When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

06 September 2008

Making sure you can get five bars in Hell

Denis O'Brien professes not to understand why Wall Streeters think his telecom business is risky. He says this while sitting in an office in Papua New Guinea that is protected by razor wire and a half-dozen guards carrying shotguns and pistols. O'Brien's Jamaica-headquartered company, Digicel Group, began offering cheap cell phone service recently in this Pacific hellhole. The murder rate in PNG is one of the highest in the world, corruption is rife, and the government recently threatened to seize 130 cell towers that O'Brien had erected at a cost of $120 million.

Is there anyplace as inhospitable to capital as PNG? Haiti would qualify. O'Brien has put money in there, too--several hundred million dollars. Five of his workers in Haiti have been kidnapped so far. In East Timor O'Brien is pursuing a license despite a rebel uprising this year that left the country's president with a bullet in his chest. And then there's Fiji, where he had to abandon cell towers for a time after a coup.

He concedes a bit to the worrywarts by noting that his experience in Fiji was a "nightmare." But he's not about to stop putting capital in dangerous places. "If you just focus on risk, you can't do a thing," he says. A swashbuckling entrepreneur of 50 who swears often in his Irish brogue, O'Brien has built a $2.2 billion personal fortune by dominating the mobile business in a dozen poverty-stricken countries (in all, he's in 27 countries and territories). Combining shrewd political instincts, a relentless drive to cut costs and a little Irish charm, he's put phones into the hands of 7 million people in seven years.
Babble Rouser (Forbes.com - from Forbes magazine, 11 August 2008)


No comments: