Denis O'Brien
Mobile phones, Investment
Rank 2017
With Usain Bolt as its chief speed officer, Digicel, founded by 58-year-old Denis O’Brien, looks quick off the mark. With 13.6m subscribers, the Bermuda-based Digicel Group and its associated mobile phone companies are worth €3bn. But the stronger US dollar – the currency in which it pays interest on its €6bn debt – has put the brakes on profits, reducing its value by more than 7% in the past year. Last month it announced a restructuring that will see its global workforce of about 6,500 cut by 25% over 18 months. It is also partnering with ZTE of China in a network upgrade. O’Brien, born in Co Cork and educated at University College Dublin, owns 94% of the company and is broadening it into a full multimedia enterprise and entertainment services business. His initial wealth comes from the more than €205m he made tax-free in 2000 when BT bought his stake in Esat Telecom, the Irish phone company he founded. Using some of this money to fund his Digicel start-up, he also put part of it into PGA European Tour Courses and owns the Quinta do Lago golf venue in the Algarve. Despite growing competition, Digicel is expanding and operates in 33 countries in the Caribbean, central America and Pacific rim. O’Brien has taken €2bn from it since 2007 in various financial transactions. He netted a reported €30m on the sale last year of the LXV building on the site of the former Canada House in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. He made an estimated €100m profit in 2015 from the sale of his 90%-owned Topaz petrol chain. Among his other assets are the Beacon Hospital, Sandyford, south Dublin, and the €6m Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara. He and his wife, Dundrum-born Catherine, reopened it as a hotel in 2014.
O’Brien has also been cleaning up his investment portfolio. He sold his 75% stake in China HR, the country’s third-largest online recruitment company, in May 2015 for an undisclosed sum to In 2014, he sold an 80% holding in Aergo Capital, an expanding Dublin aircraft leasing business, and his 3.8% share in Aer Lingus. His other main Irish investment, Independent News and Media, chaired by Leslie Buckley (qv), has lost him about €470m since 2004. He is the biggest shareholder in the Irish media group, with 29.8%, which has fallen in value to €50m. Although tax resident in a flat in Malta, he has at least three properties in the exclusive Dublin 4 area worth €32m. He also owns a €78m 1920s-style yacht, the Nero. O'Brien’s original business, the 28-year-old Dublin-headquartered Communicorp Group, owns Irish radio stations including Today FM, 98FM and Newstalk. It is also the UK’s fourth largest commercial operator with stations under the Smooth, Real and Capital brands. A noted philanthropist, he funds Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based international human-rights charity, and a plethora of developing-world projects. He received several awards for his work in rebuilding Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. A sports lover, he pays half the estimated €1.8m salary of Ireland’s football management team, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane (qv), and helped bring Johnny Sexton back to Leinster rugby. He also has a small stake in Celtic FC.