Businessman Denis O’Brien (61) first made his fortune in 2000 when he sold his Esat Telecom business to British Telecom Group for €2.4bn.
But his real cash cow has been Digicel, the telecoms business he brought to the Caribbean and South Pacific. Between 2012 and 2014, he received dividends totalling $1.1bn from the company.
Back in 2015, the day after he decided to pull a proposed $2bn (€1.81bn) IPO of Digicel, he told a reporter from CNBC he was feeling “very happy” with his decision.
“Why would you sell your front garden when you know it’s worth a lot of money and why would you sell at a discount?” he said. Few would agree with that call now.
Today Digicel — and O’Brien’s — most pressing issue is dealing with its debts of close to $7bn, with bonds worth €1.3bn due to mature in April 2021. Last year Digicel succeeded in restructuring $3bn worth of debt due in 2020 and 2022 after some very tough negotiations with bondholders.
Aside from Digicel, O’Brien has several other business and property interests, including the PGA Catalunya and Quinta do Lago resorts on the Iberian peninsula. O’Brien owns the Beacon Hospital in Dublin and the four-star Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara. He is personally investing up to $450m in a new venture, Deep Blue Cable, a network of undersea fibre optic cables linking dozens of countries in the Caribbean.
He also has radio interests which began with his winning of the licence for 98FM, which he launched in 1989. It is now part of his Communicorp group, which also includes Today FM, Newstalk and Spin 1038. He has lent the business close to €100m over the years.
O’Brien was the largest shareholder in Independent News & Media, publisher of this newspaper and others, but sold out to Belgian media group Mediahuis last year, crystalising a loss of over €450m.
Born in Cork, he grew up in Dublin and attended the High School in Rathgar, Dublin and later UCD. Early in his career, he worked for GPA boss and Ryanair co-founder, Tony Ryan. He is now tax resident in Malta but owns a home in Dublin 4.
O’Brien has made some very profitable exits in recent years — in 2015, he sold forecourt chain Topaz, receiving €258m in cash from a Canadian company, Couche Tard and he made an estimated €30m on the sale of the LXV building on the site of the former Canada House on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. His Quinta do Lago resort in Portugal, which he bought for about €31m in 1998, is valued at over €220m. He owns Actavo, formerly known as Siteserv.
His preferred mode of international travel is a $70m Gulfstream G650, one of the world’s most sought-after executive jets. Last September a number of people were injured when his superyacht Nero was undergoing maintenance work in the Italian port city of Genoa and tilted to one side.
The businessman has significant philanthropic interests. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti — a key market for Digicel — he funded the restoration of Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market and his Digicel Foundation has built 150 schools. O’Brien is a strong supporter of the Special Olympics and for a time, paid the wages of the Republic of Ireland football team manager.