Saturday 20 October 2018

From bell boy to billionaire, O'Brien had real business flair

Edel Kennedy

HE showed a flair for hard work and business acumen from an early age. Billionaire Denis O'Brien first began earning money at the age of 14 when he was paid IR£7 a week -- plus tips -- as a bell boy in the Central Hotel in Dublin.

At 15, he was spending his school holidays power hosing grimy buildings in England and while studying for the Leaving Cert in the Pre-University Centre (PUC), he wangled a contract to clean the school for IR£18 a week.

Born in Cork, in April 1958, he was part of a family of two boys and two girls.

Brought up in Dublin's Ballsbridge, he was educated at the fee-paying High School in Rathgar. He was eventually suspended after driving his mother's Renault 4 in a figure of eight in the snow on a cricket field.

But his sporting prowess meant that he was welcomed back to the school after three months so that he could take part in a rugby championship.

Mr O'Brien inherited his entrepreneurial skill from his father and he used his time away from school to accompany his father on trips selling the equine drugs his father's company made. As a young man, Mr O'Brien learned how to "sell and to present" on these trips.

"He instilled in me that the market is not Ireland, you've got to get out into the world," he once said of his father.

In 1982 he graduated from UCD with a BA in history and politics and a favourable letter from former Fine Gael senator Maurice Manning then helped secure him a scholarship to do an MBA at Boston College.

Mr Manning later said that although Mr O'Brien "wouldn't have been the sharpest" person in the class, he made up for that with his "infectious enthusiasm".

Mr O'Brien's first job after leaving university was as an assistant manager of Trinity Bank, a small Dublin merchant bank, at an annual salary of IR£10,000.

He left in 1982 when he wrote to Dr Tony Ryan, the founder of Shannon-based aircraft leasing group GPA, asking for a job. Aged 24 he became Dr Ryan's PA and it was his first introduction to the international world of business. At the time GPA was the biggest owner of large commercial aircraft in the world.

After a failed attempt to bid for the one national radio slot available under the 1988 Broadcasting Act, he turned his attention to TV.

In 1989, the Satellite Shop got backing from Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television and the Grattan clothing group -- but the UK TV shopping channel closed 18 months later.

He then turned his attention to the crowded Dublin radio sector, targeting the 25-to45-year-old market.

His station, Classic Hits 98FM -- now 98FM -- went on to become one of Dublin's most popular stations.

He has grown his radio empire in Ireland to include controlling interests in Newstalk, Today FM, Spin 103.8, and Donegal-based Highland Radio.

He is also the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media (INM), the Irish company which owns the Irish Independent, 'Sunday Independent', 'Sunday World', 'Evening Herald', 'Belfast Telegraph' and various Irish local newspapers, as well as many other print and radio interests internationally.

Mr O'Brien expanded the same radio format across Eastern Europe and the Communicorp group now operates 42 radio stations across nine countries.

He set up the Esat Telecom Group (ESAT) in 1991 and the company was awarded Ireland's second mobile phone licence in 1996. It was the awarding of this licence which was examined by the Moriarty Tribunal.

He sold the company to British Telecom in 2000 and netted himself €317m. Before the sale he changed his country of residence from Ireland to Portugal, which does not charge capital gains tax. Mr O'Brien is currently a tax resident in Malta.

The year after selling ESAT, he set up Digicel Group Limited, targeting Jamaica. In its first 100 days, the company signed up 100,000 customers on the Caribbean island. It then moved on to other islands including Antigua, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this month, Digicel sold its businesses in Honduras and El Salvador to the world's richest man, Mexican Carlo Slim.

Earlier this month, Mr O'Brien was named as the 254th richest person in the world by 'Forbes' magazine, which said he was worth $4.2bn (€2.95bn).

Mr O'Brien is a legendary sports fan and pays half the salary of Ireland football manager Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as owning a 2.8pc stake in Glasgow Celtic.

He has also been active with a number of charities and in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake he donated $5m for the relief effort.

In 2000 he set up the Iris O'Brien Foundation -- named after his mother -- and up until last March it had received a total income of almost €15.5m, with nearly €15.4m going on charitable expenditure.

Mr O'Brien was 39 when he got married in August 1997 to Catherine Walsh, from Dundrum, who had helped set up his Prague radio station and previously headed up the marketing arm of Independent Radio Sales. The couple have four children.

Irish Independent

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