the St James's Club in London.

History may well judge that his biggest contribution to British racing was his personal intervention in the 1970s to save Aintree racecourse from being sold to property developers, thus saving the Grand National.

Even then this was not entirely a selfless gesture, as Stein knew how important the race was for attracting punters into the shops. It was the kind of visionary and financially rewarding move for which Stein will be remembered. That day after his death, the company he bought for 100,000 announced annual profits of 202m.

Cyril Stein is survived by his wife Betty, sons Jonathan and Daniel and daughter Marion.