Business: Mr. DIGICEL

To find the driving force behind the DIGICEL tidal wave that has swept the Caribbean cellular service industry, one need look no further than Dennis O’Brien, the company’s chairman founder. O’Brien’s credentials validate the view that he is one of Europe’s most successful businessmen and his accomplishments are attended by an air of confidence which even his politeness and ‘Irish warmth’ cannot conceal. Dennis O’Brien is unmistakably the driving force behind the aggression and energy that characterize DIGICEL’s presence in the Caribbean..

O’Brien blows the DIGICEL “trumpet” in clear, crisp candid tones, responding to questions about the company’s “empire” and its future with the forthrightness of a man who dares you to prove him wrong.

DIGICEL is “on a roll” and O’Brien knows it. Currently one of the fastest growing cellular services in the world, the company has taken the Caribbean market by storm. Having secured 22 markets with 5 million customers in the Caribbean, South and Central America, O’Brien still sees a “huge opportunity” in the region. “We’re doing double digit growth in nearly every country in the Caribbean where we’re operating. In Haiti we currently have around 1.8 million customers and we think we can get 3 million pretty quickly and maybe four million in the next three to four years.”

In Guyana, where DIGICEL has “locked horns” with the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GT&T) in the biggest marketing showdown ever witnessed here, O’Brien says that the company’s aim is to supplant GT&T as the leading service provider in six months.

Far from being satisfied with DIGICEL’s already phenomenal success in the Caribbean, O’Brien still sees “huge growth potential” both in the region and beyond. DIGICEL, he says, is still pursuing “pockets of opportunity” in other Caribbean territories including the British Virgin Islands and The Bahamas. In Central America DIGICEL has already launched a cellular service in El Salvador and, O’Brien says, the company is seeking to secure licences in the rest of that region.

Beyond the hemisphere, DIGICEL has launched operations in Papua New Guinea, acquired business in Samoa and secured licences in Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific. If there is a point at which DIGICEL will be satisfied with its market share that point is yet to be reached.

The speed with which DIGICEL has spread its operations across the Caribbean and Central America typifies the O’Brien outlook on business as a whole. He believes, he says, that success in business depends in large measure on making and implementing decisions quickly.

The accomplishments of one of Ireland’s best-known businessmen precedes the establishment of DIGICEL six years ago. O’Brien’s is a story of seemingly sustained business success, chiefly though not exclusively in the telecommunications industry. Prior to establishing DIGICEL he founded the Esat Telecom Group, building it throughout the 1990s then selling it to British Telecoms for 2.4 billion pounds sterling!

Successes like the ESAT deal have made O’Brien one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in Ireland. His extensive investments across several sectors include holdings in international telecommunications, media, property, aircraft leasing, golf and other leisure sectors. Communicorp Group, another business enterprise founded by O’Brien, owns and manages a portfolio of broadcasting companies across Europe.

It is the same brand of success in his wider entrepreneurial pursuits which, O’Brien says, DIGICEL is seeking to emulate in the Caribbean and his keen marketing instincts are immediately activated in response to a question about the company’s vision for the region. “One of the disturbing things about the Caribbean is that incumbents, for decades and decades have an it will do attitude to the local consumer. One of the things that DIGICEL has decided to do is to change that.”

O’Brien’s successes as an international entrepreneur have been attended by an impressive collection of noteworthy appointments and high-profile assignments. In 2003 he chaired the highly successful Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland and he is currently the Chairman of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Panel, having been the recipient of the award. O’Brien is also the Chairman and Co-Founder of Frontline, the Dublin-based international foundation for the protection of human rights which has set itself the task of ensuring that the standards set out in the international Declaration on Human Rights Defenders are known and respected worldwide.

The holder of a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University College, Dublin and an MBA from the University of Boston, O’Brien is also the Founder of the O’Brien Foundation, an organization set up to support projects in Ireland and elsewhere designed to support disadvantaged communities.

Just prior to departing Guyana for Barbados to attend a Caribbean Leadership Conference there, the affable Irishman commended his own global vision to the Caribbean business community. The world, he says, has become a “little pond” and the way to develop a multinational business is to take “a different view of the world.” O’Brien believes that cheaper air travel and advances in international telecommunications have made it easier to develop new markets for goods and services. “Caribbean companies need to look outside the region a lot more,” O’Brien says.

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