Business World

Sunday 22 October 2017

O'Brien rings the changes in mobile phone advertising

The Digicel tycoon talked of future expansion and past business lessons at the Global Innovation Forum

Denis O'Brien
Denis O'Brien

Tom Lyons

Denis O'Brien, the billionaire entrepreneur, sits down on the podium of Athgo's 5th Global Innovation Forum at the World Bank's headquarters in Washington in relaxed form.

Preceding him as a speaker to an audience of young international business leaders was Paul Kagame, the man who led the rebel force that ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide before becoming the country's president.

O'Brien, who has in the past himself been described as a rebel, is happy to take time to field questions on his plans for his Digicel Group mobile phone empire as well as the lessons from his business career.

O'Brien said a big area of expansion for Digicel would be to ramp up revenue from mobile phone advertising from zero to $100m within three years. Digicel's chairman said he told an unnamed senior female executive to achieve this figure only two weeks ago. "I said in three years' time we want to get to $100m," O'Brien recounted to his audience. "She said: 'The customer experience ... they don't want to get advertising.'"

The executive suggested to O'Brien instead setting up an innovation group to explore how to do it.

"You are in your arse, I said, an innovation group is nonsense," O'Brien recalled. "I want a revenue group not an innovation group. Innovation is kind of a bucket where good people, dreamers, fantasists all go into unless you get the person and shake them by the neck and say: 'Revenue. Forget about the word innovation. Revenue.'"

O'Brien also spoke of his plans for Myanmar (Burma), where last week a Digicel-led consortium said it would invest $9bn in rolling out a mobile phone network there if its bid for one of two mobile phone licences is successful.

"Myanmar has 63 million people," O'Brien said. "It is a game changer. We have put a lot of effort into it. It is a big stretch. It is ambitious but you have to jump for the ball when the ball is coming through the air."

Digicel, which has 13 million customers, has teamed up with George Soros's Quantum Strategic Partners and YSH Finance, a company backed by Serge Pun, a local businessman.

O'Brien said Digicel had put a "hard circle" around how much it planned to invest in Myanmar. "We have very good partners so we have shared the risk. If a country doesn't work out for us it doesn't sink the ship. That is a really important thing," he said.

O'Brien said the biggest thing he learned from first launching Digicel in Jamaica was how to treat his customers. "The big mistake people make in emerging markets is to treat customers badly. 'It'll do.' 'That'll be OK.' The best thing that we did was say: 'Hey, these guys are as good as a British customer, a German customer, an American customer.'"

O'Brien, who is the largest shareholder in Independent News & Media, cited his father Denis O'Brien Senior and Tony Ryan, the late founder of Ryanair, as two of his business mentors. He described Ryan as a "hound for detail" when he worked for him as his personal assistant when a young man. "It was a nightmare but great training," he said. O'Brien said the same principles applied whether running a small business or a company of 10,000 people.

"It is all about pushing accountability. Everybody must know all the way down through the chain, they have got to deliver, they have got to deliver," O'Brien said.

Asked what happened when they did not, he said: "We are not a hire and fire organisation. You train them to death nearly until they just say: 'Hey I am going to deliver.' It is about making sure everybody knows what they have to do."

O'Brien said he would not like to be starting off again from scratch in business at 24. "It was just very hard. You make mistakes in trusting some people who maybe let you down, but that is always going to happen in life. People join you and then they might go and steal your idea, but that is just the way it is.

"I wouldn't like to be 25 again as just the stress of it ... I ran out of money five or six times and it was like living on the edge of a cliff on the West of Ireland. You are all the time nearly going over the cliff because there is no money.

"The quicker you get inland the better, and it took me a long time to get off the cliff."

With a fortune estimated at €3.8bn and rising, the cliff is receding ever further, but O'Brien never gives the sense he has forgotten it is there.

Irish Independent

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