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An interesting man, an interesting read - Digicel boss' journey to fortune revealed in new bio

Published:Sunday | August 29, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Denis O'Brien, chairman of Digicel Group
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Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

Cable television has helped make billionaires like Donald Trump and Bill Gates celebrities. His may not be a household name as yet, but Digicel founder Denis O'Brien is well on his way.

His rise to become a media and telecommunications magnate, and Ireland's wealthiest man, is documented in A Mobile Fortune: The Life And Times of Denis O'Brien, a fascinating book by Irish business writer Siobhan Creaton.

Despite his middle-class background, O'Brien is portrayed as down-to-earth and driven, a hard-nosed businessman who demands maximum effort from his employees. These are traits he picked up during his years as personal assistant to Irish airline mogul Tony Ryan.

That cut-and-thrust approach has served O'Brien well. In its March 2009 issue, Forbes Magazine reported his personal fortune at US$2.2 billion.

Through interviews with associates and rivals, Creaton traces how O'Brien secured broadcast licences to become one of Ireland's most successful media bosses.

While Creaton gives a detailed look at the corrupt nature of Irish boardroom deals, Digicel's emergence in the Caribbean should hold most interest for regional readers.

She revisits O'Brien's charge to secure a second mobile phone licence in Jamaica in 2000 which resulted in the birth of Digicel. The company's Caribbean entry broke Cable and Wireless' decades-old monopoly and triggered a bitter battle for control of the region's burgeoning cellular phone market.

Creaton's interviews with former Jamaica prime minister P.J. Patterson, public relations executive Jean Lowrie-Chin and former Digicel marketing head Harry Smith afford readers an insider's look at how O'Brien skilfully manoeuvred his new company in virgin territory.

There are tales of culture clashes between O'Brien's hard-drinking, potty-mouthed Irish deputies and their laid-back Jamaican counterparts.

Smith recalls how Digicel's official launch at the Pegasus Hotel in April 2001 almost went dreadfully wrong due to a failed satellite link with Shaggy from Philadelphia and an out-of-sorts Beenie Man who performed in slippers!

O'Brien's role in the nasty fight between Digicel and Cable and Wireless for sponsorship of the West Indies cricket team is also revisited in the chapter, A Sticky Wicket. With players and politicians split in their support for either company, a meeting chaired by Grenada prime minister Keith Mitchell was held in that country in 2004 to ease the tension.

Creaton's interview with Cable and Wireless executive Paul Aspin sheds new light on the stormy meeting which O'Brien also attended. Aspin's refusal to acknowledge his rival's hand-shake summed up an irretrievable relationship.

An interesting man. An interesting read.