Telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien’s rules for success

Investors in places like Ivory Coast and Libya need thick skins and level heads, for when conflict rages and governments fall, they run the risk of all being ruined.

But Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O’Brien specialises in investing in difficult and sometimes unstable developing countries.

His company Digicel is the biggest investor in Haiti, and Mr O’Brien pledged $5m (£3m) of his own money in aid after last year’s earthquake.

Last month he was accused of winning one of Ireland’s lucrative mobile phone licences through assistance from a leading politician in the 1990s.

He spoke to Lesley Curwen, on BBC World Service’s Business Daily, and started by outlining his recipe for successful investing:

Full transcript below

Denis O’Brien: You need to be selective. If somebody says go and invest in Jordan as we have, I’d say definitely Jordan is a great country to invest in as a foreign direct investor whereas Yemen would not be attractive in my mind.

But closer to Europe, Libya I think is a great opportunity now for companies that want to work with the new regime as such, and there are substantial opportunities, particularly in tourism and other markets that heretofore have been dominated by state companies in Libya.

Lesley Curwen: And you actually did try to invest in Libya?

Denis O’Brien: Well, yeah, I have been travelling to Libya for the last six or seven years and then we went into a process about two, two-and-a-half years ago and we were short-listed for a third mobile phone license with Etisalat, which is a Gulf-based company, and then all of a sudden they just cancelled it last September for no reason.

So you can spend a lot of time on some of these markets and sometimes it doesn’t come off, but that would be a rarity and we have developed our business now in about 32 countries around the world and Libya would have been the exception and probably one other, that’s it.

Lesley Curwen: How do you choose the countries where you do operate?

Denis O’Brien: We go where basically the big companies don’t bother to go. So we’ve invested about $350-400m in Papua New Guinea for example, a country with about 7 million people just north of Australia and we have invested in Haiti about $475m. We are the largest investor in that country.

So where there is low penetration where people haven’t got a mobile phone, we would go in and invest a substantial amount of money and sometimes the larger big multinational companies wouldn’t bother looking at those markets whereas we would.

Lesley Curwen: Now you say they wouldn’t bother looking at those markets, presumably they think that the risks are pretty high, isn’t that why?

Denis O’Brien: Well, it’s the executives won’t bother. I think the board would probably be up for a lot of these big multinational mobile phone companies, but the executives, when you are saying to an executive, you got to be careful you don’t get malaria or dengue in Papua New Guinea, well then obviously people are more concerned about themselves than maybe getting their business established.

Lesley Curwen: You are the largest investor in Haiti, aren’t you, through the phone company there. How difficult was it for you to operate after the earthquake?

Denis O’Brien: It was very very challenging, but thankfully we had people that had worked with us for a long time. We were able to also bring in resources from our other markets. We had another 23 markets in the Caribbean region where we just chartered planes and flew people into the country, engineers, technicians and people who got the network up very very quickly.

So it was a very tragic event obviously for not just the population of Haiti, but for everybody that has ever been to Haiti because once you go to Haiti, you always go back, it kind of gets in on you and it’s a fantastic country, and the people are I think one of the most vibrant communities probably in the world.

Lesley Curwen: Did you ever consider pulling out after the earthquake?

Denis O’Brien: Never, absolutely never. In fact, we decided we would double our investment, which we did in the subsequent months since then. So, we have spent probably another $200-220m since the earthquake.

Lesley Curwen: And you are expanding in the South Pacific which is again a difficult area, isn’t it, and where there are coups and riots and corruption and even threats to nationalise assets?

Denis O’Brien: That happens sometimes when you go into a country, but thankfully that’s behind us now. There is some political instability in the Pacific region, but our businesses now are well-established in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru. So all these countries are now profitable for us and they are thriving.

Lesley Curwen: Is it all about the potential for growth? Are you trying to get in there before anybody else does, so that you can be the biggest when finally the growth really comes?

Denis O’Brien: Normally we would go in and take on and compete with the state-owned company or the incumbent whoever that might be. And we would try and overtake them within the space of maybe two years, sometimes that can happen in a shorter time, six months.

But, generally, we go in and give a better network, we lower the prices and we give just a much much better service. We give first world service in markets that have been treated very very badly from a consumer point of view.

Lesley Curwen: There is a matter that’s I guess overshadowed you for a while, isn’t there? In Ireland, the Moriarty Tribunal report suggested that you made payments to a government official involved in the award of a mobile phone licence back in 1995. What’s your reaction to that?

Denis O’Brien: Well, first of all, this is not a court of law, it’s an inquiry. And then secondly, no witness went into the tribunal, and there have been 60 or 70 different witnesses, to say that I paid any money to anybody. So it has been going on for 10 years. It has no standing in law and it’s just basically untrue.

Unfortunately, you can have hearsay and even conversations that happened in bars that appear in the report that has gone on and on and on, and probably cost the government maybe €300m (£260m; $430m).

Lesley Curwen: Did you make corrupt payments?

Denis O’Brien: Not at all. No.

Lesley Curwen: How do you feel about this matter that I guess has been hanging around your neck for so many years?

Denis O’Brien: Get on with my life is the best thing, Lesley. If you are from a small country, you are a tall poppy and that can be a disadvantage. So that’s why investors around the world moved out of Ireland because the opportunities are far greater, and it was really having a goal to set up a global business around the world, and that has been the thing that has driven myself and my colleagues on everywhere.


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