Online Boost for William Hill

LONDON -- Once criticized for lagging behind its rivals in online betting, William Hill (LSE: WMH  ) looks to have successfully caught up and capitalized on this growth market, with today's trading statement showing a 27% increase in online net revenue in Q4 and a 24% rise across the unaudited comparative date for the full year.

The bookmaker's results were strong overall, with operating profit lifting 20% in the fourth quarter and 18% up on a 52-week basis, while group net revenue rose 12% in Q4, and grew 10% for the full year. Retail net revenue contributed a 6% growth in the 13 weeks compared against last year, and was 4% up on a 52-week basis.

Chief executive Ralph Topping, credited for the firm's online turnaround after forming a joint venture with betting software developer Playtech in 2008 and giving the latter a 29% non-controlling interest, commented: "Performance was robust in Retail and profits continued to grow strongly in Online, with sporting results going in our favor in both channels. It was a pleasing end to an important year for William Hill, a year in which we have made substantial strategic progress."

The company now has the option to buy out Playtech's 29% stake and is currently undertaking a valuation process, which will end next month and management will then decide whether to exercise the option or not. There was also an update on William Hill's proposed 454 million pound acquisition of Sportingbet's Australian and Spanish licensed online businesses, as Topping said: "With both the acquisition of Sportingbet's online business in Australia and the current Playtech call option process expected to conclude during early 2013, the Group continues to enhance its already strong platform for the continued development of the business."

Today's results produced a third consecutive year of above-20% growth for William Hill Online, a remarkable turnaround, and the shares have risen in the last five years from a low of 147 pence in 2009 to reach a high of 382 pence today, having gained over 4% in early morning trading today.

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