The man who makes millionaires
This week Denis O'Brien, the enfant entrepreneur with the cherubic smile, was on cloud nine. With the sale of Esat to BT, he made millions for his director colleagues and hundreds of millions for himself. Justine McCarthy on what makes the boy wonder tick
Picture the bleakness of the Wicklow wilderness. It is mid-winter and deathly silent, the mountains and valleys long since abandoned by summer hikers. The air shivers over Lough Dan. Two figures appear in the distance, halos billowing from their breath. They start running around the lake's vast perimeter, their stride crunching the frosty undergrowth. They come to a river that cascades into the lake. The men peel off their clothes and plunge into the icy water. With strong strokes, they swim to the other side, climb onto the bank and resume running for several more miles until they complete the length and breadth of Lough Dan.
Are they lunatics? Clinically, no, though there was a time when some might have said one of them was quite mad. This week, he became a millionaire more than 220 times over and created 13 other millionaires in the process. Now anyone who once thought him mad hails him as a genius.
Denis O'Brien and his best friend, Paul Meagher, think of their weekend endurance exercise as their own Krypton Factor. The name was inspired by a television game show in the 1980s when competitors were set near death-defying challenges to test their courage. Skirting Lough Dan in a January blizzard would have been a breeze to Denis O'Brien's father, a champion high diver who used to hit the water at 38-miles-an-hour at Blackrock Baths and famously launched himself off the sheerest cliffs in Acapulco at the height of his athletic prowess.
The hunger for challenge seems to be a genetic predisposition in the O'Brien make-up. Denis Junior has run marathons in New York, Berlin and Boston. He swam the Liffey 10 years ago in a charity event for the Sudden Infant Death Association. When he briefly worked as a wine waiter in Dobbins bistro, a temperamental chef flung a knife at him in a rage. At the tender age of five, remembers his father, known as Danno in his diving days, little Denis arrived home from his first day at school minus a sleeve of his pristine new blazer.
``He's a fearless character,'' says friend and former employee Conor Lenihan, the Fianna Fail backbencher.
That derring-do is what has made Denis O'Brien the biggest success of his Celtic tiger generation - not the lacklustre academic record which included failing his Leaving Cert maths, not once but twice. A well-to-do Ballsbridge upbringing, fee-paying education and ready access to influential society helped, of course. Others, though, had the same advantages and slunk as easily into obscurity. Denis O'Brien, on the other hand, went out and boldly took on the status quo. When broadcasting was deregulated, he built a radio station. When telecommunications followed suit, he built a phone company. Next, he intends doing the same with electricity by building a power plant in Cork, his father's home county. ``Incumbent monopolies are his favourite breakfast, lunch and dinner,'' confirms his Wicklow running partner and personal solicitor, Paul Meagher. ``He loves a risk. Skiing is a good example of that. We go skiing once a year and he'd literally go over a cliff without knowing what's on the other side. I know because I've been with him when he's done it.''
Five years ago, the urban buccaneer was talking about Ireland as ``the last Communist state left in Europe'' and exhorting his audience to ``push some rather fat cuckoos out of their too cosy nests.'' He was the little guy taking on the Establishment; the people's David squaring up to Big Brother's Goliath. As a marketing concept, it was a Ryanair-derivative stroke of genius - a sort of good Samaritan business idea designed to make life better for the masses.
Growing up in Anglesea Road with his two sisters and younger brother, Denis took his turn every month at delivering the Saturday after-dinner speech at the family table, a fixture devised by Danno, the Roman Catholic son of Kerry and Tipperary parents, and Iris, the daughter of county Antrim Anglicans from Tandragee. That philosophy of sharpening their children's faculties has resulted in a family of high achievers. One daughter, Abigail, is an artist with a piece of work on permanent display in the National Gallery. The other daughter, Joanne, a press photographer in London, has collaborated on a book examining Irish emigration in the 1940s. The youngest son, Kerry, is studying for a master's degree at London Business School.
When Denis went to UCD to study history and politics after failing to get onto the commerce course because of his maths history, he bought the salvage rights from his mother to her Citroen Dyane which had inadvertently slid into a river. He rebuilt the runabout and sold it at a profit. It was the start of a sideline business that kept him in pin money at Belfield.
``I liked him,'' recalls his university lecturer, Senator Maurice Manning. ``I saw leadership qualities in him. He had infectious enthusiasm. Academically, he wouldn't have been the sharpest but he was the natural leader in his class.'' When Maurice Manning contested a general election in Dublin North East, Denis O'Brien tramped the hustings with him in Donaghmede. ``He was good on the doorstep. He's a born salesman.''
It was the Fine Gael senator who penned the glowing reference that secured him a place in Boston College for a master's degree in business administration.
Contacts have been cruical in the life of Denis O'Brien. He is close to such business giants as Dermot Desmond, Ray McLaughlin and Tony Ryan, for whom he worked as his personal assistant. The political powerhouse, PJ Mara, is part of the inner sanctum, as was Seamus Gallagher, a scion of the Gallagher constuction dyansty. The young Denis O'Brien was devastated by his death in the early 1990s. When Esat won the phone license during Michael Lowry's tenure, there were rumblings about an unnecessary urgency attaching to the matter but the procedure has been investigated four times and nothing untoward has been proven. In fact, £2 million had been spent on preparing the Esat application as 40 people worked full time in a secret office swept every two days for listening bugs.
``Nobody knows how he votes,'' says Conor Lenihan.
