Denis O’Brien’s control over Caribbean telecoms empire Digicel foundered on huge debts the company could not repay, with bondholders soon to take ownership of the embattled business. Now friends of the Irish entrepreneur have been invited to Jamaica for an event “celebrating the extraordinary journey of Denis O’Brien and Digicel”.
Almost 23 years have passed since Mr O’Brien established Digicel, going on to bring it into 32 markets in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia Pacific regions. After making his first fortune with Esat Digifone, this was the business that turned him from millionaire to billionaire.
Between 2007 and 2015 Mr O’Brien received at least $1.9 billion (€1.76 billion) in Digicel dividends. In the past three years Digicel paid $90 million in fees and bonuses to Mr O’Brien and companies he controls, including rent for a jet.
But large borrowings racked up as Digicel built phone and telecoms networks proved unsustainable. A restructuring deal hammered out earlier this year will write off $1.7 billion from Digicel’s debt, leaving Mr O’Brien with 10 per cent of the business. The arrangement is the third in five years to overhaul Digicel borrowings: investors wrote off $1.6 billion three years ago.
In recent correspondence, friends and colleagues of Mr O’Brien were invited to the Jamaican capital Kingston in January for a reception in honour of the company and its founder.
“Please join the Digicel family,” said invitations to event at the AC Marriott hotel in the city. Invitees were asked to respond by a deadline last Friday, with details to follow, and were told two nights complimentary accommodation will be provided.
Among people working for Mr O’Brien and previous employees, news of the celebration has set off questions as to who was on the invitation list.
Asked about the event, Digicel said: “There is a private reception paid for by Denis O’Brien.” There was no comment from Mr O’Brien’s representative.
Mr O’Brien will no longer be Digicel chairman under the new owners, although he will remain on the company’s board as a non-executive director.
But the restructuring ends an era for the businessman and large numbers of Irish executives who, under his leadership, made Caribbean telecoms their special field of interest. Some of his closest associates received huge multimillion dollar payments in connection with their Digicel shares when the company was on the rise.
Digicel is now on track to reduce company debt to $3.12 billion, compared to a peak above $7 billion in 2019.
After selling the Communicorp radio group and his stake in the former Independent News & Media, Mr O’Brien no longer holds Irish media interests. Continued Irish investments include building services group Actavo, formerly Siteserv, as well as the Beacon Hospital in Dublin and Ballynahinch Castle, in Co Galway.