Denis O’Brien | Remembering Colm Delves
Colm Delves had the two most important qualities of a successful CEO – ability and affability.
Joining Digicel in 2003 from Hibernia Foods and initially working on a mobile licence in Lebanon, he was soon appointed CFO, quickly making his mark.
Just over a year later, he was promoted to group CEO. Displaying boundless energy and dynamism, with Digicel in seven markets, he implemented sustained rapid growth, bringing Digicel to 31 markets worldwide with over 6,000 staff and 13 million customers over the next 13 years.
By the cruellest twist of fate, Colm was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, less than a year after stepping down to spend more time with his family. He died peacefully at home on April 23, aged 54.
Colm grew up in Dublin, but the lure of links golf prompted his father, John, an astute entrepreneur himself, to move the family to Rush, County Dublin. While his three brothers loved sport and the outdoors, Colm’s love was music; one of his cherished teenage memories was his father taking him to a Rolling Stones concert.
SENSE OF LOYALTY
Colm got his commercial abilities and his empathy from his father and mother, respectively. Business was always central, respect was important – as was loyalty – and they always knew what their father was working on based on family purchases; Lyons Tea was suddenly dropped for Lipton Tea.
This sense of loyalty would remain. He met his future wife, Paula, also from Rush, at just 16, and they married in 1990. Their beautiful daughter, Hannah, arrived in June 2002.
Colm was educated at Colaiste Choilm, excelling as a debate team member, but he really wanted to study music, arranging to meet the director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music to discuss a third-level degree. His parents persuaded him into a business degree at Dublin City University and that he could pursue a music career later. Instead, he went on to study chartered accountancy at KPMG, where he sat opposite Paul Connolly, who introduced us in the late ‘90s.
When Paul and I were raising money for the EAST telecom in New York, we would often have dinner with Colm as he was managing investor relations for Hibernia. He made a lasting impression, and when the opportunity arose to join forces, it was a stroke of good luck.
Colm moved to Jamaica with Paula and their two-year-old daughter, Hannah, in 2004. Instead of sending Hannah to an international school, they decided on Immaculate Conception after Colm met an Irish nun from the school on a flight and gently persuaded her to accept Hannah as a pupil. Hannah received a wonderful education and made many friends. They made Jamaica their home and made great friends. Colm embraced the Jamaican way of life and rich culture, particularly music.
Colm was unique in many ways: humble, never seeking the limelight but with a subtle, effective, and persuasive steely resolve. For those of us privileged to know him well, he was exceptionally courteous, kind, and patient.
The very nature of a rapidly growing business in multiple geographies is that staying connected with staff at all levels is extremely challenging. This didn’t stop Colm from having a near Encyclopaedic level of detail – often knowing more about a market than the country CEO. Uniquely, he was always particularly interested in the welfare of staff and their families.
He excelled in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake that left 300,000 dead, going into overdrive getting medical aid and looking after our 1,000 Haitian staff and families. Sleeping on a desk in our Haiti offices for two weeks, he directed operations. With the US State Department taking immediate control of the Hispañola airspace, Colm befriended over the phone a US general with responsibility for the airspace and air-traffic control, securing priority status for the freight aircraft we had chartered transporting much-needed food and equipment into Haiti daily.
When he was in Kingston and not travelling, he would head out the back of our office building twice a day for a coffee. Anyone wanting a word would strategically be at the same spot at the same time: his way of having an even deeper finger on the pulse. He would talk to everyone. If someone came up with a wacky idea, a gentle eyebrow raise was a signal not to pursue it.
Colm would go anywhere at the drop of a hat for an interesting opportunity. In 2005, he pinpointed Haiti, so we flew to Port-au-Prince. We hadn’t read any travel restrictions or warnings about kidnappings or armed gangs. On arrival, we got into a taxi driven by a lovely Haitian man and drove around for hours. All we saw were people buying and selling stuff; none of them had a phone. On our way back, Colm said: “Let’s do it,” resulting in an initial US$180-million investment and 4.5 million customers.
Colm and Paula were passionate about giving back to their communities, including Mustard Seed. He also didn’t forget his alma mater, initiating the DCU Access Scholarship Scheme and DCU summer internship programme.
He fought his battle with cancer with the strength, conviction, and humility that epitomised his life; sadly, this was one he couldn’t win.
Colm leaves behind a loving wife and partner of 30 years, Paula; their daughter, Hannah; parents John and Rosemary; and brothers Barry and John. He joins his precious brother Robert, who passed in 2013.
We have lost a great friend and an inspirational colleague.
We have also lost one of the outstanding chief executives of a generation. Colm trained and nurtured many executives who are today pursuing successful careers around the globe.
- Denis O’Brien is the chairman and founder of Digicel Group.