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.

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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.

Despite O’Brien being IN&M’s biggest shareholder with a 21.6% stake, he describes himself as a “minority investor.”

“If you think of any of our radio businesses scattered around Europe, we spend 50% of our board meetings on our digital initiatives,” he says.

“Our strategy is to focus absolutely on building those revenues.

“That is the problem with IN&M, you have a CEO that just doesn't understand digital,” he says of the current CEO Gavin O’Reilly, adding to their ongoing standoff.
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“There are some very good people, good managers and journalists in IN&M but they need to be liberated and shown a new direction, certainly not by the CEO who is there at the moment.”

O’Brien concludes, “It's digital all the way”

Jetting around the globe monitoring his vast investment portfolio, O’Brien admits talk will often inevitably turn to Ireland’s economic woes.

“I am very positive about Ireland but it's not because I am Irish.  I actually believe we have now really addressed our problems,” he says.

“A lot of really heavy lifting and really radical things have already happened that people would have never contemplated before in terms of spending cuts.”

Despite his optimism he admits that the average Irish person may not share his sentiment.
“They have had so many body blows between wage cuts, pension cuts, extra taxes, levies. When that is happening to you, you say, ‘Where is this all going to end?’

“It's a terrible thing to be unemployed. It's only when you are unemployed that you really realize how miserable it is and how demeaning it is.”

As the founder of the international media company Communicorp, among his other Irish businesses, O’Brien has overseen extensive layoffs and wage reductions, partly as a result of drastic drop in advertisement revenue in his media based corporations.

“It’s been horrendously difficult and miserable so I am hoping now there will be a bit of growth in the market,” he says.

However, O’Brien is not troubled by Ireland’s mass emigration, testifying that experiences acquired by those abroad will be easily reapplied in Ireland once the economy returns.

“It's a really difficult thing to leave home, to leave your friends and your family and rock and roll, and go off and live in a different country, but you are better off there doing that than being miserable back in Ireland,” he said.

Tapping into the Irish diaspora is essential for Ireland’s future he says.

“Ireland has a very strong reputation in the developing world because of the missionaries,” he says.

“In recent times, Bono, our artists, our writers, our poets, have also had a huge impact on the reputation of Ireland.

“It’s all about keeping that connection and using that culture as the carrier of that connection,” O’Brien says.