Review: A Mobile Fortune: The Life and Times of Denis O'Brien by Siobhan Creaton
Aurum Press, €15.99
IONCE had the pleasure of seeing Denis O'Brien speak live on stage to almost 1,000 people and it was a memorable experience.
He was named Business Person of the Year at the Business and Finance awards in 2007 and Peter Sutherland was given a Life Time Achievement award. Both men were genuinely grateful for the honours and gave long speeches which were utterly compelling, insightful and assured. But whereas Sutherland was reflective and philosophical -- the first Lisbon Treaty vote was in the balance -- the ebullient O'Brien had an edgy humour. He opened by welcoming us to the venue, O'Reilly Hall in UCD -- "and can't you feel the chill factor already". Cue a round of nervous laughter from the assembled audience.
What struck me about these speeches is how absent such people are from our political or cultural life: inspirational, driven and full of energy and with an utter sense of the possible. Years later, I saw O'Brien on TV, in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, explaining to Charlie Bird on the RTE news what needed to be done to rebuild the country where he had invested so much of his business. But the interview provoked at least three different journalists to protest about the airtime O'Brien was getting. It showed an extraordinary begrudgery about our business people. It is also showed no sensitivity to the actual concerns of the Haitians themselves but then that would be par for the course with such point-scoring by far-away pundits back in Ireland. No wonder O'Brien has chosen to live in sunny Portugal. If this was a politician or a poet or sportsperson, we would have been happy to see them on the TV talking about Haiti. But because it was a major business tycoon, there seems to have been a problem. This is despite the fact that O'Brien is one of the biggest investors in the impoverished island, and as this book makes clear, had been working with Bill Clinton on a development plan for the island "long before it was devastated by an earthquake".
It is one of the ironies of our recent history that despite having a much-vaunted Celtic Tiger, there is still this lingering distrust of business culture and outright entrepreneurs. We have slid back to the old negativity. It is not helped, of course, by the banking crisis, and the excesses of some of our property developers, but it is possibly more ingrained than that. In our deluge of self laceration, we have decided to ignore the huge leaps forward made by this country in the past 10 years, not least in the crucial development of can-do confidence. O'Brien encapsulates this and is its most visible proponent. He is not a banker, or a property developer, but an investor and an entrepreneur. He has sold mobile phone networks into some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world, places where his business has been greatly welcomed, and where he participates in the local communities. Many of those who have worked with him have became very wealthy in the process, and this book is particularly strong on those close associates who have travelled with him, many of them representing the best values of the Celtic Tiger.
Theirs is not a life style ethic for all of us, and the book describes the punishing work rate and demands made by O'Brien who is hands-on about everything, who micro manages and doesn't brook opposition. But then, as is repeatedly made clear, if people don't like it, they can always get off the roundabout and settle for a softer, easier job somewhere else. And there are many who do this. And there are many fallings out, not least with the Norwegians, Esat's original partners Telenor, and more surprisingly, some of the erstwhile American partners, who were apparently used to a more traditional business style.
O'Brien's beginnings were modest and difficult, not in terms of his background which is a conventional south Dublin upbringing, but in his actual business efforts, as he sought to break down the monopoly of RTE with 98FM, and then the monopoly of Telecom Eireann with Esat. He was a risk-taker, who always believed that just around round the corner all the hard work would pay off, and the companies would start to make a profit. Eventually they did, but it was touch and go for long periods.
Siobhan Creaton's book has a straightforward style which makes it all the more effective, as it relates the extraordinary struggles and eventually some of the eye-watering sums. If it seems repetitious at times in stressing the endless demands of the workaholic O'Brien, this is because those demands were endless and repetitious. And yet while almost all of those she interviewed stressed O'Brien's combative personality, they also described his big-hearted quality, his generosity, loyalty and his very Irish emphasis on making sure to have the craic. Of course, lucrative share options also help.
One funny encounter has O'Brien entice a chap down to Jamaica to "look at something". After a few days, the man wondered when he was going to get out. "What are you going home for?" said O'Brien "Sure you've only just got here." Eventually, he brought his girlfriend down and they happily settled in, first in luxurious St Lucia, and then in more challenging Jamaica. Among his closest associates are the "rat pack" of rugger buggers that O'Brien has been with since his student days. In college, he says, you see the "cut of a man".
The networks in the Caribbean, and later the movement into Central America, represent the most interesting part of the book. There is also much on O'Brien's support for charities and human rights causes, partly inspired by his mother, an activist who used to protest outside the US Embassy in support of the Nicaragua's Sandinistas. O'Brien mentions this to President Daniel Ortega while he's investing there, and Ortega signs her a picture, "Greetings to a fellow revolutionary". A big supporter of Amnesty International, O'Brien has specifically funded its Front Line service for the protection of human rights activists. He was also, of course, chairman of the Special Olympics held in Dublin in 2003, for which he received credit.
But some cynically said that this was a convenient distraction from the Moriarty Tribunal, which was examining some of his business dealings. And of course, O'Brien has obsessed about the tribunal, probably too much. Given the length of time it has taken this absurdly expensive process to come to any conclusions, he could safely have ignored its torturous ramblings for years and even decades. However, he went to war with it, in a way that many without his money or willpower couldn't. He was also understandably angry at the way the tribunal operates, not as a court of law, but a forum where allegations can hang around, unchallenged and unproven for years. However, whatever its conclusions, O'Brien has certainly scored a major hit on the tribunal itself, with revelations about its delays, costs and, most startling, mistakes made in the gathering of evidence.
Creaton also deals with O'Brien's aggressive buying into the shareholding of Independent News and Media, and on this it is a shame that the matter developed into such a personal struggle between O'Brien and Sir Anthony O'Reilly, two genuine Irish tycoons and employers, although the situation has since become more harmonious. More surprising, and amusing, was the way O'Brien also bought into Aer Lingus to prevent Ryanair's Michael O'Leary from taking it over, and creating a monopoly, a move which delighted the trade unions.
In one sense, O'Leary and O'Brien are very similar: ambitious, driven individuals who have empowered millions with their products, one with cheap air travel and the other with mobile phones. But what the two also share in common is a crucial mentor in the late Tony Ryan, a hard taskmaster, who had the young O'Brien taking instructions in the back of his car at 7am in Limerick. They may be "their own men", but such entrepreneurs usually pay tribute to their mentors and elders, as O'Brien does about Ryan, and as he did that memorable night at the Business and Finance Awards, when he spoke about Peter Sutherland beside him. Would that such people were more central in our political life, especially at this time of crisis, but this is not the case, alas, and it seems that we are all the poorer for it.