Denis O’Brien is a serial entrepreneur who founded Communicorp, a commercial radio and emerging digital media provider, and Digicel Group, a complete communications provider serving the Caribbean, Central America and Pacific – along with several other companies. Throughout his personal and professional interests, Mr O’Brien is a firm believer in philanthrocapitalism to help communities around the world grow and flourish. As patron of the Digicel Foundation, he has helped to meet the needs of people in Haiti, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad & Tobago, focusing on education and community development by building schools, establishing medical centres, and completing other community projects. He serves as a board member of the humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide, chairman of the Frontline Defenders, and Chairman of the Council of Patrons of Special Olympics. Through these and the many other charitable efforts he supports, O’Brien remains committed to helping shape a world where nobody gets left behind. The College Tribune’s Neil Stokes (NS) was grateful to get the opportunity to interview Mr O’Brien (DOB), one of UCD’s most distinguished alumni. 

NS: An obvious place to begin with one of the world’s most successful and impactful entrepreneurs is to wonder where such a penchant for enterprise and innovation originated?

DOB: My father taught me a huge amount about business. Every day in the car on the way to school, he tutored me. He set up a successful international Equine products company, Plusvital, and I worked with him during school holidays. His mantra was ‘trust, fair dealings and long-term relationships’. He instilled in me a very strong work ethic and never doing a half job. Loyalty was a very important characteristic in my Dad and is something I carry with me in my relationships today.

NS: I’m sure working for Tony Ryan, one of Ireland’s most successful entrepreneurs, was also an invaluable experience?

DOB: I became Tony Ryan’s first personal assistant. He was a stickler for detail. There would be very detailed lists of plans relating to Guinness Peat Aviation, his farm in Co. Tipperary, and his investment in The Sunday Tribune. His attention to every aspect of a business and his expectation for tasks to be undertaken quickly taught me so much. He was one of the greatest Irish entrepreneurs, firstly, setting up one of the largest aircraft leasing companies in the world and, later, having the vision, belief and determination to set up Ryanair, a truly world class business.

NS: What kind of part-time jobs did you take on growing up and what learnings did you take away? 

DOB: From my early teens I had part-time jobs. When I was 14, I worked as a bellboy at the Central Hotel in Dublin where I earned about €8 a week. I later worked as a waiter in Dobbins restaurant. I learnt a lot about human behaviour as a waiter. In my mid-teens, I went to London where I got a job as a painter and stone cleaner.

NS: What do you remember from your student days at UCD?

DOB: I studied history, politics and logic for an Arts degree at UCD. I was not the most dedicated student. I was more interested in making new friends and taking on part-time jobs for pocket money to enjoy and fund my social life. I benefited enormously from my UCD years – I made many great, life-long friends and took part in a number of sports and activities. I also did a lot of running up in the Wicklow Mountains around Lough Dan at the time – something I have continued ever since. I think when you are in University you are subconsciously absorbing so much about life generally. I graduated in 1977 and I regard the years I spent in UCD as some of the happiest of my life. I have an umbilical connection to UCD.

NS: Your formal education didn’t finish at UCD however, a stint Stateside followed shortly after. Tell us about your time there?

DOB: I got a scholarship to study for an MBA degree at Boston College on the encouragement of UCD Politics lecturer and Chancellor of NUI, Maurice Manning and also Professor Philip Bourke. They both helped me a lot. I found it tough initially because I missed Dublin and my friends, but it was an exceptional experience and gave me a great base of knowledge. 

NS: Alongside your success in the business world, you are also one of the world’s most committed philantrocapitalists. Your work with the Special Olympics stands out among your achievements in this sphere. 

DOB: I was privileged to be Chairman of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland and I have continued my involvement as Chairman of the Council of Patrons of Special Olympics in Ireland to this day. Digicel also sponsors Special Olympic teams in 20 countries. The opening ceremony with 80,000 athletes and families will always be a standout moment for me and everybody involved in the Games.

NS: The work of the Iris O’Brien Foundation in helping to relieve poverty and promote education must also be a source of great pride.

DOB: My mother encouraged my sisters and brother to understand the developing world. To this day, she is a very staunch supporter of causes that support rights for the individual. She brought us on protests to the US Embassy following the murder of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador and to the Russian embassy following the treatment of Chechens by Russia. This subsequently led to me to co-found Frontline Defenders with Mary Lawlor. Frontline is an organisation that protects Human Rights defenders throughout the world.

We subsequently set up the Iris O’Brien Foundation and my mother still plays a very active role in deciding on aid packages to help disadvantaged communities in Ireland, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia.

NS: You also appear to be very conscious of adopting responsible and sustainable business practices, and the positive impact of Digicel in local communities seems to typify this. Tell us about that impact.

DOB: We set up the Digicel Foundation in Jamaica, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad & Tobago. We wanted to be different to most multinationals operating in the developing world. We allocate monies from our profits each year and invest in our communities, focusing on the areas of education, special needs and community development. Today, 2.8 million people have benefited from Digicel funding with $126 million invested and 2,200 projects completed. In Haiti, for example, each day 60,000 children attend one of 179 modern schools built by the Digicel Foundation.

NS: Moving back to an Irish context, what would be the one policy, if any, you would implement to improve the Irish business environment?

DOB: Ireland needs to urgently double down on funding for universities and third level institutions. We need to be ready with a strong pool of graduates to meet the demand for job opportunities that will be available in several key sectors, including artificial intelligence, biotechnology, human genomics, precision medicine, drug research, quantum computing, science and data sectors.

We also cannot continue to be a ‘bed and breakfast’ location for multinationals taking advantage of our tax policies. We need to get out ahead of the imminent OECD tax changes and change our ways rapidly.

Also, climate change will force Ireland to become much more responsible about energy forms and no time should be wasted in accelerating our efforts regarding climate change and sustainability. There is too much feet dragging by the Government. The next generation will hold us responsible if we don’t implement rapid change.

I think there will also be challenges and opportunities in the foods sector, as global trends put pressure on beef and dairy products.

NS: What are your thoughts regarding the future of mass media in the age of digitisation, the growth of social media and decline of traditional media.

DOB: The decline of traditional media is regrettable because they are largely governed by rules, regulations and standards. The growth of social media has been allowed to spread across the globe without checks and balances, without accountability and in most cases hidden behind the cloak of anonymity. This growth is so rampant that governments and regulatory authorities just look the other way. All this has resulted in the truth being compromised and the reputations of good and decent people frequently shredded. It’s only a matter of time before Facebook is regulated.

NS: Finally, what are your best and worst business decisions? And do you have any business regrets?

DOB: Investing in Irish Companies such as Beacon Hospital, Topaz, Siteserv and others in the downturn of 2011-2013 made for good outcomes. Investing in the newspaper industry in the early 2000’s was the wrong decision.

Hobbies: Watching my kids’ sporting activities,  

Favourite book: Kochland; and The Globalist: Peter Sutherland (Cover Picture doesn’t depict my memory of Peter) 

Favourite Movie: The Commitments  

Favourite Sporting Teams: Man United, Leinster Rugby and Dublin GAA

by Neil Stokes – Business Writer