Posted on Wednesday 8 February 2012 by Ulster Business

O'Brien urges entrepreneurs to take businesses global

Northern Ireland’s entrepreneurs should resist selling their businesses too early and instead try to grow them into global businesses, according to one of Ireland’s most successful businessmen.

Chairman of Digicel Group Denis O’Brien was speaking at FPM’s 20th anniversary leadership lecture at the University of Ulster’s Business School, part of the Management Leadership Network’s Management Month.

Mr O’Brien told the assembled audience about his own story, including the failure of his first business, resisting the hostile takeover of another, and the growth of his current company into an entity with turnover of $2.5bn.

The entrepreneur said he was optimistic about the future for both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

“There seems to be a huge surge of entrepreneurship here,” he said.

“There is a real pipeline of exciting and scalable businesses and I suppose the thing that I would like to see is more companies here not selling out. When an entrepreneur hits a level where his business is worth £10m or £15m (they should) keep going and have the belief they can turn it into a multinational like Galen or Foyle Meats or some of the other major companies here.”

He urged Governments to be bold with their funding support and professional advisers to push their clients forward to help them believe in the potential of their companies – commenting that entrepreneurs need “capital and belief” more than anything else.

“We have the same problem in the Republic where a lot of our technology companies have been sold too early because the entrepreneur didn’t have that push to believe in themselves,” said Mr O’Brien.

The entrepreneur said there was growing recognition on Wall Street about the strength of Irish companies and said he believed there would be opportunities for firms from here to attract US investors when they hit the right size – although he acknowledged that attracting early stage capital is tough.

“The first money you raise is the hardest. When the numbers get bigger it is actually easier,” he said.

Mr O’Brien founded the privately owned Digicel Group in 2001 and it is now one of the fastest growing mobile telephone operators in the world. In the last 10 years the company has extended its operations to 32 markets with over 11 million subscribers in the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific regions.

Mr O’Brien, one of Ireland’s richest men, also offered encouragement when he said he believed that it was not always the most academically gifted people who made good entrepreneurs, noting that he struggled with maths at school.

“If you can count to ten and you can sell you can be an entrepreneur,” he joked.

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