You may not expect to find an Irishman contributing to a panel discussion on investment in Haiti, but businessman Denis O’Brien earned his place at the recent Clinton Global Initiative alongside former President Bill Clinton and newly appointed Haitian President Michel Martelly, to name a few.
When the influential Irishman greets me with a strong handshake in Manhattan’s Sheraton Hotel last Wednesday afternoon, the talk immediately turns to his work in Haiti.
One of Ireland’s most prolific entrepreneurs, O’Brien’s vast business portfolio stretches across the world in varied industries making him a billionaire tycoon. In Ireland everyone knows O’Brien due to his savvy business nature, his involvement in a public inquiry (the Moriarty Tribunal) into certain payments to politicians and his vast fortune.
O’Brien was in New York to participate in the annual Clinton Global Initiative, an event he describes as a proactive version of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“Davos is interesting and there are very good sessions there, but nobody makes any promises or makes any commitment to do something, where as President Clinton and CGI is all about doing something,” says O’Brien.
Denis O'Brien lends Digicel plane to Concern to fly relief supplies to Haiti
O’Brien’s ties to Haiti were established before the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in January 2010, claiming the lives of over 200,000 people.
His connections to the Caribbean began with the development of his mobile phone company, Digicel, which now has over 11 million subscribers in the Caribbean, Central America, and Pacific regions, but the Irishman has a special interest in Haiti.
“We are the largest foreign direct investor in Haiti. We are trying to break the rules of capitalism here a bit, we are saying that we are interested in making a profit, but in a country like Haiti you would feel very guilty about making large profits without doing something meaningful, and hence what we have tried to do is say let’s fix a few things,” he says.
One of those things is a focus on education. O’Brien himself, who attained a MBA from Boston College, says you cannot underestimate the importance of education in a country such as Haiti, where 87% of schools were destroyed or damaged as a result of the earthquake.
“In the last 12 months we have built 48 schools and we will have another two finished by the end of October,” he says.
“We built them all over Haiti, which needs to build about 1,000 schools. So within the next year we will have built 150 of them, so we are building 15 percent of all new schools. That's the largest school building project within the Caribbean region.
“We are trying to do serious things quickly, faster than anyone else but also in a very comprehensive way.”
O’Brien, who is on the U.S. board of Concern Worldwide, describes the Irish charity’s work in Haiti as fantastic as he details their latest efforts, the Your Dollar Our Future campaign, which aims to raise $2 million to help get Haiti’s kids back to school.
In the 18 months since the earthquake struck, O’Brien has traveled to Haiti 29 times. The thing that stays with him the most is the shared sense of pride among Haitians.
“If I can walk down any street in Port Au Prince people never ask me for money, they ask me for jobs,” the billionaire told the Irish Voice.
“They are a very proud people and that is the most amazing thing I think. They are very poor obviously but they will never ask you for money.”
O’Brien recently acquired a 1.4 percent stake in APN News and Media in Australia. When asked if it is fair to say he’s passionate about media, he laughs.
“What do you call passionate, it being my greatest investment?”
On the topic of Irish media he seizes the opportunity to take a snipe at Independent News and Media (IN&M), where he is a major investor and has recently sought a reshuffle of the senior staff.
“I think there is a growing view amongst investors that the strategy of IN&M is flawed. Paying down debt is not a strategy to develop a business, unless you are developing new revenue sources, basically you are going over the Cliffs of Moher,” O’Brien warned.