SA’s mysterious Irish billionaire investors

South Africa might be seeing a lot more of the cussing billionaire Denis O’Brien.

The tough talks and back-stabbing going on in Dublin will doubtless have an effect on Independent News & Media’s South African media assets ­– and it’s best we get to know the characters of this far-flung boardroom soap opera lest we find ourselves in the same sorry situation as 1995.

That time around, we knew less than a Blarney’s arse about Independent News & Media (INM) chief Tony O’Reilly when he swanned into town for a buying spree except that he had a nice possie in the Bahamas and made a bunch of promises to the ANC.

I suppose we were flattered that a foreigner would show interest in South Africa and he was soon bosom buddies with our then president, Nelson Mandela.   

Fifteen years on and we now know that:

 a). He bled his newspapers (including The Star, Pretoria NewsSunday Tribune, The Mercury and Cape Times)  dry;

b). He didn’t keep one of his promises to the ANC; and

c). Madiba isn’t exactly choosy about who he hangs out when it comes to photo ops.

Today, of course, we have Google alerts so we can follow international news on our BlackBerrys and are, therefore, not so easily wowed by foreign billionaires. One we may well be seeing a lot more of is Tony O’Reilly’s nemesis, Denis O’Brien, the second biggest shareholder in INM.

The Big Two Os have been locked in a bitter battle for control of INM for a couple of years and lately it seems as though O’Brien (hence forth to be addressed as “O the Younger”) has the edge. He managed to oust O the Elder as company CEO this year and get a few friends on to the board. Recently he blocked the sale of the company’s South African outdoor advertising business that was meant to bring in €100m, which would have helped INM settle its €200m debt to bondholders.

O the Elder has hit back at every turn, getting his son, Gavin, into the CEO’s chair and then last week a report from the Irish Times that bondholders were trying to cut O the Younger  out of the loop on negotiations on the bond due on August 27.

It does sometimes seem that the captain and his mate are brawling on deck as the ship drifts to the rocks (there’s a €50m bank debt due in September) but something tells me that O the Younger will win this game of chicken.

Last week I requested an interview with O’Brien and was told by his people that he was on holiday but after ferreting around online, I think I can confidently say that O the Younger is a businessman with balls and many would buckle in the face of his colourful, cussing gift for entrepreneurship.   

For a 2008 Forbes cover article, O’Brien defined his business strategy as: “Get big fast. [Damn] the cost. Be brave. Go over the cliff. [The competition] doesn’t have the balls.”

O the Younger’s first fortune was made when he won a licence in Ireland to set up a cellphone network and he walked away with £300m by selling it to British Telecom while retaining a 30% stake.

Then he went swashbuckling in the Caribbean and won a string of cellphone licences there, across Central America and South Pacific. His cellphone empire, Digicel, is what has made him one of the world’s richest men. This year’s Forbes’s rich list put him at Number 305 with a net worth of $2.2bn.

O the Younger seems to thrive on risk and has waded merrily into some seriously dodgy countries such as Haiti and Papua New Guinea. His modus operandi in developing countries seems to be to spend millions building cellphone towers while he waits for government approval and then open for business with bravado and bargain basement prices, attracting the masses fast.

In a 2008 Haiti riot, his company stores were the only ones in the capital that weren’t looted out of respect for “the company of the people” and one week after Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power in Fiji, O’Brien was having tea on the veranda of the new dictator to talk about Digicel.

If INM’s €1.2bn debt sounds terrifying, it’s nothing new for O’Brien. In 2006, he took Digicel’s debt to $2.8bn when he bought out minority investors. He has told Forbes that debt simply produces a more competitively run company.

O’Brien’s antics certainly make for interesting news stories. His mum, a human rights activist, for instance, has harangued him into joining protests against the Russians’ treatment of Chechens outside the Russian Embassy.   

He once allegedly boasted about a business associate – while they were jogging together — that he paid a €100 000 bribe to an Irish government official. When this ended up as testimony in a government inquiry, O’Brien brushed it off as bravado, saying the two men often “bullshitted” each other.

The fact that he’s taken on O the Elder shows his outrageous audacity. O’Reilly is regarded as the elder statesman of Irish business. In South African terms, it would be like trashing the good name of the late Anton Rupert. 

