Irish Power and Irish Concern: Denis O’Brien

Denis O’Brien with local people in Haiti.
Denis O’Brien with local people in Haiti.

By Niall O'Dowd, Publisher
December / January 2013

Denis O’Brien, a Clinton Global Citizen honoree and the 2012 Irish America Business 100 Keynote Speaker, is empowering people in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean.  

Denis O’Brien, 54, is Ireland’s most successful businessman and biggest philanthropist. He created Digicel, one of the most successful cell phone companies in the world, and he has a vast media empire, but he is known as much for his philanthropy as he is for his business acumen, especially in the Third World.

Former president Bill Clinton wrote in a Time cover story on October 1 that Digicel’s founder and chairman’s move to make cash transactions available for the poorest in the world via cell phones was the number one idea in changing the world for the poor in 2012.

I caught up with O’Brien just as Time was hitting the newsstands. He was in New York to receive a corporate philanthropic award from the Clinton Global Initiative. In addition to being featured in Time, Forbes magazine had just published their Richest 400 list and O’Brien was rated at number 205 with a $5 billion fortune.

When we met up at the Helmsley Palace Hotel, he had just come from a small dinner with President Clinton and Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, and a few other heavyweights, and he described with evident relish how the evening had ended with a few spontaneous songs from all concerned.

O’Brien’s company has achieved amazing growth over the past decade. Since its launch in Jamaica in 2001, Digicel has secured some 13 million users in 31 countries in the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific, and is the largest single investor in Haiti – 600 million dollars.

The Digicel chairman has become an ambassador for Haiti, talking up investment opportunities to businessmen. And while he is ready to admit there are problems, from a foreign investment point of view, he is more ready to point out that there are really good opportunities. From retail stores to hotels, Haiti is a prime market for corporations looking to turn a profit.

Digicel has made a good return for its investment in Haiti, but it’s not all about making money. Since the earthquake  that killed upwards of 300,000 people and devastated the capital city, Port-au-Prince, Digicel has donated and raised $30 million towards redevelopment including reconstruction of Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market, a key commercial hub. Digicel has also donated free phone time worth $10 million, as well as relief supplies. It is also constructing 50 schools. And, in a country where only 10 percent of the population have bank accounts, Digicel worked with Scotiabank to allow people to withdraw cash and make deposits and person-to-person transactions using their mobile phones.

In an August 9, 2010 article  in Time, Tim Padgett wrote: “The Haiti work has made O’Brien and the Irish the world’s newest poster boys for enterprise-oriented aid of the kind championed by leaders like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, and his New York City-based Clinton Global Initiative.”

O’Brien, who was coordinating CGI’s Haiti Action Group before the earthquake hit, has come to admire the tenacity and fortitude of the people and their willingness to work and learn, and in return he is seen as a champion of the people. (The Digicel building in Port-au-Prince was untouched during the 2008 food riots.)

And it’s not just Haiti. O’Brien, who was born in Dublin, is well-known to Third World relief agencies, especially Concern Worldwide (he serves on the U.S. board). He has made numerous trips with the organization to troubled spots in the globe including Sudan and Malawi.

In Ireland, where he is often the subject of controversy because he is outspoken and direct, he has also made enormous contributions. He chaired the 2003 Special Olympic Summer Games. It was the first time the Games were staged outside the U.S., with teams from 160 countries and over 30,000 volunteers, and it was the most successful Games in the history of the Special Olympics.

These days, Ireland’s downslide is very much on O’Brien’s mind, but here too he is upbeat about the future and says that Ireland is in recovery mode. He’s bullish about the economy. And as he does for Haiti, he talks up Ireland as a place to do business. Interviewed by Margaret Brennan for  Bloomberg TV recently, he said the opportunity for inward investment in Ireland is at an all-time high – particularly in the banking industry.

