Entertainment Books

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Review: A Mobile Fortune; The Life and Times of Denis O'Brien

How one wishes one had been there to see it. Conor Lenihan, now a government minister, was working as a senior executive for businessman Denis O'Brien, and there was a row.

"I had a temper tantrum and we both shouted and screamed at each other," Lenihan says in this book about one of the contenders for the hotly disputed title of Ireland's most controversial businessman.

"I walked out and went down the street and he (O'Brien) came running after me and pinned me up against a Georgian railing," Lenihan recalls.

"He pleaded with me not to leave him now and invoked loyalty and friendship and a hundred different things if I'd stay. I said I would stay if his behaviour changed. In fairness to Denis, he was always ready and willing to entertain a behaviour change if that was what was required to keep you."

In many ways, this is a book about behaviour. Siobhán Creaton has a knack for making a pacey read out of big business dealings. This is also a fascinating study of the psychology of an extraordinary individual. I do not know Denis O'Brien, but many aspects of his character fit in with the really successful builders of business I have met.

They do tend to run to type. There is relentless energy, enthusiasm and optimism. There is the ability to see opportunities before others do -- in some cases, as with O'Brien's failed TV shopping channel, to see them too soon. There is a hugely competitive streak. And there is rampant insecurity, which no amount of success, friendship or loyalty can ever assuage.

Money -- and O'Brien is reputed to be worth €2.5bn -- is not the motive. Those who merely want to get rich usually come a cropper in the end.

"I am not driven to make more and more money -- it happens on the way. I spend my time thinking of ways to create a downfall for my competitor -- particularly if they are big," O'Brien is quoted as saying, in what may be one of the most illuminating of many illuminating quotes in this book.

His eye for the opportunities to be extracted from comfortable incumbents; whether Eircom, the ESB, Cable & Wireless in the West Indies -- and he would say Independent News & Media -- is shared by that other great enigma of Irish business, Dermot Desmond.

But whereas Desmond famously keeps his own counsel, O'Brien says what he thinks, in no uncertain terms, when he feels he wants to. His public altercations with the tribunal headed by High Court judge Michael Moriarty are unprecedented.

That tribunal's inquiry into the awarding of the mobile phone licence which really made O'Brien's fortune is the vortex around which most of the publicity and speculation about O'Brien has swirled. Creaton wisely sticks to the established facts, although little enough has actually been established.

It looks more and more like it may never be. The tribunal has run into serious procedural difficulties, which give some support to O'Brien's persistent complaints about its operations.

In another unusual approach, he revealed the "devastating" unpublished draft findings from Moriarty, which claimed to find corrupt dealings in the awarding of the licence.

No newspaper or broadcaster would have dared to say such a thing, based on unpublished findings, but they could draw conclusions from the O'Brien revelations. He even had his own website on the tribunal. Ironically, the final findings, if any, could be very different, and much less "devastating".

Creaton does paint a graphic picture of O'Brien's dealings with the tribunal, especially his appearances in the witness box. Unlike many other tycoons, he found it difficult to maintain a smooth exterior in public, as he raged against a process he despised but could not control.

"He does not trust the process," she quotes his friend, lawyer Paul Meagher. "He doesn't trust anybody in it, and in particular he has no time for lawyers, including myself. He holds them in contempt at this stage."

It is not at all clear where this hyper-sensitivity originates from. Many of the 80 people interviewed for the book pay tribute to his charm. His charitable efforts are generous and impressive, in particular the Special Olympics.

Unlike many successful people, childhood was financially comfortable, and the book paints an attractive picture of both his parents. Yet O'Brien comes across in the book as extraordinarily thin-skinned by any standards. Perhaps it is nature more than nurture.

He was known as Denis the Menace in childhood for his endless getting into scrapes. He narrowly escaped expulsion from school just before sitting his Leaving; although his offence -- borrowing a car and tracing a figure of eight on the snow-covered football field -- should perhaps have provoked a better-humoured response.

One gets the impression that his father, Denis Sr, was more of an influence than the book explicitly acknowledges. He was a successful businessman in his own right and Denis Jr seems to have followed his advice on how to pursue his career to a remarkable degree. The desire to please an impressive father can be a powerful spur.

He then found a mentor who may have suited his instinctive style in the shape of the late Tony Ryan, founder of the GPA aviation leasing company and, indirectly, of Ryanair. O'Brien had what was probably the most thankless task of all -- personal secretary to the terrifying Ryan -- and would have sat in on many "seagull meetings", where Ryan "swoops in, shits on everyone from a height, and swoops out again".

There was some fun when this way of doing things came up against the reserved Jamaicans, as O'Brien launched his daring bid to become the mobile phone operator on the island.

"They were shocked to hear people swearing round the office and found that hard to bear," says one of his local executives. "The Irish also had major issues with our physical interaction as Jamaicans, which is a lot more touchy-feely."

One can imagine. But there was cultural harmony in the end.

"What we have now is cursing sexual innuendos as everyday parlance," explains another.

In fact, O'Brien's assault on the dominant, complacent relic of colonial rule, the Cable & Wireless telecoms giant, is one of the best bits of the book. Perhaps people are more willing to talk about the West Indies.

This search for clues about O'Brien, his methods and his motives is, of course, of particular interest to anyone who works for Independent Newspapers. He has been a trenchant -- to put it mildly -- critic of the newspapers' coverage of his affairs. We are not alone -- he would refer to the "Sunday Anti-Business Post" -- but he is a major shareholder in the group.

Readers who did not follow the battle between O'Brien and Sir Anthony O'Reilly quite as closely as we did, will learn a great deal about that extraordinary clash of big beasts, as O'Brien spent more than €500m buying almost a fifth of the group. As elsewhere in the book, the research is prodigious, but one can detect when people clam up -- in this case, on the terms of the uneasy truce which ensued.

That story is far from finished, and the questions behind it remain unanswered. Why did O'Brien spend so much on this venture? Did he see it as a profitable investment? Or was it to do down a rival who had bested him before? Was it to use Independent Newspapers as a vehicle to promote his opinions and interests?

All newspaper owners do that to some extent, but it is the extent which matters. The book is not encouraging in this regard. His friend and business adviser Paul Connolly, who was brought back from exile to deal with the INM stock-building, says "hate" is not too strong a word for O'Brien's attitude to O'Reilly.

"Journalists know what keeps the boss happy. They know the way the (INM) stable is being run," he says.

This book certainly tells them how O'Brien thinks it is being run and, probably, how he thinks it ought to be run.

Buy 'A Mobile Fortune; The Life and Times of Denis O'Brien' from Eason

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