Plucky David or pirate of the Caribbean?
BIOGRAPHY: A Mobile Fortune: The Life and Times of Denis O’BrienBy Siobhán Creaton Aurum Press, pp320. £14. 99QUITE A NUMBER of the richest and most powerful people in Irish society have entered the witness box of the Moriarty Tribunal of Inquiry over the past decade. George’s Hall at Dublin Castle, where the tribunal sits, is a sizeable high-ceilinged room, and it is a rare witness who can fill it with his or her personality. In this reporter’s experience only two people have succeeded: the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien.
Ahern, called to give evidence in 1999 about signing blank cheques for Haughey, created an almost tangible air of menace, so wound up was he when forced to answer questions from John Coughlan SC, one of the tribunal’s barristers.
O’Brien in the witness box was a rich mix of personality traits: focused and well prepared; combative; informal; friendly; moody; sometimes on top of the world; sometimes deeply aggrieved; occasionally nasty. His own solicitor, Owen O’Connell, in the witness box, observed that O’Brien can be a very charming man. He can, and as Siobhán Creaton’s unauthorised biography of O’Brien makes clear, the strong, charming aspect of his personality is an important element of his business success. Watching him in the witness box, you could imagine how he might take command of a boardroom or a management meeting and direct operations like some able but feared orchestral conductor.
These days he sits atop a number of large operations, projects and obsessions: his multijurisdiction, multibillion-dollar telecoms network in the Caribbean and the south Pacific; his work to help post-earthquake Haiti; his fight with the tribunal; his shareholding in Independent News Media (INM) and his related long-term battle with Anthony O’Reilly; his Communicorp radio group; his global investment portfolio; his diverse, multimillion-euro philanthropic activities; his relations with a group of friends and associates who have travelled with him since the early 1980s in Dublin; his battles and grudges; and God knows what else.
The son of a Dublin 4 businessman and a mother who was active in Amnesty International, O’Brien was a busy but not terribly successful student. He attended High School, in Rathgar in Dublin, and was almost expelled, and then University College Dublin, where he failed to excel but nevertheless made an impression. Maurice Manning, who before he was a politician and human-rights commissioner was one of O’Brien’s lecturers at UCD, suggested he attend business school in Boston, which he did. As a college student he earned money by painting houses, working with his then friend Barry Maloney, who in time would become chief executive of O’Brien’s first big success, Esat Digifone, and has since gone on to become a hugely wealthy venture capitalist.
The duo had a falling out that was operatic in scale, with Maloney’s evidence to the tribunal including the recounting of a conversation in which O’Brien said he had paid money to Michael Lowry, who was communications minister when Digifone was given its mobile-phone licence. O’Brien’s evidence was that he was “spoofing”.
After college O’Brien became a personal assistant to the late Tony Ryan and learned lessons in the arts of drive and ambition, dominance and ruthlessness. He had an unsuccessful go at establishing a European satellite TV shopping channel before getting into radio, with 98FM, and then telecoms. In his landline battles with Eircom he made use of autodiallers, technology that allowed his company, Esat Telecom, to access the State telephone company’s network while avoiding associated costs. Mary O’Rourke, as incoming communications minister, described O’Brien as a pirate when they first met. They both laughed.
He had a precarious run in business until he got the Digifone licence, in 1996. He drove Digifone’s growth relentlessly over the following years, winning a market share from the incumbent that was the highest in the EU at the time. The sale of Esat in January 2000, following a bitter falling out with his Digifone partner, Telenor, netted O’Brien €317 million. Determined to hold on to it all, he moved tax residence to Portugal. He invested and lost an unknown amount of the money, but an investment in a new licence in Jamaica formed the springboard for his Digicel success, where he is again in battle with an incumbent giant, Cable Wireless.
Like so many of the rich and powerful, O’Brien likes to see himself as David in combat with Goliath. He slayed the multinationals that went for the 1996 licence, and has since then delivered a severe drubbing to Eircom, Cable Wireless, O’Reilly and, more recently, the tribunal itself.
Where does he get the energy and drive? He flies around the world in his Gulfstream jet, maintaining relations with his family and contact with his wide circle of managers and advisors while managing his huge range of business and other interests. If there is a surprise in this book for a reporter who has watched O’Brien for the past decade, it is in the extent to which he micromanages. According to Creaton, he arrives like a whirlwind at his various Digicel operations, reviews their work, heads off on tangents and frequently tears strips off people he has known and worked with for decades.
Many of those who have been able to stay with him have been richly rewarded. Also, and to his huge credit, O’Brien has created an international network of Irish management expertise and provided lessons in entrepreneurial ambition for two or more generations of Irish businesspeople following in his wake.
From an Irish public-policy point of view his compulsion to micromanage is important. O’Brien is not only powerful because of his wealth; he is powerful because of his media interests. He owns Newstalk, Today FM, 98FM and two local radio stations. He is the largest shareholder in INM – he lost about €500 million when the company’s share price collapsed – and in time may control the newspaper group the way O’Reilly once did.
This reporter can attest to the way INM coverage of O’Brien’s dealings with the tribunal changed radically, back and forth, depending on who was, or was perceived as likely to be, in the driving seat at INM.
Creaton’s book makes it clear that O’Brien’s personality fills his business empire just the way it filled George’s Hall when he was in the witness box. He is already an enormous background presence in much of our media, and will be more so if, or when, he gains control of INM.
That alone is a good reason to read this well-researched and honest book. But it is in any case a fast-paced and fascinating read. O’Brien’s energy and pace force their way into the narrative and make you turn the pages, wondering all the time about his compulsion to accumulate and to succeed, and his extraordinary success in doing so.
Colm Keena is the Irish TimesPublic Affairs Correspondent and covers the Moriarty Tribunal