Sunday, April 20, 2008

Denis O'Brien - visionary philanthropist

Denis O'Brien, Chairman and Founder of Digicel, as he distributed school supplies to tiny tots at the Lakes Pen Basic School in St Catherine, Jamaica, built by the Digicel Foundation in November 2004.

This column was written on the occasion of Digicel's 5th Anniversary.


Denis O'Brien - visionary philanthropist
Jean Lowrie-Chin

It was an animated Denis O’Brien, Digicel Founder and Chairman who said in Trinidad last Tuesday, “Let the games begin! That’s the way of the world … We’re up to it – our staff is up to it.” This is the spirit of the Irish, a spirit which has re-energised the telecommunications industry in Jamaica and the region, providing employment for over 2,000 and empowerment to even the humblest members of the business community.

Irish Examiner business reporter, Ian Guider, who was in Trinidad for the Digicel launch, explained that the invigorated Irish economy of the nineties saw the emergence of many self-made millionaires. Most of them opted to restrict their investments to their homeland, “only a few like Denis O’Brien and the Kerry Group went global.”

It seems like only yesterday that a youthful Seamus Lynch appeared at our office to discuss O’Brien’s grand plan. I had worked with several multinationals, but never before had I seen this level of energy and daring. We hunkered down with Jamaica’s leading marketing guru Harry Smith, in a “war-room” and planned the biggest launch in our country’s history. Tomorrow is five years to the day that Jodi-Ann Maxwell and Makonnen Blake-Hannah switched on the Digicel service in Jamaica. Maxi Priest and river/reggae dancers wowed the awestruck guests whose complimentary phones lit up at midnight while laser lights glowed over New Kingston.

What made the company different from the outset was the unprecedented opportunities it offered not only for employment, but for Jamaican entrepreneurs. One such is the CEO of Fimi Wireless, Bernard Henry, who had initially been hired as Marketing Director of Digicel. When Henry crunched the numbers and saw the dealership dollar signs, he promptly resigned his job and with the assistance of his former employer, joined with partners to launch a chain of islandwide dealerships. I saw a happy Henry at the appropriately named Zen nightclub in Port of Spain, pleased with the early indicators of his business partnership in Trinidad.

But back to Jamaica, where Digicel now employs over a thousand of the brightest young people I have ever seen in one place. We know about the company’s customer care, but their best kept secret is probably the care of their internal customers, their staff members. Consider this. A Fifth Anniversary staff meeting – red carpeted entrance to the Pegasus Ballroom, Fab Five on the stage, Movado watches for the Five-Year employees, spot prizes galore and Destra to wow them. To introduce the proceedings, the witty Human Resource Director, Burnett Coke, dressed in his pyjamas!

This interest in people takes many turns. Like the day Digicel CEO David Hall and friends visit Floyd’s Pelican Bar in the middle of the sea near Treasure Beach. David gets a clear signal and asks Floyd if he could use his place in a Digicel ad. Floyd becomes an overnight star in his district, and when his bar is blown away by Hurricane Ivan, he gets help to rebuild it from his new best friends, Digicel.

Floyd was one of many who benefited when Digicel made the largest single corporate donation in Jamaica’s history, $200 million for post-Ivan reconstruction. “That is certainly not chicken-feed!” commented ONR CEO Danville Walker in a radio interview.

I try to resist writing about my clients, but I think you will agree that the brief five-year history of this company has literally changed the lives of the Jamaican people. I have two Digicel numbers for my helper – she was able to give her first phone to her teenage son, and buy another. She says that six years ago, she did not even dream of having a phone, much less two.

This is why it is important to celebrate entrepreneurship. It not only creates wealth for the entrepreneur, but a multiplicity of opportunities in direct relation to the reach of the entrepreneurial vision. Denis O’Brien’s managers and staff derive directly from his companies’ successes.

“Companies that embrace employee ownership consistently outperform companies that do not have a scheme of employee ownership,” says O’Brien. He believes in mentoring and succession planning: “ People’s senses are stimulated at a very early stage and management and staff begin to think like entrepreneurs.”

Sitting with young employees of the company at that memorable staff meeting, I asked them about their Digicel experience. Cherrica Rowe, Team Leader for the building department described it as, “fascinating – like a roller coaster ride that keeps getting more exciting.” Customer care support manager Chantelle Riley describes her job as “hard work and fun.” Team leader for operations/building Dawson Robinson said it was “very dynamic” while Henry Stennett Jr, of IT, every bit as charming as his dear Dad, describes it in one word, “fun”.

They all feel fortunate that Denis O’Brien chose Jamaica and grew his business to not only employ them, but also train and promote them. In a country where 85% of our university graduates migrate in search of greener fields, you cannot help but be moved by the testimony of these youngsters, bright, confident and motivated.

There are plans to build a stunning regional headquarters in the New Kingston area, as O’Brien wants the Jamaica people to feel his appreciation for the great Caribbean start he got here. His next frontier is Haiti, where this renowned philanthropist was so moved by its people’s needs, that ahead of being awarded the operating license, he sponsored their football programme and an environmental effort that will put money in the pockets of the poor through a plastic bottle recycling effort.

Group CEO Colm Delves says his Jamaican team is in Haiti, conducting intensive customer care. In this, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Delves says the facilities and opportunities there, will be typical of his company as Digicel wants to become an integral part of its development.

Before leaving for Haiti last Wednesday, Denis O’Brien said, “The Digicel Foundation and Caring Connections will be sponsoring sustainable projects in Haiti. Wherever we invest, we are committed to giving back a percentage of our sales to the people.” The visionary philanthropist added, “Haiti is really a great country – we’re going to do well there.”

With his business philosophy, no doubt Denis O’Brien and his redoubtable team will win the hearts of the Haitians.

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