A life in loose change

Ian McIntosh, Machines Controller and Engineer at Carlton Bingo

Who doesn’t love the sound of cash, especially in bingo, where it is very much king, but in an increasingly digital age, and a post covid-era, for many that sound of loose change has been replaced by the distinctly digital sound of the BEEP. Not for Ian McIntosh, Carlton Bingo’s long serving Machine Controller and Engineer.

Born in Cowdenbeath, Ian’s career has taken him all over Scotland and to parts of England, but he is now back where it all began: in bingo and in Cowdenbeath, and he couldn’t be happier. While professing only to play bingo very occasionally, and then only to check on the competition, the word is out: he secretly quite likes it!

Growing up in Cowdenbeath Ian attended Lumphinnans Primary and Beath High School, both of which are still going strong, while also entering the world of work, as what could be described as a dogsbody.

“My first job as a student was as a general dogsbody in a hotel in Perthshire. But I count my first real job as working for Ladbrokes. I was still a student and started, Saturdays only, “marking the board” in the shop. For anyone under 50 this was the task of marking up all the odds of horses and greyhounds racing, using felt pens on a big wipe board for all the customers to see: no monitors or digi-boards.

“My first day was April 1st 1977, the day Red Rum won the Grand National for the third time. Every bookies in the country was in complete pandemonium with the number of people who bet on the winner!”

From the outset it was clear that Ian’s future would be dominated by numbers, odds and coins, as he remained at Ladbrokes and took up a full-time position. “Numbers were always my thing” he said, “and I ended up working for Ladbrokes for 13 years, taking up managerial positions in various places in the east of Scotland from Arbroath to Leven and most of Fife.”

By 1989 Ian decided it was perhaps time for a change of career and studied the Friday newspapers’ job columns looking for anything that might be of interest. It was not long before he spotted an advert looking for an ‘AWP Controller’ at Granada Bingo: no experience necessary and full training given, it said.

“I thought I had the perfect qualifications! No experience, so an application went in the post. A week or so later a letter arrived from Granada, advising me that I apparently did not have the perfect qualifications on this occasion and had been unsuccessful. It was back to the Friday newspapers.

“It wasn’t long however before they saw the error of their ways and I received a message to get in touch. An interview followed which I nailed and that was me in bingo.”

Having nearly missed his window into the world of bingo, fate played its part and pulled him in. Little did he know then exactly how strong the pull of bingo would be.

Settling in as AWP Controller with Granada in Scotland, Ian was responsible for the newly acquired former Kingsway bingo clubs. He was also responsible for making a member of staff burst into tears on his very first visit to one of the newly acquired clubs. Unintentionally, but tears nevertheless.

“On my first visit alone to one of the clubs (which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) I was met by the cashier, who immediately burst into tears! “It isn’t us” she blubbed, “It’s him, I don’t know what he’s doing but it’s him”.

Not physically threatening, nor particularly scary, Ian quickly realised that the cashier’s involuntary response had more to do with the incumbent club management than him. When Ian returned early one Sunday morning he heard the familiar sound of loose change moving and found the manager in the machines, disconnecting the meters, in order to have that day’s take for himself.

“Exit one manager and I’d only been there a couple of weeks! Their estate was ageing so I took any and all cast-offs from the rest of the regions, got out the soapy water and Mr Sheen for the remaining machines, trained a few members of staff on their use and went through several thousand bulbs until the estate began to look the part. All of which meant I couldn’t lose performance wise and the region flourished.”

Ian’s unannounced visits to clubs in the coming months also revealed an inventive night watch team. They were not only tipping machines over the back of seating to get cash and tokens out, but were also using the extension on a hoover, sticking it through the grill on the front of the bar, and hoovering packets of cigarettes off the shelves. Ian felt that greed rather than necessity, was the mother of these particular inventions and tricks!

Granada was subsequently acquired by Bass, with the bingo business then being subject to a management buy-out, that was to become Gala Bingo. As the owners of the business changed, so did Ian’s patch, which under Gala stretched from Peterhead in the north of Scotland, down to Nottingham (Gala Head Office) in the south, across to Skegness and everything in between. During this period Ian spent a large amount of time on the road, out at sites, training staff on how to use the then new machine monitoring system “Playsafe”. He was very effective at getting the system installed and staff trained up, unaware that the greater the success of “Playsafe”, the less need there was for his role. As he put it, “So, job done and made redundant.”

The temporary exit from bingo only lasted a few years, during which time Ian honed his sales skills and sold kitchens and bathrooms. But bingo was not done with Ian, and Ian was not done with bingo. In 1995 he received a call from Chris Barr at CAC Leisure, asking if he might be interested in returning to bingo? Chris knew Ian from when he had worked in The Rio in Kirkcaldy, for Kingsway.

After going through an initial interview Ian was back in bingo with CAC Leisure, which later became Carlton Bingo, and twenty seven years later he is still with them.

“Testament to the company, there are a number of colleagues who have even longer service than me and many who have been here almost as long. It may be due to the flexibility: my role is a machine controller, but at the end of the job description, under my responsibilities, is an additional line – “This list is not exhaustive”! Something that has become very clear over the years, with spells doing health and safety, IT and anything else that needs to be done, such as escorting winning customers to Vegas! It is also what has kept it interesting, well, that and the people.”

Twenty-seven years is a long time with one company and covers a period when there have been a lot of changes and challenges for bingo, from the smoking ban to changes in licensing. Ian has helped Carlton Bingo work through with them all.

Carlton Bingo has a diverse estate, including listed cinemas and flat floor new builds, which includes the club at Fife Leisure Park, Dunfirmline, built in 2005. This is a project of particular interest to Ian, “I was involved from start to finish in much of the fitting out of the club, from the preparation for and installation of the machine estate, to the setting up of the ceiling speakers. Although the timescale involved was a bit of a challenge, the sense of achievement when the club opened was overwhelming. We also opened a new site at Inverness in the same year, two months later. So balancing the work of both sites was tight, but I still feel there is a bit of me in them both seventeen years on.”

Throughout Ian’s twenty-seven years at Carlton he has been no stranger to the all important training and team building days, but one in Dunblane in 2016 holds a special place in his heart and was particularly effective at teaching the core skill of compliance.

“We were on a residential teambuilding course for a couple of days in Dunblane. Up a little later than I should due to the previous night’s libations, I leave the hotel and can see some of my colleagues had already started their archery competition at the bottom of the hill below. There was a clear sign that said “Don’t go this way, walk via the path.

“I decide to take the direct route and a few steps later I learnt the importance of compliance, as my feet go from under me, up in the air and land but with a broken ankle, which confines me to the house for the following six weeks.

“There is never a good time to be confined, but this was particularly inconvenient, as it was around the time that the new bimetal £1 coin was being introduced. As with many bingo estates at that time, the challenge of getting machines ready and changing or altering mechanisms was quite a task.

“Not to be beaten, I set about creating a workbench at home and set to on converting some of the 7,500 MCB coin mechanisms that needed to be sorted: many of them needed twenty or so of each denomination coin fed through in order to test them, others were not quite so onerous, but in the six weeks that followed about 4,500 were completed and tested with about aquarter of a million coins being fed through. As you might imagine the sound of coins all day is none too quiet and eventually more than a bit irritating. While my partner also worked bingo her level of understanding and nerves were well and truly tested too. Despite my best efforts to dampen the clunking of coins it almost drove Dawn berserk. But it was worth it to get the job done.”

Bingo has not just provided friends, a career and memorable moments for Ian, it also introduced him to his partner, Dawn.

“I met Dawn when she was working for Carlton as a cashier in Partick, Glasgow. She went on to hold a managerial position before unfortunately being made redundant when the Tivoli in Edinburgh closed, following the smoking ban. She no longer works in bingo and is now a carer in a local home; we have been together for 22 years: a full house win for me. I also have two beautiful daughters and two handsome grandsons from a previous relationship.”

When it comes to life beyond the sound of loose change, Ian’s main hobby these days is golf, though we have seen no evidence of strangely patterned jumpers and his last grand slam achievement was in 1975.

“I also used to do a bit of karaoke djing, from the late 90s until a couple of years ago. I gave it up as I was fed up being the “oldest swinger in town”. And can I just be clear that that’s to do with music, not any connection to remote car parks!

“My only real hobby and source of exercise these days is golf, at which I used to be not too bad. My claim to fame was leading the Scottish schoolboys’ championship after 10 holes in about 1975 at Ladybank. I was level par after 9 and birdied the par 3 10th to go one under. Unfortunately I lost a ball at the next and fired one out of bounds at the par 5 to finish in the pack. Nowhere near that standard nowadays and obviously far too busy with work to get any practice. Still manage to lift the odd prize at the Carlton golf days though!”

For work Ian is based in Stirling, from the offices above the Carlton Bingo club and these days, thankfully he assures us, spends much less time out on the road: the days of 40,000 work miles a year are long gone and not missed. Variety and no set work routine continue to be great attractions to working in bingo, for Ian, along with the people: both colleagues and customers.

Reflecting on his career to date Ian said, “I probably would never have left bingo, ever, if I hadn’t been made redundant from Gala. So when Carlton came looking for me it was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made and one of the best.”

Bingo is set to remain part of Ian’s future and at 63 he can see a point at which he will cease to be a colleague and a customer, instead just opting for the latter, occasionally, as he quite likes it really!