TOULOUSE, France — Spot Image, which spent the past 20 years inventing a global commercial satellite-imagery market, now is forced to reinvent itself as the industry moves to Web-based delivery systems and as Spot’s historic sponsor, the French government, reduces its financial support, Spot Image officials say.
Even as it reports ever-stronger financial performance, the company, which is based here, is facing perhaps its most serious challenges ever. Spot Image reported 2005 revenues of 67.5 million euros ($85 million), a 19 percent increase over 2004 — 12 percent after deducting a one-time gain of about 4 million euros from competitor‘s cancellation of a partnership agreement. It was the company’s third-straight year of double-digit revenue growth.
Speaking at the annual shareholder meeting that Spot traditionally uses to release the previous year’s financial numbers, Herve Buchwalter, Spot Image’s chief executive, said the company paid out a dividend to its shareholders this year and reported a pretax profit margin about 7.5 percent for 2005.
The financial success came even as the French space agency, CNES, in 2005 more than doubled the annual system-maintenance fees it charges the company to 8 million euros.
Buchwalter said Spot Image’s group revenues in 2006 should top 70 million euros, with a pretax profit margin of better than 10 percent. Given the new high-resolution satellites being added to Spot Image’s product portfolio, Buchwalter said annual revenues should surpass 100 million euros by the middle of the next decade.
The reason for the success is the Spot 5 satellite, which is able to provide 2.5-meter black-and-white imagery and 5-meter color imagery while offering swath widths of 60 square kilometers. It has been able to capture a market for medium-resolution mapping that requires more than just the sharpest possible ground resolution.
Spot 5 accounts for well over one-half of the company’s revenue. The rest comes from earlier-generation Spot satellites, which are still used for agricultural and other purposes. The Spot 2 and Spot 4 satellites still are actively producing imagery. Small revenue streams also are generated by Spot’s involvement in selling radar satellite imagery and higher-resolution images from Taiwan’s Formosat-2.
But despite the Spot 5 satellite’s success in the market, neither CNES nor Spot’s other principal shareholder, EADS Space, has been able to promise that a Spot 5 successor will be built. CNES owns 41 percent of Spot Image; EADS Space owns 40 percent. CNES is expected to reduce its shareholding to give EADS Space a 51 percent share, and ownership control, sometime in 2007.
Spot 5 has a design life of five years and will reach that milestone in May. The satellite is healthy and has enough fuel to last through 2010, but the lack of decision on a successor satellite has added a fragility to Spot Image that contrasts sharply with its increasing financial health.
Up to now, CNES has financed the production and launch of all Spot satellites, with the exception of a high-resolution instrument on Spot 5 that was co-financed by EADS Space under a public-private partnership in which EADS Space shares the instrument’s revenue stream.
Michel Bouffard, head of Earth observation and science satellites at EADS’ Astrium division, said the company and CNES are discussing several possible ways of financing a Spot 5 successor, but that no firm decision has been made.
Buchwalter said a Spot 5 follow-on likely would cost around 150 million euros including insurance and launch. He said it is feasible that Spot Image itself could finance a portion of this sum from bank loans based on its current financial perspectives, but that any decision will need to be made in concert with CNES and EADS Space.
“We are absolutely convinced that we need to keep our current core market — medium-resolution imagery with a large swath width,” Buchwalter said here Nov. 9 during the Spot Image International Conference, a triennial meeting of Spot Image partners and customers. “High resolution is certainly where the fastest growth is, but many applications remain that will continue to demand medium resolution with a large coverage area. That’s why we need a Spot 5 follow-on that will look like Spot 5.”
CNES already is financing, on its own, the two-satellite Pleiades optical satellite system. Pleiades will be France’s entry into high-resolution imagery, with a 70-centimeter ground resolution. But the first Pleiades satellite, under construction at Astrium and at Alcatel Alenia Space, will not be ready for launch until late 2009. Because of bottlenecks at the satellite processing and test facility, the second satellite will not be ready until early 2011.
Bouffard said it would cost about 1 million euros to add to the satellite processing and test facilities to be able to test both Pleiades spacecraft simultaneously and reduce the lag between their launch. But here too, he said, no decision has been made on whether this investment will be made or who would fund it.
By then, U.S., Indian, Israeli and other high-resolution satellite systems that are not part of Spot Image’s portfolio will have had years on the market.