He, himself, is heavily invested in Ireland where he has just won a major media war and is now the controlling shareholder in Independent Newspapers, formerly the fiefdom of the O’Reilly clan. During that brutish battle he was often painted in an unflattering light by the O’Reilly-controlled press but still came out triumphant.

O’Brien has extensive other media interests in Ireland and has drawn some criticism that he controls too much, but compared to the O’Reilly clan and their relentless pursuits and vendettas in their newspapers down the decades, he is a paragon of hands-off ownership.

Tom Moran, Chairman and CEO of the insurance giant Mutual of America, who also serves as  chairman of Concern Worldwide U.S., had this to say: “Denis has deservedly received great recognition for his financial abilities and business success. But there aren’t enough words to truly express the generosity of his heart.  His attention to his philanthropic interests, including Concern Worldwide, may even exceed his focused attention to business. He has truly earned the riches of this world and the next!”  Wilbur Ross, himself a financial wizard who has invested in Bank of Ireland, praised O’Brien’s ability to face down challenges. “Denis has built a major telecom business despite the well known problems of the region it serves. This carries Irish resourcefulness and resiliency to new heights,” he said.

In the Caribbean, O’Brien and Digicel are seen as a godsend, raising the bar for everyone, with an emphasis on education. Digicel Foundation in Jamaica, set up in 2004, has a goal of 100 percent literacy by 2015. In Haiti it built 20 schools in its first year, and in Papua New Guinea it is building community-based learning centers and reaching children who would not otherwise have access to education.

One Jamaican homeowner I talked to said, “Denis O’Brien may be known as a communications giant but in Jamaica he’s known as a man who communicates with his heart.”

How does it feel to be named in a Time cover story by Bill Clinton as the person who has made the most difference to the world in the last year?

Well look, you know, it was extremely generous of him. It certainly doesn’t feel like that, because everybody is doing their bit in Haiti. There are so many people doing projects – small projects, big projects. There are thousands of people trying to help Haiti at the moment.

How did you come up with this idea of people being able to send money by cell phone?

They’ve been doing it in Africa for many years, but nobody has turned it into a commercial proposition yet. So we have four beta tests at the moment. Well, Haiti has gone beyond beta tests, but Haiti was the number one, and then Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and also Samoa.

Tell me about Bill Clinton.

[Laughs.] You know, his best snippet from last night was, “the weight of ants is more than the weight of human beings in the world today.” He was weaving this thing together… He always surprises, and he gets more and more interesting. And the Clinton Global Initiative is the real model. Everybody goes to CGI, and we all have a good chat and we head home. We learn a few things. But if you go to the CGI, number one you’re making a promise and you have to deliver on it. And what he’s done is he’s used all of his contacts around the world and he’s corralled them all to do something good.

His engagement in Ireland is critical. I mean, talk about having an ally. Think about all the countries in the world, there are two hundred and something – yet he’s a great advocate for Ireland. He has such a great mind.

He was Google before they invented Google, and he still is Google.

Why was Clinton so enamored of your idea?

Ninety-five percent of people are unbanked in Haiti. In Papua New Guinea it’s probably even more. So now for the first time people can have money, save money, without having to put cash under a bed or hide it somewhere. They have a pin code so nobody can access that cash and it’s totally secure.

Looking back, what was the moment when you said, “I’m going to go there, to the underdeveloped countries, the path not taken by so many others?”

It wasn’t really that brilliant, because if you see a country and only ten percent of the people have a mobile phone, while every other country in the world is at seventy-eighty percent – some are at one hundred – you know it’s going to go there, it’s going to go in that direction. It’s a matter of having the best combination of things in your proposition: a good network, good prices, and a good team and good marketing. So we just rolled out teams – mainly Irish people – who put this into effect in country after country. Now we have local managers, who we have trained up. So we probably have, worldwide, still about 200 senior Irish managers sprinkled all over our operations. Burma is like – there are only two million people who have cell phones there and about 63 million people in the country. So the only three places left in the world where phones are needed, where somebody needs to bring a network to them, are North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar [laughs]. That’s it!

