DigitalGlobe Chief Says Firm Poised for Double-digit Growth

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PARIS — Earth imagery supplier DigitalGlobe on Dec. 15 told investors that its global business is growing faster than the company’s ability to keep up with it and that double-digit growth in annual revenue was all but guaranteed.

Jill D. Smith, DigitalGlobe’s chief executive, said the only limits to growth are whether the company, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is willing to accept reduced profitability in the short term to pluck new business opportunities just waiting to be harvested.

“The hurdle is ourselves,” said Smith, who will be leaving the Longmont, Colo.-based company in early 2011 once a replacement has been found. “The market is ready. The customers are there. We are the only ones in the way, and it may make some sense to make acquisitions to accelerate growth, because we do think we have a tiger by the tail.”

Smith and other DigitalGlobe officials spoke to investors and analysts at the New York Stock Exchange. Smith’s remarks appeared to be as much of a challenge to investors as a promise to them: Can they sacrifice short-term profitability in exchange for higher short-term revenue growth?

“As we stand here today, in the domains we are in, there is too much opportunity for us to handle,” Smith said. “That’s the challenge. What is going to drive growth rate? How quickly we can get product in the market, and how many feet we can put on the street with marketing and technical sales support.”

She said DigitalGlobe, which will be hiring up to 150 people in 2011, would temper its growth to maintain profit margins.

DigitalGlobe operates three satellites in orbit, with the most recent, WorldView-2, launched in 2009. It features an eight-band color imager that company officials say permits customers to extract much more data, using computers instead of people, per image.

The company in August won a $3.55 billion, 10-year contract with the U.S National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide a fixed amount of imagery. In return for the contract, DigitalGlobe is building seven image reception stations at different locales near the equator.

Once in operation by late 2011, these ground stations will give DigitalGlobe the equivalent of a new WorldView satellite in terms of the company’s ability to respond quickly to imagery orders, DigitalGlobe Chief Technology Officer Walter S. Scott said.

Scott said WorldView-2, in addition to its eight-band imager, has a control moment gyro that permits it to maneuver more quickly than it could with the previous generation of momentum wheels. That makes the satellite more efficient on each orbit, further increasing its per-orbit harvest.

WorldView-3, scheduled for launch in 2014 or 2015, will have the same technology, as will the GeoEye-2 satellite being built for DigitalGlobe’s principal U.S. competitor, GeoEye Inc. of Dulles, Va.

Yancey L. Spruill, DigitalGlobe’s chief financial officer, said WorldView-3 will cost about $650 million over the next four years, with two-thirds of that spending to be made by the end of 2012.

With the NGA contract permitting DigitalGlobe to invest in new satellite and ground station capacity, the company will be leveraging this investment to grow its commercial business in the United States and worldwide.

A recent contract with the Chinese Ministry of Land Resources is an example of growth prospects, company officials said. China wants all its territory mapped digitally and will need regular mapping updates. DigitalGlobe was able to raise prices on its Chinese contract this year after demonstrating its satellites’ performance in the previous years, according to Rafay Khan, the company’s senior vice president for commercial sales.

Between 2007 and 2010, NGA and other capacity-related contracts grew annually at a combined 37 percent per year, according to DigitalGlobe. Its more commercial product contracts, which ask for certain areas to be imaged within a certain time frame, grew by 20 percent per year.

In the coming years, the growth trends will reverse. The NGA-dominated capacity contracts will grow by 14 percent annually, while the product contracts will grow by 20 percent a year.

DigitalGlobe expects to report revenue of between $317 million and $320 million for 2010.