Monday 19 November 2018

O'Brien makes money and loses friends

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

DENIS O'BRIEN is a man with very deep pockets. When one of his companies needs a loan they don't always have to go down on their knees to the bank manager, they just give Denis a call and he gets out the chequebook.

Recently filed results for his Irish-based company Commincorp Group reveal that he made "a non-interest-bearing loan with no specific date for repayment" to the company of ?6.7m up to the end of 2003.

Of course, to the telecoms and radio billionaire who made his first fortune out of a bargain basement mobile licence in Ireland, this may just be loose change.

He made a ?318m fortune largely thanks to the way the one-time Minister for Communications, Michael Lowry, and his department sold off Ireland's first commercial mobile telephone licence - they capped the price rather than selling it to the highest bidder. Now he's in the process of making another vast fortune out in the far-flung islands of the Caribbean.

Joining him as a director of Communicorp Ltd is one Elizabeth Monica O'Donnell, who is otherwise known as Liz O'Donnell, the Progressive Democrat TD and former Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Liz O'Donnell insists there could be no "conflict of interest" in her position as a Government TD and a ?30,000-a-year director of the major media company.

Denis O'Brien, who failed in the High Court last week to stop the Moriarty tribunal investigating the alleged involvement of Michael Lowry in his (Denis O'Brien's) purchase of the obscure English football club, Doncaster Rovers, has a habit of garnering influential people.

But he isn't always good at keeping them as friends as he expands his interests in Ireland, eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

His empire is now divided into two distinct entities.

Communicorp Group runs Denis O'Brien's radio empire, which is based on 98FM in Dublin, a number of commercial radio stations in the Czech Republic and a share in, among other things, the heavily loss-making talk station Newstalk 106 in Dublin.

Digicel Ltd, which is registered in Bermuda, a country with no capital gains tax, controls O'Brien's interestin mobile telephone franchises right across the Caribbean islands.

O'Brien has always been a brash marketeer. His seizure of the sponsorship of theWest Indian cricket team helped propel Digicel intothe market leader position in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad.

The row over how his company acquired the sponsorship is still rumbling on.

But his decision to pay Eamon Dunphy ?400,000 a year for a morning audience of 24,000 on Newstalk looks like bad value - despite the publicity value. Other Dublin stations which pay a pittance to presenters by comparison are drawing far bigger audiences for a fraction of the price. O'Brien is smart enough to know that if Newstalk 106 is ever to have any chance of making real money, he needs to get its licence extended into a national franchise. This would open up the station to the audiences and advertising it needs.

But Newstalk, where O'Brien has a 46 per cent interest, is an important part of the group, despite stated plans to expand further in eastern Europe. Turnover in its Irish operation is over ?11m, while the 'rest of Europe' contributes ?7.1m to its coffers.

Just as O'Brien's licenceacquisition in Ireland would become the subject of some controversy and investigation by the Moriarty tribunal, so his seemingly effortless empire-building in the Caribbean has led to fiercelycombative relations withhis competitors.

Last month, a magistrate in the small island state of Antigua was asked to examine a ?15,700 payment by Digicel to Dean Jonas, a former telecoms adviser to the administration there. Mr Jonas had supported Digicel's application for a mobile phone licence, while at the same time getting financial backing from a Digicel foundation for what Jonas says was furniture for a non-profit making school run by him and his wife.

Digicel paid for furniture worth $17,000 in the United States and topped it up with another $2,000 to have it transported to Antigua. The money came through the Digicel Foundation, which has a budget of $75,000 a year and aids charitable causes in countries where Digicel has mobile phone operations.

Among the colourful associates he has recruited to work with him in the Caribbean is the controversial former Dublin publisher Mike Hogan, a friend of the Haughey family, who recently split up with his wife, public relations woman Mari O'Leary. O'Brien recently head-hunted Stephen Brewer, another high-profile operator, who ran Eircell in Ireland and was known for squiring lovely ladies around town. He later went to Jamaica, where he worked for Digicel's fierce competitor, the conglomerate Cable & Wireless.

There are no shortage of people who have fallen out with Denis O'Brien.

Although the Norwegian telecom firm Telenor financed the fledgling Esat, he later fell out with them when they wanted to buy his company. He didn't think they were paying enough and said so in colourful terms.

He also managed to fall out with his one-time business associate Barry Maloney over what was said as they jogged together in the Wicklow mountains. Mr Maloney gave evidence that Mr O'Brien told him he gave ?100,000 to Michael Lowry. But later, Mr O'Brien came to him and said, in an unsolicited conversation, "Thank God I didn't do it," in relation to the alleged ?100,000 payment. Mr O'Brien said the remark was bravado and that they often "bullshitted" each other. He also narrowly avoided a juicy High Court action earlier this year with one-time U2 accountant Ossie Kilkenny, who has interests in commercial radio himself.

Ironically, before they fell out, it was Ossie Kilkenny who brought Denis O'Brien on board for one of his finer moments, as chairman of Special Olympics Ireland. O'Brien accepted the position on the morning of the Irish bid.

Kilkenny, who started out as accountant to Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats and almost cornered the market as Dublin's entertainment accountant, said that during a business trip to the United States in 1999 he met an executive from Clico, a company interested in bidding for a mobile licence in Trinidad and looking for a suitable partner who knew the business.

When he came back to Ireland he felt Esat would be a "perfect fit", and a joint venture was formed to pursue the licence. Mr Kilkenny invested $6m himself and got a 20 per cent stake in the business.

With another associate of Denis O'Brien's, Leslie Buckley, who has a small share, Digicel was formed after they got the licence in Jamaica and began to acquire licences in various other Caribbean states. The arrangement worked well for two years, but then began to unravel.

Mr Kilkenny claimed earlier this year that he had a 13.5 per cent beneficial interest in Digicel, while Mr O'Brien claimed that the two businessmen had concluded a settlement on October 23, 2001. Much to most observers' disappointment the case only lasted for 10 minutes before lawyers for the two men withdrew to conclude a deal. The settlement terms remain secret, but the speculation is that Mr Kilkenny walked away with a huge multiple of his original investment.

But such battles are common for the debonair telecoms billionaire, who seems to garner newspaper headlines rather like the rest of us take a social aperitif.

After the sale of Esat he saved ?55m in taxes by moving from Dublin to the Portuguese resort Quinta Do Lago, which he owns and which remains his address.

However, in keeping with his new-found status he had also purchased a ?7m four-storey mansion on Raglan Road in Dublin 4. The Revenue Commissioners claimed this was his 'principal residence' for tax purposes. It was only after he proved he couldn't live there because it didn't have a kitchen that they relented.

Last week's High Court decision allowing the Moriarty tribunal to continue its tedious probe into the sale of Doncaster Rovers sent a collective groan through the higher echelons of government. The decision is likely to further prolong the workings of the tribunal by at least a year and could lead to further legal action by the testy businessman, who is now likely to go to the Supreme Court.

But while he may still get the occasional pinprick from the authorities at homeit seems nothing can stopthe rise of Denis O'Brien. According to media reports, Digicel is worth about ?1bn and the Irish businessman is laughing all the way to another tax-free fortune.

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