Canada’s MDA Awaiting U.S. Government’s Return from ‘Capex Holiday’

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PARIS — Canada’s MDA Corp., which in 2012 spent $1 billion buying U.S. commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SSL), on Feb. 25 said it reduced its debt in 2013 and will now turn its focus to growth including acquisitions.

Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA, in an apparent demonstration of its intentions, spent 2.7 million Canadian dollars ($2.5 million) in 2013 performing due diligence on an unidentified acquisition target, the company said in its Feb. 25 annual report. The transaction was later abandoned.

In a conference call with investors, MDA Chief Executive Daniel E. Friedmann said the company’s current focus is to “build up our resume” to prepare for the time when the U.S. government returns to the market to replace existing orbital systems.

“They’re taking a little capex holiday in the U.S. government right now,” Friedmann said, referring to the fact that few new space-hardware programs are being offered for bid. “But in terms of our essential business, it has to come back — maybe not in 2014 but in 2015 or 2016. But it’s coming back and we’ve got to get ready for that.”

One large contract for geospatial imagery services that has been delayed from a planned 2013 decision by a U.S. government agency is expected to be decided by midyear, Friedmann said, without identifying the contracting agency. He suggested that MDA, for this bid, had raised its profile to that of prime contractor — another consequence of the SSL acquisition.

The purchase of Palo Alto, Calif.-based SSL was described from the start as a way to free MDA from some the constraints of being a big space-program contracting fish in a small government-contracting pond.

While the Canadian government has made good on its promise to proceed with the next-generation Radarsat radar Earth observation program, called the Radarsat Constellation Mission — MDA won the RCM prime contract valued at 715 million Canadian dollars in 2013 — Canadian military space spending looks weak in the foreseeable future, Friedmann said.

A proposed Polar Communications and Weather satellite system, for which a request for information was issued in recent weeks, shows no sign of moving to a request for bids, Friedmann said. “There is no approved program, budget or procurement,” he said. “We don’t expect to see action in the next 12 months.”

Friedmann said SSL’s recent win of a contract with Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, Calif., to build 13 small Skybox Earth observation satellites is an example of MDA’s leveraging its background and SSL’s U.S. location and expertise to find new business.

SSL specializes in communications satellites weighing 6,000 kilograms and operating 36,000 kilometers over the equator. The Skybox satellites weigh 120 kilograms and will operate at a 500-kilometer altitude.

Friedmann said the contract is valued “in the tens of millions of dollars” and represents “a strategic milestone for MDA. It provides tangible evidence that MDA and SSL, working together, can penetrate new markets.”

MDA will be able to use its license from Skybox relating to the satellites’ design to compete for similar contracts elsewhere “with significantly more MDA value added than we’ve had in the past,” Friedmann said. “Skybox puts us in a good position to bid U.S. government surveillance jobs.”

Beyond the United States, Brazil and India remain focuses for MDA and SSL. The company in 2013 won a commercial contract with Brazil’s Star One telecommunications satellite fleet operator, but lost a Brazilian government communications satellite contract late in the year to Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.

Friedmann said the Brazilian government has issued a request for bids on a geospatial imagery contract as part of Brazil’s growing space program. For contracts such as these, and similar work in Russia, bidders are obliged to set up joint-venture companies to guarantee that much of the work is done in the nation ordering the system, he said. “In Russia we’ve had a hard time with the Europeans,” he said.

Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space of Europe have both created joint ventures with Russian partners to capture Russian government space-hardware business.

For SSL’s core business of building large telecommunications satellites, Friedmann said 2014 is shaping up to be at least as busy as 2013, when some 23 commercial satellites were ordered. SSL won six of these.

SSL’s production facility is adding a second thermal-vacuum chamber to increase its throughput, and notably to avoid having to lease other satellite builders’ facilities when the SSL factory thermal-vacuum chamber is busy.

The new vacuum chamber and other investments in the plant make it necessary for SSL to book six or seven satellite awards per year. That is especially true in 2014 because of the relatively slow award year in 2012. “We need a good seven satellites this year,” Friedmann said.

 

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