Dean Olmstead: The Passing of a Pioneer

by

The communications satellite sector is — as industries go — relatively young and still maturing. There are a relative handful of names to whom we can point as genuine pioneers, as people who made a difference over virtually the entire period (just some 30 years) during which communications satellites became commercially available and globally ubiquitous.

One of those names was Dean Olmstead, who tragically passed away far too early on Oct. 16. He was taken too soon from us, and he will be sorely missed — as a businessman, as a creative force, and as a friend to so many in our business.

Dean was involved in many of the most significant events that have shaped our sector. He was a key aide to the first coordinator of international communications at the U.S. State Department, Diana Lady Dougan, and in that role was instrumental in developing the “separate systems” policy of President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the mid-1980s, which authorized international satellites “separate” from Intelsat and thus created the basis for the global and robustly competitive communications satellite sector as it exists today. Such important companies in our sector as SES, New Skies (now part of SES), PanAmSat (now part of Intelsat) and Loral Skynet (now part of Telesat) can trace their origins to the separate systems policy and its impact on global competition in communications satellite services.

Dean went on to another government post, leading in the late 1980s NASA’s Advanced Technology Communications Satellite (ACTS) program, which launched a Ka-band satellite to conduct cutting-edge experiments in the commercialization of Ka-band. The ACTS project led to Dean’s lifelong interest in Ka-band as an enabling frequency band for many key applications (a theme you will see repeated here). The current Ka-band satellites — such as those operated by WildBlue/ViaSat, Hughes Network Systems and (soon) Eutelsat — have their technological roots in lessons learned during the ACTS program. During this period, the 1980s, Dean also authored two papers on the growing problem of orbital debris, long before any government agency took steps to deal with the issue.

Through much of the 1990s, Dean was employed in various capacities by Hughes, then the undisputed leader in building quality satellites with innovative technologies. Hughes sent him to Japan to create the technological and commercial foundations for both JCSat and DirecTV Japan, predecessor companies of what is now Sky Perfect JSat Holdings. He also lived in Hong Kong for a few years as Hughes’ representative, where he became close to the then-nascent operator AsiaSat and was president of the Asian subsidiary of Hughes’ entry into Ka-band communications, Spaceway.

Dean’s creative side and deal-making skills came to the fore in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Romain Bausch, then and now the CEO of SES, had the vision to hire Dean. His business card at SES may have said something about business development and strategy, but Dean’s real job was to internationalize SES, to move it from its European-centric origins to the role it plays today as one of just two truly global satellite operators. Dean went about this job with the gusto that characterized everything he ever did.

One of Dean’s first transactions for SES was to involve it in Asia, buying one-third of AsiaSat in what was effectively a partnership with a Chinese mainland investor, CITIC. This was a large transaction for SES, and one about which there was much debate internally. But Dean’s view prevailed, and SES had its first major investment outside of Europe.

Dean then turned his sights on the United States, the other region besides Western Europe where there were large numbers of satellites, and where SES was not at all represented. Dean initially found strong strategic interest from Charles Ergen of EchoStar (later to be his employer). The EchoStar deal would have involved a significant SES investment to assist EchoStar in building two Ka-band satellites (the Ka-band theme again), but the deal eventually foundered, and Dean moved on to other North American targets.

The two largest U.S.-focused satellite companies, PanAmSat (then owned by GM/Hughes) and Americom (then owned by GE), were effectively “on the block” in the heady telecom bubble days of 2000-2001. Dean took a hard look at both companies, and eventually he and his SES team focused on Americom.

The transaction had many complexities — GE under then-CEO Jack Welch was legendary for not making things easy for buyers of GE assets — but Dean persevered. He also had to deal with complexities in the SES capital structure, and with an SES board initially concerned about the large scope of such an acquisition so far from the company’s home base in Luxembourg. The transaction was completed in 2001, giving SES a global footprint, and a foundation for its later acquisition of New Skies.

Dean became the first president of the newly renamed SES Americom. In that role, he established the first satellite operator subsidiary dedicated to serving the communications needs of the U.S. government, and he created the Canadian operator Ciel to compete against Telesat. He also engineered the acquisition of Verestar, a satellite services provider.

The theme of satellite industry consolidation is one that runs consistently through Dean’s work in the 2000s, and up until a few months before he died. As president of Arrowhead — a provider of satellite services primarily to the U.S. government — and an adviser to its founder, Mary Ann Elliott, he helped position the company for its eventual sale to CapRock (now part of Harris Corp.). As a board member of and adviser to Loral, he was instrumental in the 2007 transaction by which Loral folded its Skynet fleet into Telesat of Canada and took a large ownership position in the latter.

Dean later founded and served as chairman of BBSat, a broadband operator in Japan seeking funding to build a Ka-band satellite to provide broadband to rural and remote communities. And this past spring — even as he courageously faced the cancer that would eventually take his life — Dean led EchoStar’s fixed-satellite services group in serious (albeit ultimately unsuccessful) negotiations to acquire the Mexican operator Satmex.

Those who knew Dean would tell you that these professional achievements were not the measure of the man, and are not his most important legacy. Apart from the legacy he leaves in a loving wife and great children, there is the inspiration he provided, and the informal teaching he happily supplied, to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of colleagues in the various positions he held in our sector.

There was about Dean an intensity, a focus on the immediate problem combined with an understanding of the problem’s larger strategic dimensions, and he could always be counted on to come up with a creative solution. His piercing blue eyes betrayed great intelligence, but his manner was always gentle, patient and good-humored.

Most of the world’s great religions believe in some kind of after-life for the human soul. If Dean’s soul lives on, we can imagine him being somewhere in orbit around the Earth, pondering our foibles down here and cheering us on as we continue his quest to push forward the frontiers of outer space.

Phillip L. Spector is executive vice president and general counsel for Intelsat. The views expressed here are his own. He served as counsel to some of the companies mentioned.