Denis O'Brien

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For other people of the same name, see Dennis O'Brien (disambiguation).
Denis O'Brien
Born (1958-04-19) 19 April 1958 (age 56)
Cork city, Ireland
Residence Malta
Alma mater MBA corporate finance – Boston College
Occupation Chairman of DOB Group and DOB Investments
Net worth Increase£3.854 billion (2014)[1]

Denis O'Brien (born 19 April 1958) is an Irish billionaire.[2] Born in County Cork, he graduated with an Arts degree from University College Dublin, received an MBA in corporate finance from Boston College in 1982, and was later given an honorary doctorate by University College Dublin.

O'Brien set up and chaired the Esat Digifone consortium which won a mobile phone licence in the 1990s in what would become controversial circumstances.[3] The Moriarty Tribunal found that in its opinion it was almost beyond doubt that his winning of the contract was due to payments he made to Michael Lowry, the then communications minister, who unduly influenced the bidding process.

It was the winning of this contract that formed the basis of his fortune. He established Digicel, a major telecoms provider in the Caribbean. O'Brien formed Communicorp Group Ltd in 1989, with the company currently owning 42 radio stations in eight European countries, including Ireland's Newstalk, Today FM, Dublin's 98 (formerly 98FM), Spin 1038 and Spin South West.

O'Brien founded the international commercial aircraft company Aergo Capital Limited – registered in Dublin, with offices in Nairobi, Singapore, Santiago and Johannesburg. He is a leading shareholder in both Sterling Energy and Independent News & Media (IN&M). After the sale of Esat, he moved to Portugal where he owns the Quinta di Lago golf complex. He is now a resident of Malta.[4]

Esat Digifone defeat of others[edit]

In 1995, O'Brien set up and chaired the Esat Digifone consortium, which submitted a bid for the second Irish GSM mobile phone license. Esat Digifone's bid defeated five other applicants, some of whom included major international operators, in controversial circumstances that became the subject of investigation by the Moriarty Tribunal.[5] The Esat Digifone consortium was 40% owned by O'Brien's interests, 40% owned by Telenor, the Norwegian state telecoms operator, with the balance being owned by International Investment and Underwriting (IIU), an investment vehicle owned by Dermot Desmond.

On 7 November 1997, Esat Telecom Group plc held an initial public offering and was listed on the Irish Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange, and NASDAQ Stock Markets. There were differences between O'Brien and Telenor, however, ESAT Digifone boomed. Telenor made a bid for control of the company, but O'Brien chose to sell to BT in 2000.[6] Esat became a wholly owned subsidiary of BT and was delisted from the stock market. O'Brien personally netted €317 million from the sale.[7]

After exiting the Irish mobile phone market, O'Brien started to compete for mobile phone licenses in the Caribbean through his company Digicel.[8] Digicel now has in excess of eleven million mobile phone subscribers in the Caribbean, Central America and Pacific.[8] He set up a new subsidiary Digicel Group Ltd. and via a bonds issue, acquired the entire holding of Digicel Limited.[citation needed] O'Brien is involved in the Pacific with operations in Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea[9]

As the owner of Haiti's largest telecom company, Digicel, O'Brien pledged an immediate €3.5 million of his money to assist desperate Haitians within hours of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[10] Two of Digicel's 900 staff members in Haiti died in the earthquake.[11] Digicel is Haiti's largest single investor.[12] Digicel's headquarters was one of the few buildings in the region to survive unharmed.[13] He was appointed goodwill ambassador for Port-au-Prince by the city's mayor and deputy mayor in recognition of his efforts to rebuild Haiti and attract foreign direct investment in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on 12 January, and on behalf of the Clinton Global Initiative. He is Chairman of the Haiti Action Network, which coordinates the activities of approximately 80 support organisations in Haiti.[12] Most recently, Denis O'Brien reconstructed the iconic Iron Market in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, which was the first public building in the city to be rebuilt since the earthquake and has become a symbol of the city's recovery.[14]

Involvement in the Moriarty Tribunal[edit]