What’s next?

I think, the next thing is this: If you take all our mobile phone customers, they’re all eventually going to go on the Internet, and many of them already have. We’ve built 4G networks in fifteen of our countries, and everybody now is buying smart phones. So it’s a completely different revenue stream.
And I’m sure in another few years there will be another major business opportunity that will be attached to a cell phone.

Let me ask you about the Irish diaspora. Do you think the potential is tapped in Ireland, or do you think people fully comprehend?

Well, do you know, I was so disappointed with the Institute of Directors when several Irish-American business leaders offered to serve on Irish boards and [an Irish] chief executive came out and said, “We do not need these people, you should be appointing people in Ireland who have expertise in Ireland to the boards, we don’t need people from the States.” And I thought, that is just such a closed mentality. You know, Ireland is globalized now and there are so many talented people in the diaspora who have something to contribute. You take a guy like Craig Barrett – you say Holy God, he is one of the iconic figures of the information age, CEO of Intel, and he’s the perfect guy to bring in your board. So why would you rule out the opportunity to bring in a Craig Barrett for any business in Ireland, any state-owned company?

In what other areas do you see the diaspora being helpful?

You know, there’s so many Irish Americans who have had a real experience of crisis – financial crisis or whatever. Many of them worked on Wall Street, many of them were in government, and it’s just a matter of tapping them.

Maybe it’s too late now because most of the steps have already been taken by the [Irish] government, but if you were back in 2008 again, you wouldn’t be ringing Merrill Lynch, you’d be ringing three or four Irish-American guys like Adrian Jones at Goldman Sachs who you’d have on a list as your crisis cabinet.

What do you see when you look at Ireland now?

I’m positive about Ireland. There’s recognition in Wall Street, and writers in the know on what is happening in Europe are saying Ireland has taken its medicine in a serious, serious way. You know, they’re still fighting away in Greece about what they’re going to do, whether it’s going to be eleven or twelve billion, and it’s really an academic argument at this stage about whether or not you’re going to do it. So Ireland has taken all its medicine. We’re well past the point of no return now, and we have been the model country in terms of handling our problems. Everybody else has done a bit but not enough, and you can never do enough in this area.

Do you ever look at something like the Forbes World’s Billionaires list, see your name on it and say, “Who’s this guy? How did I get here?”

[Laughs] Not really, not really, no.

Where does your acumen come from? Was it your parents?

You know, I’d like to think it comes from the farming background.

Buying and selling.

Right. Buying and selling. My father was born in Cork but my mother was born to a farming family in Armagh. My  father’s whole side of the family came from a small farming background, and I think that is where it comes from. City kids miss that. Going to the fair, looking at that whole thing of trade – when do you sell, when do you buy, the whole emotional intelligence. If you go to a mart you’ll learn an awful lot, it’s like a life’s education in a day.

Did you do that with your dad?

No, but I would have gone to Tandragee in Armagh and they had a chicken farm at that stage, so I understand “what’s the price this week for eggs” and so on. When I look at managers, some of our best new managers in Digicel come from Kerry; they come from country, hard livings.

And I look at kids today in, say Dublin, and they’re the 4×4 generation. They don’t have that toughness. I think physical toughness transfers into business and you become more resolute if you’ve had a harder upbringing. And, you know, now there’s probably no science to what I’m saying, but it’s just kind of my instinct. I listen to presentations in Digicel and these tough country guys are up there talking about what’s going on, and it might be a tough market, so you need these men. In fact, in some of our harder markets, we put the mountainy men in!

Where does your philanthropic gene come from?

Everybody in Ireland has a philanthropic gene. If you were raised in Ireland in the ’60s,  ’70s,  ’80s, everybody was collecting for something. There was always a tin somewhere. If you go into a shop in Ireland there are always at least three tins – there could be five in the west of Ireland.

Now that Chuck Feeney’s foundation is paying itself down  – what’s left when Atlantic Philanthropy leaves Ireland?

