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In the latest edition of Breakfast with NEXT, Sonja Lindenberg had the pleasure of sitting down with former Pinnacle CEO Paris Smith.

Smith delves into her rapid ascent through the ranks at Pinnacle, to her pivotal role in finding the perfect investor for the company. She also talks about her recent decision to step down as CEO and her exciting plans for the future.

Let me in  

When Paris Smith arrived at Curaçao-based bookmaker Pinnacle on her first day in August 2006, she encountered an unforeseen challenge.

As she walked through the entrance, ready to introduce herself and embark on this new journey, she was met with a surprising response: “Who are you here to see? We need to speak to the manager before we let you in.”

“In that moment, I realised that the people who had hired me hadn’t notified the office of my arrival and I waited in the lobby for what felt like an eternity,” she recalls.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, she managed to reach the person who had recruited her and finally received permission to enter.

“However, the experience left a lasting impression on me. The lack of a streamlined onboarding process was palpable, and I vowed to ensure that no one else would have to endure what I had gone through from an onboarding perspective.”

Smith decided that revamping the onboarding process would be one of her first actions at the sportsbook.

However, this marked just the beginning of Smith’s transformative journey at Pinnacle. Over the next 17 years, she would lead a series of influential initiatives that would shape the company’s very core.  

From intern to CEO

Smith’s entry into the industry was far from planned. From the US, she initially moved to Antigua for an internship, but afterwards she struggled to find work on the Caribbean island due to employment restrictions for foreigners.

“I took on really odd jobs to survive, including working in a Dive shop,” she says. 

Despite facing obstacles, in July 1995 she landed a role answering phones in sports betting, after meeting someone who recommended her to Bill Scott, who at that time ran Worldwide Telesports. 

Her career soared as she swiftly climbed the ranks from clerk to marketing director, and then to vice president and eventually running the entire company. 

Following a decade of growth, Worldwide Telesports was sold, and as part of the deal, Smith agreed to remain with the company for an additional two years. 

However, during that period, she faced legal trouble in the US, where authorities were investigating the industry operating out of Antigua. Smith was eventually convicted of an online gambling-related crime committed offshore and received probation.  

A fresh start at Pinnacle 

In 2006, Smith left Woldwide Telesports and moved to Curaçao.

Upon her arrival in Curaçao she decided to adopt the alias Paris Smith, as that was common in the industry at the time. However, she made no real effort to conceal her identity change. 

Subsequently, she joined Pinnacle, which turned out to be a rollercoaster ride for her.

“When I joined, we were 85 people, but the operation was already thriving. However, in 2007, we decided to exit the US market, which meant we really went from hero to zero,” she says.

“We then had to rebuild the business,” Smith says, highlighting that throughout the years Pinnacle changed “from a family type environment to a high-performing culture”. 

Being a woman in the industry hasn’t always been easy for her. At iGaming NEXT Valletta 23, Smith shared that as a female leader in the male-dominated iGaming industry, she’s had to work harder. 

“I had to be more diplomatic because some people perceived me as having a strong personality. I had to oversell what I knew was obvious just to gain buy-in from everybody. That was one of the biggest challenges,” she said on stage. 

“I was frequently accused of being too powerful and intimidating,” she reiterates, acknowledging that such feedback might not be given to a male CEO.  

Finding a new investor 

Looking back on her years at Pinnacle, Smith reveals that her most significant career highlight was finding Magnus Hedman as a new owner in 2015. 

However, this achievement was no walk in the park, as Smith had a very clear idea of the qualities she wanted the new investor to possess. 

“I envisioned someone who embraced risks, understood the intricacies of a B2B model, which was the path I intended to pursue, and had a keen understanding of both the global and Asian markets, where we aimed to rebound after departing from the US. 

“Additionally, a background in financial trading was crucial, as it aligned perfectly with our high-frequency transaction concept. 

“Above all, it was essential that this person wholeheartedly supported and believed in our dedicated R&D team, a team that I deeply cherished and was determined not to lose.” 

Then, an acquaintance stepped forward, exclaiming, “I know somebody!” That somebody turned out to be none other than Hedman. 

“Within ten minutes, we had a meeting set up. We met in Amsterdam because I was there for a conference, and he flew in to meet with me for three hours. I knew instantly that he was perfect for the role.” 

However, convincing everyone else of Hedman’s suitability proved to be a formidable challenge. It took an entire year to sway the skeptics and demonstrate that he was indeed the perfect fit.  

“Looking back now, I can’t help but reflect on the frustrations of that time,” Smith says. 

“However, Magnus and I were very aligned with the strategy moving forward, and I was very convinced I found the right person.”  

Calling it a day 

Despite the successes she enjoyed, Smith decided to resign from her CEO role earlier this year and work as an independent adviser.

Originally planning to stay in the industry for 30 years, which would have been two more years, she had a conversation with Hedman that led to a change in her perspective. 

“I am super intrigued on the investment side as this is an area that I never had the luxury to focus on before. And there is so much happening at the moment,” she says. 

Smith mentions that she will continue to collaborate with Hedman while also exploring other opportunities in the advisory and consultancy field. 

“I also believe that someone new, with a fresh perspective, will be incredibly beneficial for Pinnacle and able to take the company to the next level. Though we’ve made progress, we are currently experiencing slow growth,” she says.  

Home in Curaçao 

For the past 17 years, Smith has called Curaçao her home, and now the island is also on the brink of a fresh start with the upcoming enactment of a new gambling regime. 

Excited about the overhaul of Curaçao’s gaming regulations, Smith sees significant progress being made by the government. 

“If Curaçao can strike the right balance in regulations – prioritising safety for players and citizens while avoiding overregulation and understanding the market they’re governing – it could lead to phenomenal results for the country’s revenue and growth,” she says. 

However, Smith wants to clear up any misconceptions: “The system of master licences actually established a robust infrastructure. It was just not connected to the government. 

“We must also not forget that when the system was introduced, many companies left Curaçao to relocate to Costa Rica and Panama.” 

With the new regime on the horizon, Smith holds an optimistic view of the industry, expecting it to turn over a fresh leaf towards brighter horizons. 

As she embarks on her own fresh start, Smith is filled with confidence that the industry, influenced by the new regime, is destined for change “only for the better”.  

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