The Moriarty Tribunal's second and final report found that Michael Lowry, the then energy and communications minister in Ireland, assisted Denis O'Brien in his bid to secure a mobile phone contract for Esat Digifone, a key foundation of Mr O'Brien's personal wealth. The tribunal found that this happened after Lowry received a $50,000 payment from O'Brien via a circuitous route involving a complex arrangement of third parties and offshore accounts. It said that it was "beyond doubt" that Mr Lowry gave "substantive information to Denis O'Brien, of significant value and assistance to him in securing the [mobile] licence" during at least two meetings between the two.[15]

Denis O'Brien has rejected the findings set out in the Moriarty Tribunal report calling it "fundamentally flawed" as it is based on the opinions and theories of Mr Justice Moriarty and his legal team.[16] Mr O'Brien said Mr Justice Moriarty had admitted to making "two not insignificant errors" and that these had been used to substantiate false theories. "I believe it is unprecedented in the history of this country that a High Court judge would make such fundamental errors which went to the heart of the credibility and integrity of a tribunal process,” Mr O'Brien said it was "incumbent on the judiciary to investigate the conduct of Mr Justice Moriarty and the tribunal legal team for the manner in which they conducted themselves".[17]

On 15 October 2011, Today FM confirmed Sam Smyth's Sunday radio show was being dropped. He had been presenting it for 14 years. Smyth had previously offended his bosses by commenting in a newspaper and on television about Today FM owner's Denis O'Brien's involvement in the Moriarty Tribunal. Smyth said on air the next morning that he had been told not to talk about the end of his show and stopped one of his guests from talking about it too "before someone comes downstairs and pulls a wire we better move onto something else."[18] The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said it was concerned at the development, but Today FM stated that "the decision was made to address a decline in listenership and was part of an initiative to improve programming quality." The Today FM board supported the decision, which was one of several programming changes made by Willy O'Reilly[19] The Irish Independent, of which Denis O'Brien is a leading shareholder, reported that Anton Savage was being lined up to replace Sam Smyth.[20]

Jamaican telecoms court case[edit]

O'Brien's telecommunications company, Digicel, was involved in an extensive court battle with the Jamaican Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) throughout the 2000s. The issue originally arose after Phillip Paulwell, the then Jamaican minister of industry, commerce and technology, instructed the OUR to refrain from interfering with the pricing policies of Digicel, after the regulator had itself instructed Digicel to amend its interconnectivity fees.[21] Although Paulwell was ruled to have had no power to issue the instruction to the OUR, Digicel unsuccessfully appealed the ruling first at the Jamaican Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling, though it was subsequently upheld by Court of Appeal after a counter-appeal by OUR, and then at Jamaica's Privy Council.[21]

The issue came under some scrutiny in 2011 when it emerged via Wikileaks that US officials based in Jamaica's Kingston capital had described Paulwell as a "conflicted and meddling" minister.[22] The diplomatic cable, despatched in 2007, detailed Paulwell's alleged mismanagement of the Universal Access Fund, which was set up by the United States Federal Communications Commission in 1997 to meet Congressional universal service goals as mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.[22] It also documented how he had paid attorney Minette Palmer, his former personal advisor, almost US$450,000 over a 19-month period, despite that no internet facilities had been provided in schools during that time as the scheme intended. To further compound matter was the revelation that Paulwell had recently awarded a cellular licence to a company controlled by Palmer and her husband.[23]

Relationship with the media[edit]

Communicorp Group[edit]

Main article: Communicorp

Communicorp Group Ltd was formed by O'Brien in 1989. The Group's radio operations launched in Ireland in the same year and followed with stations in the Czech Republic in 1992. Based in Dublin, Ireland, Communicorp is a major player in the Irish media market.[citation needed]

The company now owns 42 radio stations in 8 countries across Europe, including Ireland: Today FM, Dublin's 98 (Formerly 98FM), Newstalk, Spin 1038 and Spin South West.[citation needed]

O'Brien was the highest bidder for the Irish operations of Emap, which added Today FM, FM104 and Highland Radio to their control, but due to a competition authority decision, Communicorp was required to sell-on FM104 and Highland Radio.[citation needed]

Independent News & Media[edit]

In January 2006, O'Brien took a stake in Tony O'Reilly's Independent News & Media (IN&M). As of May 2012, he holds a 29.9% stake in the company, making him the largest shareholder.[24] This compares to O'Reilly's family stake of around 13%.[25] At the beginning of June 2007, O'Reilly tabled a resolution to strengthen rules on the disclosure of beneficial interests.[citation needed] This was regarded as a defensive measure that would empower IN&M to monitor any additional accumulation of shares in the company. The resolution passed and empowers IN&M to withhold dividends from investors who do not comply with a request for information on the ownership of a holding of shares.[citation needed]

