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.
Early Life and Career
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Honours and Awards
for his business and philanthropic achievements.
Award for Outstanding Achievement
Honorary Life President
National Order of Honour and Merit
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.
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
Lifetime Achievement Award
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.