Global 100: Denis O’Brien, Digicel

Business | Mon 20 Aug | Author – Business & Finance
Denis O'Brien

Digicel’s balance sheet and liquidity position continues to improve and the future is bright for this global telecom company.

Denis O’Brien is one of Ireland’s best-known entrepreneurs. His telecommunications company, Digicel, has operations in 32 markets in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific Islands with a combined 12.8 million subscribers. Digicel employs 5,500 staff and continues to explore new global market opportunities.

O’Brien founded the Digicel Group in 2001 and in February 2007, he took full ownership of the group in a $1.4 billion (€948m) bond issue, the deal netted him an estimated €800 million.

In March 2012, Digicel reported that yearly profits had topped the $1bn mark for the first time after a 13% increase in EBITDA to $1.1 bn. In the same period, Digicel grew its subscriber base across its 32  by 27% in the past 12 months to 12.8 million. Year-on-year, the company has displayed exceptional growth, continuing to win market share over its competitors. The company’s latest results demonstrate a strong financial year, with Digicel increasing profits and subscribers even in the tough economic climate. The figures are impressive: Digicel’s revenues for the year to March 2012, were $2.54bn, a 14% growth, with its EBITDA margin steady at 45%.

Digicel’s balance sheet and liquidity position has continued to improve with cash reserves of over $657 million at 31 March 2012. The group’s strong financial performance has been endorsed by ratings agency, Fitch, which in May reaffirmed the group’s debt rating citing its “strong operational performance”.

O’Brien is also the founder and owner of Communicorp Group Ltd, which has radio interests in Ireland and eastern Europe. In 2007, Communicorp acquired Emap’s radio interests in Ireland for €200m. Communicorp’s interests now total 42 radio stations in nine countries. O’Brien also has extensive business interests in property, aircraft leasing, hotels, golf and other leisure pursuits.

In 1991, he founded fixed-line telecommunications company Esat Telecom to compete with Telecom Éireann (now Eircom). By the late 1990s, O’Brien sold the mobile phone network to British Telecom for approximately €1.9bn, after a hostile takeover attempt by Telenor BT, netting himself somewhere in the region of €300 million.

In October 2006, O’Brien bought a 2.1% stake in Aer Lingus. This figure was upped to 2.2% in mid-2007.
Having recently increased his stake in Independent News & Media (INM) to just below 30%, O’Brien is now the group’s largest shareholder. Following an EGM at the publisher in August, Leslie Buckley, a long-time business associate of O’Brien, was appointed chairman of INM. Buckley was voted off the INM board in 2011 but returned following a requirement to increase the number of non-executive directors on the INM board.

Outside of his business interests, O’Brien has shown himself to be a generous benefactor to Haiti‘s rehabilitation efforts and other charitable causes. The chairman and co-founder of Frontline, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, he is also chairman of the National College of Ireland. He was chairman of the Special Olympics World Summer Games when they were held in Ireland in 2003 and is on the US board of Concern Worldwide.

Following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January 2012, O’Brien and his Digicel team went into overdrive. Initially donating $5m towards urgent relief efforts, Digicel provided free communications to the country’s survivors, temporary housing and fresh water supplies.

On the first anniversary of the earthquake, O’Brien reopened Haiti’s business hub – the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince. He was named Goodwill Ambassador for the city of Port-au-Prince for his humanitarian efforts following the earthquake.

O’Brien is charged with overseeing, on behalf of former US President Bill Clinton, the progress of the Haiti Action Network of the Clinton Global Initiative, or CGI, which includes installing solar panels, increasing energy supplies, refurbishing homes and providing job training.

O’Brien holds a BA in history and politics from UCD and an MBA in corporate finance from Boston College. Married with four children, he is a keen sportsman. In December 2007, he was the recipient of a Business & Finance Award for Business Person of the Year.