O'Brien, speaking on RTÉ Radio, described the resolution as a "retrograde" measure, saying that the resolution was designed to protect the interests of O'Reilly's family against a hostile bidder.[26]

Media Lawsuits[edit]

Vincent Browne wrote a piece to The Irish Times on why O'Brien "is not a fit person to control INM" (Independent News & Media). In it he questioned O'Brien's previous threats to personally sue Sam Smyth and asked : "[H]ow plausible is it that the removal of Sam Smyth from a Sunday morning radio programme on Today FM, which Denis O'Brien controls, and his ostracisation now within the Irish Independent to which he is contracted (not one article by him has been published for some months), isn't part of the same campaign which Denis O'Brien and [one of his then representatives on the board of INM] Leslie Buckley, conducted against Sam Smyth in 2010?"[27]

On 14 February 2013, O'Brien was successful in suing the Irish Daily Mail for defamatory comments and was awarded €150,000. The case was a landmark as it was the first time a journalist had attempted to use the honest opinion defence.[28][29]

Aircraft leasing[edit]

In 1999, Denis O'Brien founded Aergo Capital Limited – registered in Dublin, with offices in Nairobi, Singapore, Santiago and Johannesburg. It owns and operates a fleet of 103 commercial aircraft. The company is valued at US$250 Million and has debts in the region of US$166 Million.[citation needed] O'Brien controls about 83% of Aergo and, along with his father, sits on the company's 6 strong board. Aergo Capital's clients include Alitalia, Jet Airways, South African Airways, KLM and DHL. In July 2008, Aergo acquired the Safair aircraft-leasing division of Imperial Holdings for €110 Million. Aergo will take over the division's 33 planes and will lease a further nine aircraft from the parent company.[citation needed]

Sterling Energy[edit]

Denis O'Brien is a shareholder in AIM-listed Sterling Energy. The company has production in the United States and a wide portfolio of exploration interests, mostly in West Africa.[citation needed]

Other interests[edit]

O'Brien was Chairman of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games on the occasion when the games were held in Ireland, and on the US Board of Concern Worldwide.

In September 2005, O'Brien was named Deputy Governor of the Bank of Ireland. Simultaneously, he moved his residence from Portugal to Malta, for tax avoidance reasons. He resigned from the position of Deputy Governor Bank of Ireland, and also as a member of the Bank's board or court, on 12 September 2006.[30] The Bank of Ireland issued a statement describing his resignation as due to "his growing international business interests together with the demands of an extensive travel schedule, meant that he could no longer devote the time required to the ever increasing workload of the court."[31] O'Brien has also resigned from the Norkom Group and the UCD Smurfit School of Business. His spokesman said that the resignations were unconnected with the work of the Moriarty Tribunal.[citation needed]

O'Brien is a member of the Bilderberg group[32] and Trilateral Commission.[33]

On 13 February 2008, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, John Delaney, confirmed that O'Brien had agreed to part fund the wages of the Irish football manager Giovanni Trapattoni.[34]

O'Brien's football interests also extend to being a minority shareholder in Scottish giants Celtic.

In 2011, he provided money for the campaign of Mary Davis ahead of the Irish presidential election.[35]

Personal wealth[edit]

According to the Sunday Independent's Rich List 2012 (March 2012), O'Brien has made himself a fortune of €3 billion.[36]

Move to Malta[edit]

