Denis O’Brien, (54), is Ireland’s most successful businessman and biggest philanthropist. He created Digicell, one of the most successful cell phone companies in the world.
In addition he has a vast media empire but is as well known for his philanthropy, especially in the Third World as his business acumen.
Last week was a good one for O'Brien in New York. Former president Bill Clinton, a close friend, had written in a Time Magazine cover story that his move to make cash transactions available for the poorest in the world via cell phones was the number one idea in changing the world last year.
He had also just received a corporate philanthropic award from the Clinton Global Initiative at their annual meeting. In addition, Forbes Magazine came out with their Richest 400 list and he was rated at number 205 with a $5 billion fortune.
He had just come from a small dinner with President Clinton and Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire and the world's richest man and a few other heavyweights the night before we met and he described with evident relish, how the evening had ended with a few spontaneous songs from all concerned. He makes it clear that his philanthropic work is taking more of his time these days and that Ireland's problems are never far from his mind.
O’D: Tell me, how does it feel to be named in a cover story in Time magazine as making the most difference out of anyone on earth in the last year – by Bill Clinton of all people?
O’B: Well look, you know, it was generous, it was extremely generous of him. It certainly doesn’t feel like that because, you know, everybody is doing their bit in Haiti. There are so many people doing projects – small projects, big projects – there are thousands of people trying to help Haiti at the moment
O’D: How did you come up with this idea of people being able to send money by cell phone?
O’B: Well, they’ve been doing it in Africa for many years, but nobody has really turned it into a commercial proposition yet, So, you know, we have four beta tests at the moment. Well, Haiti now has gone beyond beta tests, but Haiti was the number one, and then Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and also Samoa.
O’D: So, tell me about Bill Clinton. What do you think?
O’B: [Laughs.] You know, his best snippet from last night was, he said “the weight of ants is more than the weight of human beings in the world today.” He was weaving this thing together… He always surprises, and he gets more and more interesting. And the Clinton Global Initiative is the real model because everybody goes to (CGI) , and we all have a good chat and we head home. We learn a few things. But if you go to the CGI, number one you’re making a promise and you have to deliver on it. And what he’s done is he’s used all of his contacts around the world and he’s corralled them all to do something good. He is beloved here If he could run for election tomorrow he’d be in at 60, 65%.
But his engagement in Ireland is critical. I mean, talk about having an ally. Think about all the countries in the world, there are two-hundred and something countries in the world, to have an ally like Bill Clinton. He’s a great advocate for Ireland and has such a great mind.
He was Google before they invented Google, and he still is Google.
O’D:Why was he so enamoured of your idea?
O’B: 95% of people are unbanked in Haiti, for example. In Papua New Guinea it’s probably even more. So now for the first time people can have money, save money, without having to put cash under a bed or hide it somewhere.
They have a pin code so nobody can access that cash and it’s totally secure.
O’D: Looking back, what was the moment when you said, “I’m going to go there, to the underdeveloped countries, the path not taken by so many others?
O’B: It wasn’t really that brilliant, because if you see a country today and only 10% of the people have a mobile phone, every other country in the world is at 70. 80% – some are at 100%. So, I mean, it’s going to go there, it’s going to go in that direction. It’s a matter of having the best combination of things in your proposition: a good network, good prices, and a good team and good marketing. So we just rolled out teams – mainly Irish people – who put this into effect in country after country. Now we have local managers, who we have trained up. So we probably have, worldwide, still about 200 senior Irish managers sprinkled all over out operations.
Burma is like – there are only 2 million people who have cell phones there and there are about 63 million people in the country. So the only 3 places left in the world where phones are needed, where somebody needs to bring a network to them, are North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar [laughs]. That’s it!
O’D: What’s next?
O’B: I think, the next thing is this: If you take all our mobile phone customers, they’re all eventually going to go on the internet, and many of them already have. We’ve built 4G networks in 15 of our countries, and everybody now is buying smart phones. So it’s a completely different revenue stream