Last Saturday, just three days before the announcement of his historic deal with British Telecom, Denis O'Brien whiled away the afternoon shooting pheasant and duck in the Nore Valley with friends. One of the party was Philip Lynch, group managing director of IAWS. ``He never breathed a word of what was coming. He's a true blue when it comes to being a public company,'' he said. ``I got a phone call from the States after the news broke and the guy on the phone told me Denis is now Mister-Walk-On-Water over there, that if he asked for $20 billion he'd get it. His credibility is so high there. He went out on a solo mission and said `I'm going to get the licence. I want money.' And he got it.''
Some who have watched his progress from the sidelines believe he calculatedly develops personal friendships with people who may prove useful to him. They point to associates like the former secretary of the Taoiseach's department, Padraig O hUiginn, and Conor Lenihan who continues to advise Esat Digifone and who registered a donation from Denis O'Brien in his Dail returns to the annual declaration of interests. Similarily, those who are suspicious of his impressive connections see his palpable self-belief as insufferable arrogance. ``He has a Far Eastern capacity to separate the business from the personal,'' conceded an admirer. A plank of the burgeoning legend is that he once sued the father of a young woman he was dating.
The detractors, however, are few. In the future, sociologists may look back to the mega-million Esat deal and the dearth of begrudgery as the first sign of a new national mindset. Even taxi drivers have been slapping their steering wheels all week long and pronouncing: ``Good on him. I hope he enjoys it.''
Denis O'Brien may be a budding brand name in itself but that was not so 10 years ago. After graduating from Boston, he took up a job with Trinity Bank, a small merchant outfit in Dublin. But he packed that in when he was told to go forth and repossess capital on bad debts. So he sat down and wrote a letter to Tony Ryan in GPA asking for a job, as you would. The Tipperary entrepreneur made him his PA, based at his farm with a special brief to look after his satellite businesses, including Matt The Thresher's Pub in Birdhill. The time coincided with Tony Ryan's investment in the Sunday Tribune and his PA teased out the challenges of newspaper publishing, in broad, abstruse terms, in his spare time.
No longer content to watch others building empires, he decided it was time to lay his own foundations. His father, Denis Senior, who had been general manager of a major pharmaceutical company by the age of 28, was now running his own business, making nutritional supplements for racehorses in Clonee, County Meath, and exporting them to 36 countries.
His son came on board as a salesman, snapping up the cheapest bucket seats crossing the Atlantic, renting the smallest cars available at JFK and driving around rural America hawking his father's wares.
One night, sitting in a cheap motel watching cable tv, he was struck by the metaphorical thunderbolt. Why not start his own home shopping channel and beam it all over Europe? So he came home, got the investment together, struck a deal with Sky for six-hours air time a day, another with Grattan, the holding company of Next, and went into business with Fred O'Donovan, the former chairman of RTE and promoter of the Gaiety Theatre.
They lost £million in the first month. By the time the company was liquidated two years later, O'Brien and O'Donovan had fallen out.
It was a glorious failure. Glorious because Denis O'Brien believes failure to be a badge of honour. It is an extension of his true grit business machismo, his imperviousness to danger matched by his intrepidness in the face of failure. When his application for the national radio license lost out to Century, he took stock, applied for one of the two Dublin licenses and gave birth to Classic Hits 98FM, a formulaic success. He followed it with stations in Poland and the Czech Republic, camping out like a boy scout under canvass in Prague to await the license.
Denis O'Brien was 39 when he got married in August 1997 to Catherine Walsh who had helped set up the Prague Station and previously headed up the marketing arm of Independent Radio Sales. The wedding reception was at Luttrelstown Castle and the honeymoon, reputedly, aboard the Orient Express. The couple's first child is expected this month.
Despite his athletic pursuits, Denis O'Brien tends to gain weight easily. For a man whose image is important and whose cherubic features are being imprinted on the face of modern Ireland, it prompts a constant battle of jogging on the beach and business meals at Patrick Guilbaud's where the fare is less fattening. The trappings of his wealth run from a £million-plus home in Wellington Road, a £100,000 Mercedes, membership of the K Club, a good watch, and a 5-star hotel complex housing two golf courses and villas at Quinta do Lago in Portugal which he bought for £25 million two years ago and is now said to be worth three times that.
His friends say his phenomenal wealth will not change him; that he will remain steadfast to the principles of an Ordinary Decent Capitalist, a man with a short attention span who bores easily and never underestimates the benefits of craic. They say he is immensely driven with a huge capacity for hard work and that he is quietly generous. ``I don't know if I should be telling you this,'' admitted a friend, faltering over his own discretion, ``but he intends to give the whole lot of the libel award he got from the Daily Mirror (£250,000) to Amnesty International.''
He is also a grateful son who likes to share his wealth with his family.
His father spoke on radio this week about the time Denis bought his mother a new Mercedes sports car. ``We were so embarrassed with it in front of the neighbours that we kept it hidden down the back and Iris would only drive it around at night up and down the laneway because we didn't want to be showing off...''
Some seasoned observers, however, predict that he will now have to buy a private jet and live abroad for most of the year to avoid a massive tax bill. There is also speculation that, from here on, the critics may be less kind and that Denis O'Brien, at the age of 41, will have to prove that he is more than a one-trick boy wonder.
The most surprising thing about Denis O'Brien is that hardly anyone is prepared to bad-mouth him. One woman who confirmed that she had had a bad experience of him in terms of a business arrangement refused to talk about it, adding: ``I wish him only the best. He deserves it.'' With a reputation as litigious and prepared to seek intervention from the courts in multifarious challenges and defences, he is a tough opponent.
Yet, that fearlessness that makes him climb the mountains and ford the streams of Wickow seems to strike a cord in others. It is the self-belief of a man who grew up in a house where television was banned only to lose his first million on a television dream.