O'Brien had considered the flotation of Digicel on the New York Stock Exchange and he has taken up residence in Malta. Malta charges no tax on worldwide assets or income brought in by permanent residents.[37] Residence, for tax purposes, means renting or buying a property with a minimum value and visiting Malta at least once within one year of becoming a resident.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sunday Times Rich List 2014". Sunday Times. 11 May 2014. 
  2. ^ Honourable Justice Michael Moriarty
  3. ^ Lucy Gaffney, “Sunday Business Post”, "We won because our was simply the best bid", Sunday, 27 March 2011.
  4. ^ Northedge, Richard (16 September 2007). "Denis O'Brien: The man who wants to make a splash at Independent News & Media – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph (London: TMG). ISSN 0307-1235. OCLC 49632006. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  5. ^ Court action on the awarding of the license by the Persona grouping has been signaled.
  6. ^ Northedge, Richard (16 September 2007). "Denis O'Brien: The man who wants to make a splash at Independent News & Media – Telegraph". The Daily Telegraph (London: TMG). ISSN 0307-1235. OCLC 49632006. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  7. ^ Russell, Jonathan (22 March 2011). "Denis O'Brien 'paid minister to help secure Irish phone licence'". London: Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Keena, Colm (10 July 2010). "Plucky David or pirate of the Caribbean?". Irish Times. Retrieved 25 March 2011. 
  9. ^ Digicel
  10. ^ Patricia McDonagh and Jason O'Brien, Irish Independent, "O'Brien pledges €3.5m as charities plead for money", Thursday 14 January 2010
  11. ^ Jamie Smyth, The Irish Times, "All Irish citizens in area alive and well, says Foreign Affairs", Thursday 14 January 2010
  12. ^ a b "Haiti names Denis O’Brien goodwill ambassador". 19 February 2010, Silicon Republic.
  13. ^ Conor Kane, Irish Independent, "Family's relief at 'miraculous' escape of Irish worker", Thursday 14 January 2010
  14. ^ [Ed Vulliamy, [1], "How an Irish telecoms tycoon became Haiti's only hope of salvation", Sunday 9 January 2011
  15. ^ "Moriarty says Lowry helped O'Brien win mobile licence" 22 March 2011, Irish Times
  16. ^ "O'Brien hits out at 'fundamentally flawed' Moriarty Tribunal" 22 March 2011, Ireland Breaking News
  17. ^ [Juno McEnroe, [2], "Billionaire denies paying former minister 'one red cent', Wednesday, 23 March 2011]
  18. ^ "Today FM’s Smyth changes topic during discussion about his own sacking"., 16 October 2011.
  19. ^ Taylor, Charlie. "Smyth show to end on Today FM", The Irish Times, 16 October 2011.
  20. ^ Quinlan, Ronald. "Savage to replace dropped Smyth on Today FM slot", Irish Independent, 16 October 2011.
  21. ^ a b "Blow to Digicel". Jamaica: Jamaica Observer. 22 January 2010. 
  22. ^ a b "WIKILEAKS – Paulwell's Nine Lives". Jamaica: The Gleaner. 5 June 2011. 
  23. ^ "Jamaica: Universal Access Fund – A Meddling Minister And Issues Of Conflict". Jamaica: CableGateSearch. 23 July 2007. 
  24. ^ "Denis O'Brien ups stake in Independent News & Media to 29.9pc – Media, Business –". Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  25. ^ Sweney, Mark (8 June 2012). "INM investors oust chairman and finance chief | Media |". The Guardian (London: GMG). ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  26. ^ "O'Brien branded a 'dissident' and accused of destabilising company" 28 March 2008, Irish Independent
  27. ^ Browne, Vincent (15 August 2012). "Why I think O'Brien is not a fit person to control INM". The Irish Times (Irish Times Trust). Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  28. ^ "Denis O'Brien wins defamation case against Irish Daily Mail". RTÉ News (Raidió Teilifís Éireann). 14 February 2013. Retrieved 14 February 2013. 
  29. ^ Gartland, Fiona (14 February 2013). "O'Brien awarded €150k in Daily Mail defamation case". The Irish Times (Irish Times Trust). Retrieved 14 February 2013. 
  30. ^ "O'Brien leaves Bank of Ireland Court". RTÉ News. 12 September 2006. 
  31. ^ Smyth, Sam (13 September 2006). "Standing down has sparked speculation". Irish Independent. 
  32. ^[dead link]
  33. ^ "THE TRILATERAL COMMISSION" European Group list at Trilateral web site
  34. ^ "Billionaire fan part-paying Trapattoni's wages" 13 February 2008, ESPN
  35. ^ O'Halloran, Marie; Cullen, Paul (1 October 2011). "Campaigns to cost up to €350,000, say candidates". The Irish Times. Retrieved 1 October 2011. 
  36. ^ "Ireland's Rich List 2012". Sunday Independent. 11 March 2012. 
  37. ^ "O'Brien makes pre-flotation move to Malta". The Irish Times. 15 September 2006. 

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