Billionaire O’Brien Finds Linger-Free Zone in Davos MeetsMatthew G. Miller and Tom Metcalf
Denis O’Brien, the second-richest man in Ireland, was late and a little out of breath when he rushed into the lobby of the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere at 9:12 a.m. yesterday.
The 54-year-old chairman of Kingston, Jamaica-based Digicel Group Ltd., the largest telecommunications company in the Caribbean, had flown on his Gulfstream 550 jet plane to Zurich from Boston the night before, and been driven by an Austrian named Gary for more than two hours before landing in Davos, Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum is holding its annual meeting.
“This is a linger-free zone,” he said, wearing black suede shoes, a navy blue sports coat and sweater. “If you tried to have dinner with all the people I’m going to see today, you’d put on a stone of weight real fast.”
The billionaire has been coming to Davos for about a decade, and at one time would stay in the Swiss Alpine resort for a week to attend a slew of lectures and panel discussions on the state of the world. Now, he doesn’t stay the night and refuses to attend a session at the forum’s Congress Centre.
In ten hours yesterday, he met with two billionaires, the president of South Africa, the prime minister of Haiti, two chief executive officers, consultants and the head of a company that provides jobs to people with autism. He also negotiated the sale of a business and found a resort in the Middle East to send his parents on vacation -- all before traveling back to Dublin to attend a charity ball with his wife.
O’Brien, who has a net worth of at least $5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, agreed to allow Bloomberg News to accompany him around town for most of the day to see how billionaires experience the event.
“I fly three-to-four times as much as the average executive does on his corporate jet,” he said. “I’m invested in gathering emotional intelligence, at looking people in the eye. I just hate to waste time.”
O’Brien’s day began with a meeting in the basement of the Belvedere. He sat in a lounge sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers with Hans Vestberg, CEO of Stockholm-based Ericsson AB, the world’s largest maker of mobile-phone networks. The two discussed the restructuring of Irish debt and possible new markets for Digicel.
The company has 12.8 million customers in Central America, the Pacific and the Caribbean, and generated $2.5 billion in revenue in the year ending March 2012. It is applying for a license in Myanmar, which is auctioning two telecommunications licenses in an attempt to boost mobile-network coverage to 80 percent of the country by 2016.
O’Brien has flown to the southeast Asian country once every two weeks for several months. The license, he said, could increase the company’s revenue by as much as 40 percent. He asked Vestberg if there were any distressed assets that were for sale in the world, and then hugged him good-bye.
The billionaire met Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, in a private room at the Hotel Seehof to discuss an asset he is trying to sell in the country. He then drove a few miles to the Meierhof Hotel for a meeting with billionaire George Soros and Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister of Haiti. Also at the meeting: Petra Nemcova, a former Victoria’s Secret model who serves as an ambassador-at-large for the country.
Having a reporter in the meeting with Soros “doesn’t work for us,” Michael Vachon, a spokesman for the billionaire, said in the hotel’s lobby.
O’Brien returned an hour later to discuss the state of his business. He ordered a black coffee, asking a reporter to pay for it because he didn’t have any Swiss francs.
Seven years after earning an MBA at Boston College, O’Brien set up a cable home-shopping channel and an Irish radio broadcaster. In 2000, Esat Digifone -- an Irish telecommunications company he was a partner in -- was sold for 2.4 billion euros ($2.3 billion) to BT Group, a British operator.
O’Brien parlayed the 300 million euros he earned from the deal to create Digicel Group a year later. Today, the company is the largest single investor in Haiti. After a 7.8 earthquake hit the Caribbean nation in 2010, the company invested in its reconstruction by funding schools and mobile clinics, and rebuilding the historic Iron Market in the capital city Port-au-Prince. O’Brien was named the island’s goodwill ambassador the same year.
“We have a different kind of capitalism within Digicel,” he said in a December phone interview. “We operate in very poor countries. You could not sleep at night unless you are doing something good in the communities that you’re selling your mobile-phone services to.”
O’Brien owns all of Digicel. He also controls Aergo, an aircraft-leasing firm; Communicorp Group, an Irish broadcaster; and two Iberian golf resorts. He has interests in oil companies, online recruiting and newspaper publishing.
Gerald Lawless, president of Jumeirah Group LLC, the company that operates Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, greeted O’Brien with a handshake. The two Irishmen discussed a Caribbean golf resort where O’Brien owns a house, and soccer.
The billionaire then asked Lawless where he should send his parents, who are in their 80s, on vacation next month. O’Brien said his mother had hurt her back while at their ski home in France last year, and insisted they go somewhere warm.
Lawless suggested Jumeirah’s Dar Al Masyaf resort in Dubai.
A little before noon, O’Brien’s driver, Gary, whose car has a green sticker provided by the forum that allows him to drive anywhere in town except near the main meeting space, picked him up and drove him to the Morosani Posthotel to attend a lunch session called Building Resilient Economies. Haiti’s Lamothe was there with his entourage, as well as a few dozen economists and political leaders.
Over fish, potatoes and zucchini -- and a half glass of white wine -- O’Brien appeared tired as four people, including Martin Burt, chief of staff for the president of Paraguay, and Kevin Lu, the Asia head of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, spoke about economies facing turmoil. He held his head in his hands several times and seemed to daydream.
Afterwards, he returned to the basement lounge at the Belvedere, where he met a consultant who was brokering the sale of his asset in South Africa. In the room, which was covered in white cloth to give the appearance of being in a cloud, lawyers and consultants gathered to do business, gossip and read e-mail.
A few of them eavesdropped on O’Brien’s conversation, which took place first in a semi-enclosed area, and then on white leather couches in the middle of a larger room when a receptionist threw the billionaire out because the space was reserved for someone else.
The billionaire left the hotel and walked five minutes to the Congress Centre, where he waited for an open table in the Industry Partners and Members Lounge while billionaires Eyal Ofer and Thomas Pritzker spoke at the juice bar. His first guest was billionaire Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest telecommunications company. The two, who O’Brien said were “friendly,” discussed the state of their industry -- and private jets.
O’Brien, who has two plane crews, is buying a Gulfstream 650, which will be delivered to him in a few months, he told Mittal. The Indian billionaire, who said he uses NetJets when traveling in Europe, asked him about the logistics of buying the jet plane and how much he would get selling his Gulfstream 550.
As Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire chairman of the world’s biggest private-equity company, spoke to someone behind him, O’Brien then spent half an hour speaking with Thorkil Sonne, the head of a company devoted to getting jobs for people with autism.
Sonne was looking for advice on fundraising, and the billionaire gave him the same attention he gave his fellow moguls, asking about his children, how much money they need to raise and promising to give him “a fair hearing.”
After giving his mobile-phone number and business card to Schwarzman, O’Brien went to a private meeting on foreign direct investment in Haiti, a cocktail party at the Belvedere and another event before driving back to Zurich to fly to Dublin, where his wife was waiting to go to the charity dinner.
“I’m scared I’m going to be late,” he said, driving between the Congress Centre and the Belvedere. “If I am, she’ll kill me. Gary, I’ll give 100 euros to call her and tell her when I’m coming home.”