Philanthropy in Ireland is different to here. Here people do it for tax reasons and they do it because they feel good about it, and it’s very public. It’s a big-bang approach. In Ireland there are certain levels, like large-scale philanthropy, and then the next level down, but people don’t really advertise it. They’re not interested in getting a photo with a big check for a university or whatever.

I’m involved in fundraising for UCD. There’s an incredible amount of philanthropy that has supported UCD and the reforms that President Hugh Brady has made. It’s the same in Limerick [University], and it’s the same all over the country. So people say, “Oh, there isn’t much philanthropy in Ireland…” There is, but it’s quieter.

People in Ireland – some people here too – have the view that everything that is reported in the [Irish] media is overly negative.

Well, there’s a lot of hare coursing of people in Ireland. People in political life have made mistakes, but it’s just a constant, constant theme of chasing them, photographing them, following them, putting them on the front page. And that kind of negative journalism… I mean, look, people made mistakes. But they are also human beings. Remember that. I thought chasing Brian Cowen to some university in California was an appalling thing to do. He’s out of public life, he’s a private citizen. Leave him alone. That would be my view. So I think we need to stop it. And it’s mainly in the print media, and we need to move forward, Yes, in all of this there should be a light shone on it, but we can’t keep regurgitating the same negative personal stuff.

What’s the future of newspapers?

Integrating a parallel online business to your existing print business is where everybody has to go. We’re doing that in radio, we have to do it with newspapers in INM [Independent News & Media], from a very, very low base. So there’s a lot of effort to do that. The old board of INM just didn’t believe in the Internet, which is pretty startling when everything else is changing in the world. It’s like saying “oh, nobody is going to buy a smart phone tomorrow.” So that has to happen. It’s going to be a very painful process for INM for the next two or three years. And it may not get there. I’m a realist to think that the business has so many challenges, mainly from a banking point of view, that it may not… we’re at the mercy of our banks at the moment because we’ve too much leverage and a declining profitability profile. We have a new CEO that everybody believes in, we have a new chairman in Leslie Buckley, and you couldn’t get a better person, but my God, it’s going to be a huge struggle. We’re late into the field and now we’re doing what we should have done six or seven years ago. But look, it’s not all bad, and some great people work for INM, it’s just a “how do you turn a whole ship around and motor as quick as you can” story.

What needs to be done to improve Irish economic prospects?

What we need is more investment, especially on the SME side, with small businesses. How do you take medium sized businesses and turn them into multinationals? That is the key. And how can you persuade Irish entrepreneurs to hang in there, come to Wall Street, raise some money and keep going. How do you create the next multinational like Smurfit, Cappa, CRH, whoever the hell it is, out of Ireland? That’s the real trick here. And I know Enterprise Ireland [government agency responsible for helping Irish companies], it kills them to see Irish companies being sold, having nurtured them, the whole team working with businesses. And the other thing, if you take our relationship with the United States, we need to develop – and we’ll probably never develop the same relationship – but we need to develop a different kind of relationship towards China. And still I think that we need a minister for China. It could be a junior minister, but we need a minister for China and indeed a minister for the diaspora.

Denis O’Brien, thank you.

2 Responses to “Irish Power and Irish Concern: Denis O’Brien”

  1. Irene Narissi McLaughlin says:

    I am very impressed with the person Denis O’Brien is. I was lucky enough to attend the luncheon where he was honored. His way of speaking was informative yet humble relaxed and funny… He mention how the the Irish happened to be in the Caribbean — sent out as slaves in the 1600 by Oliver Cromell to work on the sugar plantations…

    Great citizen of the world!

  2. Frank Holt says:

    This article should be published in Ireland and I for one am proud of his achievements and his contribution to Irish society and abroad particularly in Haiti.

    Denis keep it going -social entrepreneurship in Ireland is alive and well and maybe the real source of employment for our forgotten people !

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