About Denis O'Brien

Denis O’Brien is recognised as one of Ireland’s most successful businessmen for his achievements in the telecommunications field. He is also active in a number of other professional fields through his versatile entrepreneurship. Learn about Denis O’Brien’s professional beginnings, his philanthropic efforts and how he founded Digicel Group.

University College Dublin
DENIS O'BRIEN is a graduate of University College Dublin and Boston College

Early Life and Career

Childhood

Denis O’Brien was born on April 19, 1958 in Ireland. He was raised in Dublin and would often accompany his father — who sold equine products in Europe, Asia and the U.S. — on his business trips. It was O’Brien’s father who gave him his real education in business.
Dublin, Ireland city view
DENIS O'BRIEN was raised in Dublin

Education and Early Career

In 1977, O’Brien graduated from University College Dublin with a bachelor’s degree in Politics and History. He then pursued an MBA at Boston College in the U.S. and completed his studies in 1982. Upon graduation, O’Brien’s first place of employment was at an investment bank in Dublin. He left the bank after writing to Tony Ryan, founder of the aircraft leasing company Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) and low-cost airline Ryanair, asking for a job. Ryan offered for O’Brien to work for him as his personal assistant, which he did until 1985. He started Europe’s first TV shopping channel on Sky Television in 1988.

University College Dublin
DENIS O'BRIEN is a graduate of University College Dublin and Boston College

Communicorp

In 1989, seeing an opportunity for success in the newly deregulated broadcast radio sector, Denis O’Brien founded Communicorp. His radio station 98FM grew into one of Dublin’s most popular stations, and Communicorp went on to include popular Irish radio stations like Newstalk, Today FM and SPIN 1038.

Esat Telecom

O’Brien branched out into the telecommunications field in 1991 with the formation of East Telecom after he met the founder of MCI, Jack Goeken, at the Dublin Horse Show. As the company’s Chairman and CEO, O’Brien led Esat to become the number two telecommunications company in Ireland having won a fixed licence. He floated the company on NASDAQ in 1997 at US$13 per share, selling it in 2000 to British Telecom (BT) for US$2.2 billion with a share price of US$100 per share; today the company is known as BT Ireland. One year later, O’Brien would begin his most successful business venture to date.
Esat Digifone logo

Founder and Chairman of Digicel

Today Denis O’Brien is the founder and Chairman of Digicel. He formed the company in 2001 with the goal of bringing modern telecommunications technology to untapped markets in the Caribbean, starting in Jamaica.

Having had his attention drawn by a friend to an advert in the Financial Times placed by the Government of Jamaica inviting tenders for two mobile licences that were up for auction, O’Brien dispatched a trusted colleague to Jamaica to take part in the bidding process and secured a licence for US$47.2 million. With a plan to take on the incumbent, Cable & Wireless, shake things up and ensure that everyone, everywhere could benefit from affordable access to mobile communications, Digicel launched with great fanfare in 2001 and an aim of attracting 100,000 customers to its network in the first year – a target it hit in its first 100 days.

Under O’Brien’s leadership, Digicel has expanded to over 30 markets in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia Pacific. O’Brien has committed Digicel to continuously expand its reach into underserved regions and communities, with the mission to connect customers all around the world.

Entrepreneurship

Aside from Digicel and Communicorp, Denis O’Brien has many other professional interests that he has supported or launched. O’Brien bought the Irish utilities support company Siteserv in 2012, renamed it as Actavo, and helped expand it into the U.S. as well as the Caribbean, continuing business today. Fuel retailer Topaz Energy was also owned by O’Brien from 2013 until its sale to Canadian company Alimentation Couche-Tard in 2015.

O’Brien owns two five star luxury resorts; Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal, and PGA Catalunya in Spain. He also owns the Beacon Private Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and a number of other private companies spanning many sectors.

Philanthropy

Denis O’Brien is committed to giving back and providing opportunities to those less fortunate. In addition to Digicel providing telecommunications services to rural communities, the Digicel Foundation was founded by O’Brien in 2004. The organisation was formed to bring positive change to the regions that Digicel serves and with an overall aim of helping to create a world where no one gets left behind. O’Brien and the Foundation have initiated programmes and funded community projects in Jamaica, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad and Tobago, particularly in the areas of education and special needs. With investments of over US$156 million to date that have driven positive outcomes for over three million people, famously, the Digicel Foundation has built 180 schools in Haiti and hundreds of classrooms in Papua New Guinea.

His philanthropy extends to many other organisations and non-profits as well. O’Brien is a member of Concern Worldwide’s U.S. Board of Directors. Concern is an international humanitarian organisation working for a world free of poverty, fear and oppression. O’Brien has shown his commitments to charity too with the Iris O’Brien Foundation, named for his mother, which splits its donations among various domestic and overseas causes. O’Brien is also Chairman of the Council of Patrons for Special Olympics Ireland, formed after the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games that were hosted by Ireland and chaired by O’Brien. These World Games have the distinction of being the most successful World Games ever.

UCD O’Brien Centre for Science

Honours and Awards

Denis O’Brien has been the recipient of many honours and awards in recognition
for his business and philanthropic achievements.

Award for Outstanding Achievement

The Ireland-U.S. Council honoured O’Brien with the Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Council’s 57th Annual Dinner in 2019 in celebration of his business achievements, particularly in building professional relationships between Ireland and the U.S.

Honorary Life President

In 2018, the Football Association of Ireland granted O’Brien the title of Honorary Life President for his support of the sport. O’Brien is the first to ever receive this title.

National Order of Honour and Merit

In 2012, O’Brien was awarded the National Order of Honour and Merit by the Republic of Haiti for his contributions to the country in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

Goodwill Ambassador

In 2010, the City of Port-au-Prince named O’Brien Goodwill Ambassador for his and Digicel’s role in helping to rebuild Haiti after the devastating earthquake that hit the country in January of 2010.

Denis O'Brien receives Honorary Doctor of Laws

Honorary Doctor of Laws

In 2006, O’Brien’s alma mater University College Dublin awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his successes as a businessman and entrepreneur.

In 2015, The University of the West Indies in Jamaica awarded O’Brien an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his services provided to the Caribbean through Digicel.

Order of Jamaica

In 2015, the Government of Jamaica bestowed O’Brien with an honorary membership to the Order of Jamaica for Digicel’s telecommunications services.

Lifetime Achievement Award

In 2015, at the Tech Excellence Awards, Denis O’Brien received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his accomplishments in the telecommunications field.

Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year

In 1998, O’Brien was recognised with the Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year Award, presented by Ernst & Young and Jefferson Smurfit Group (now the Smurfit Kappa Group) for his success with Esat Telecom and “for his drive, perseverance and tenacity.”

Clinton Global Citizen Award

In 2013, The Clinton Foundation honoured O’Brien with the prestigious Clinton Global Citizen Award at the Foundation’s 6th annual awards ceremony for his work in Haiti following the horrific 2010 earthquake. O’Brien is also Chairman of the Haiti Action Network through the Clinton Global Initiative.

Denis O'Brien and Bill Clinton