When the first Marriott hotel debuts in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 24, it will be the realization of a request from former U.S. President Bill Clinton to the head of one of the Caribbean’s largest mobile phone networks to help bring much needed jobs to Haiti and help it once again become a tourist destination.
“There are a lot of good hotels in Haiti, but there needed to be a multinational brand,” said Denis O’Brien, the founder and chairman of telecom giant Digicel Group, which happily took on Clinton’s challenge. “That’s why we decided to spend $45 million building a hotel in Port-au-Prince.”
Located near downtown in the capital’s commercial district in Turgeau, the 175-room hotel will generate 200 jobs while promoting locally made goods — from coffee to bath soaps. The hotel is owned by Digicel and will be operated by Marriott, which now joins such brands as Best Western and Spain-based Royal Occidental Hotels & Resorts and NH Hotel Group on the country’s growing hotel scene.
Kingston, Jamaica-based Digicel, which was founded by O’Brien in 2000, operates mobile, cable and fiber optic networks in 32 countries in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia Pacific regions. As of Feb. 12, the company had seen $2.8 billion in sales, according to Forbes; the magazine said O’Brien himself has a net worth of $6.7 billion.
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For O’Brien, however, expanding Digicel’s recognizable red and white brand to the hotel industry isn’t just about dollars and cents. Rather it’s about expanding his company’s philanthropic endeavors, which also include the Special Olympics in Jamaica and Entrepreneur of the Year in Haiti.
“It’s all about if you make a profit in a country, you reinvest it heavily in the community to make the community feel, ‘Hey, this is different,’ ” O’Brien said. “That is what we have been trying to do in Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, all of these countries — to do something really, really impactful, something most multinational companies would never do.”
O’Brien recently discussed Digicel’s charitable outreach in a telephone interview after celebrating another milestone: the 150th school built by the company’s Digicel Foundation in Haiti. The school is in a rural community north of the capital not far from Saut-d’Eau.
Q. What was it like welcoming the 150th school built by your charitable arm, the Digicel Foundation?
A. Somebody said to me that this has been like a marathon because this has all been done since the earthquake: 130 schools on top of an existing 20 that we did pre-earthquake.
Q. How does a telecom company become a school builder?
A. It’s a whole department in our company — engineers, a whole construction team. It’s not something you normally associate with a telecommunications company. We felt that education is one of the most impactful things in a developing economy like Haiti; 60,000 children going to safe schools with proper teachers who have gone through a very rigorous training program. We are now the largest school builder in the whole Caribbean. It’s been a phenomenally difficult project but tremendously satisfying for our 6,000 employees across the region.
Q: How did this come about?
A. We went to communities and said, “Tell us, why we should build a school in your community?” We built in every region in Haiti. We spread them everywhere, not just the easy places. We work with women in communities, community leaders and the head teachers of some of these schools. A lot of these schools are very, very modest.
Q: In a country where schools are not modern, you have built some impressive structures.
A. If you look at the designs of our schools, they are all earthquake-proof, there are [information and communications technology] facilities.
Q: Why is this important to you?
A. More and more people are realizing that, hey, you can’t sleep at night if you make a profit in a developing country and you don’t do something really, really impactful.
Q. Since 2010, the year of Haiti’s massive Jan. 12 earthquake, Digicel has honored the best business talent with its annual Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
A. That’s the other end of the scale where we’re trying to promote and celebrate entrepreneurship. We are developing further education programs in terms of management skills for these entrepreneurs. It’s not just about winning the competition. It’s really about how do you help these entrepreneurs really develop their business.
Q: Moving over to Jamaica: There, you’re engaged in the “Respect” campaign, which asks Jamaicans to be more civil to each other. What is the campaign?
A. It’s a collaboration between everybody, and it’s already getting very good traction. It has all of the people respecting views, religious practices and sexuality, whatever. It’s across a number of different areas of such.
Q. Why has Digicel decided to take on this issue?
A. As a business that is very active in the Caribbean, we have a number of social programs. School building, special needs, for example in Jamaica, and this is one of them that we thought was very important and also, our staff thought it was very important. Politics in Jamaica is very crossed between the [People’s National Party] and [Jamaica Labor Party], and there has been violence around elections time. We felt there needed to be much more moderation; respecting people’s views whether they are going for PNP or the Labor party.
Q. How has it been received in Jamaica?
A. I am absolutely delighted how the whole corporate sector has come together on this. All the major companies in Jamaica are supporting us. This is the start of something that is going to be of significant value to Jamaica in the next number of years.
Q. I understand the campaign will also touch on the issue of gay rights in a country that has an international reputation for being homophobic?
A. That’s obviously up to the government to decide how they want to handle that. The concern we have is the very extreme attitudes in that area.
Position: Chairman and founder of Digicel
Past position: Founder of Esat Telecom Group, which was sold to British Telecom Group in January 2000 for $2.8 billion.
Lives in: Malta
Personal and family: Four children, two dogs
Education: Bachelor of arts, University College Dublin, Ireland; MBA from Boston College; honorary doctorate of laws from University College Dublin.
Honors: Voted Ireland’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998; in 2001 founded Frontline, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders; board member of Concern Worldwide USA.
Last book read: “American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush” by Nigel Hamilton.