My father, Jimmy Thomas, who has died aged 88, loved a scrap. In the course of his work in the casino and gambling industry, he would go up against lawyers, planning departments, European legislators, parking wardens – particularly parking wardens – and people who wrote and rewrote gambling laws. He also had a very well-publicised fight with David Cameron which found its way on to the front pages in 2012 – when he protested about VAT being charged on refurbishment work at the Royal Marsden hospital.
His weapons of choice were common sense, tenacity, and a great memory for rules … and how to bend them. He rarely lost a battle, and he ensured many others won theirs.
Born in Leicester, to Doris (nee Keeble) and John Thomas, Jimmy grew up within the family business of travelling fairs. He was sent to Uppingham school, in Rutland, with his two brothers, John and Michael.
Joining his father, he toured the country, eventually meeting Alma Darby at a dance-social and falling in love. They married in 1958 and, wanting a more stable base so that they could start a family, began to look for a way out of the travelling life. Jimmy found a niche opportunity through renting fruit machines to miners’ and social clubs.
Hard work brought success and in 1963 he founded Showboat Amusements, which he grew to about 120 arcades and a few bingo halls. Alongside all this sat Thomas Automatics, a company manufacturing change machines and gaming equipment: “Constant innovation was my driving passion,” he told his children. Dad never stopped inventing and bringing opportunities to life. His creation of an electronic random number generator for gaming machines genuinely revolutionised the industry.
Dad and I built his crowning achievement when we acquired the Hippodrome on Leicester Square in 2005 and transformed it into the country’s pre-eminent casino and entertainment business. He taught me one fundamental lesson: you can’t run a business without being there, and he could often be found at the Hippodrome until the early hours of a Saturday night/Sunday morning, texting me about what should be done better.
He was at his happiest with Alma at his side, and me and my sisters, Lisa and Carla, in the car, driving down to the south of France with Supertramp on the 8-track. He had got a Rolls-Royce and had a trailer built for all the cases, and one summer he even tied a boat on top for a bit of fun on the sea.
Dad told us often: “Always give something back.” As kids we were turfed out of bed on Christmas Day to dress up and haul a sack of presents down to the local hospital. My mother was the same. Lying in a ward at the Royal Marsden undergoing treatment for cancer, she told Dad to sell the ruby ring he had given her for their 40th anniversary. It was to be the first instalment of the £3m he eventually gave to refurbish a ward there.
Alma died in 2008. Jimmy is survived by me and my sisters, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.