O the Younger certainly seems to be a hands-on CEO and my guess is that should he trump O’Reilly in the battle for control of INM, he’ll be blustering into South Africa, shaking things up and eyeing out business opportunities beyond the Independent papers.

He surprised many recently in South Africa – myself included -when he declared that South Africa was a “hell of a good media market”.

Though I’m the first to say I would like to see the back of the Irish and the South African papers sold to someone who wants more than a good profit margin, we could do worse than O the Younger. That would be O the Elder.

*Gill Moodie spent 14 years as a salaried hack in print media in South Africa and the UK before escaping to the blogosphere and freelance journalism. She is the publisher of Grubstreet in between unpacking and packing the infernal dishwasher and bringing up a four-year-old with attitude.


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as SA descends into the black abyss. Sandblasted versions of what we have here is all.

Loved the writing style Gill, hope to see you more often on Moneyweb

Mwah, mwah for the cynic in us all…

Not another lot of low class poms to be heralded in this country. Have we not already got enough of these loud mouthed a..holes with big mouths and a below average IQ on radio stations, etc., etc, already!!!!!!

Please don’t refer to John Robbie in such terrible terms.

The constant Sunday morning disappointment lying at my gate is driving me to DYI. You might ask why I subscribe? Well, a) Because there is nothing else and b) I stopped paying two years ago but yet the Paper continues to arrive every Sunday morning.

Clearly a plot to boost circulation.

Nice, fresh, fast writing style. Enjoyable content too. Ta

And a blogger who sticks around long enough to reply to readers’ posts! Things are looking up

Don’t get too excited, Moss.

Would the wise Sipho please explain how exactly the Irish become POMs and low class at that? Great article.

@ Sipho

A pom is an English person. These here are Micks, Paddies, Irish men.
Get it right, wontcha?

For all that, I really don’t see the point in constantly referring to the fact that these guys are Irish. What’s the relevance?

And to go to all the trouble of telling us we need to get to know these guys, you missed the most important detail about O’Brien the younger of all – that he’s currently under investigation for paying bribes to secure the second cellular license in Ireland (a bit more than “bullshitting” while jogging in the park). You also miss out on pointing out that his share in media assets in Ireland and the UK is under scrutiny for being excessive to the point that fairness and impartiality are in question. He’s currently got the Irish govt under the kosh on the bribery front – which is what might make him an interesting topic in terms of his intentions here.

As for South Africans not knowing anything about O’Reilly, that’s pretty lame given his previously high-profile as CEO of Heinz. And if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure our local rugby-mad business community must have noticed him on a Lions tour here in the 50s. So hardly a Johnny-no-name…

A little less of the paddywhackery/Blarney comments and a little more application of your point would be nice.

Actually, O’Brien was cleared last week of monopolism by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland.

I say having someone like O’Brian on our shores will make life a lot more interesting – better than these tycoon lites we’ve got hanging around here. Gotta wonder about his “be competative through debt” philosophy though. Isn’t that what landed INM in poo in the first place – and the same approach that sunk half of the US papers?
Great post though.

Davey, my boy. It was because of your type that we blew up Mountbatten

Love your writing Gill! Keep it up!

Yippe yia yeh. Here come the cavalier Irish. The article seems like a paid Advertorial.

Great article, and love the continous posts on the comments section.

How the Micks became Poms is unexplainable.

How the Bog-trotters became low class is easy : do you know any Irish? Observe & ye shall be answered. Most of the cretinous labourers resting on shovels in England are Bog-trotters

As for 4Q2 – now isn’t that typical Bog-trotter intellectualism? Being proud of blowing up old Mountbatten is in the same class as murdering that beautiful stolen racehorse Shergar with a machine gun & quietly burying the butchered carcase in a bog. Now that is typical Irish class.

O’Brien was always regarded as a retard in the City. As is his putative successor. Bags of bog wind

Enjoyable & informative. I’m sure many thinking Saffers will join me in agreeing with your penultimate sentence, though not necessarily the final one.

Keep it up. The writing I mean.

The Poms would not have buried the horse. they would have eaten the poor thing.

English are to weak to do the stronger stuff. Soon the Pakis will dominate your commerce and your darling Royals Family will cease to exists as they are are not relevant to the Irish and Pakis who run your godforsaken island. Possibly you wont understand as you have stiil to experience colonial rule. It is coming soon.

End of comments.




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