Extended 2011 U.S. Budget Debate Dents GeoEye Earnings

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PARIS — Satellite imagery provider GeoEye Inc. reported lower-than-expected revenue for the first three months of 2011 but said the downdraft was mainly the temporary result of U.S. government budget issues that have been resolved.

The Herndon, Va.-based company said it expects the various pieces of its U.S. government business to return to form in the coming months, with year-end revenue forecasted to be 11-15 percent higher than 2010’s $330 million.

The lengthy debate about the U.S. federal budget for fiscal-year 2011 caused several of GeoEye’s principal government customers to slow down their spending. Added to this is the fact that state and local governments, which have been hit hard by the economic downturn, are now less likely to contract for aerial imagery services of GeoEye’s M.J. Harden subsidiary, which has three aircraft. GeoEye hopes to reorient the aerial-imaging company toward commercial customers for surveillance of oil and gas pipelines, and electric-power installations.

Unrelated to the budget issue, GeoEye said its biggest customer, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), withheld a portion of its monthly $12.5 million payment for GeoEye’s satellite imagery services under a 10-year contract called EnhancedView.

EnhancedView, worth up to $3.8 billion to GeoEye, took effect in mid-2010 and succeeded a similar, but smaller, multiyear NGA contract called NextView.

In a May 10 conference call with investors, GeoEye Chief Financial Officer Joseph F. Greeves said the transition from NextView to EnhancedView includes new performance metrics that GeoEye must meet or risk losing up to 10 percent of its monthly $12.5 million NGA payment.

That was the case in the first three months of 2011. “We considered this holdback to be the result of the transition … to the new EnhancedView program, and we expect to begin earning the full amount of the monthly [service payments] in the near future,” Greeves said.

The funds withheld are not irrevocably lost under the EnhancedView rules that apply to both GeoEye and competitor DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo. The companies are able to recover the lost funds by meeting performance goals later in the 10-year program.

GeoEye Chief Executive Matthew M. O’Connell said the company’s EnhancedView contract, and other work it does for U.S. government agencies, survived the fiscal-year 2011 budget debate relatively unscathed. While EnhancedView is a 10-year deal, it is formally structured as a one-year contract with annual renewals over nine years. As such it is exposed to the annual debate about U.S. government spending. O’Connell said he is not worried.

“The short answer is, the money is there,” O’Connell said about the EnhancedView program’s financial stability. “The [service revenue] pools have not shrunk, and the orders are returning. So we are happy with the way the budget came out.” EnhancedView’s budget, O’Connell said, “is a fraction of what the country spends for big hardware like aircraft carriers and expensive jets.”

Unrelated to EnhancedView but also affected by the U.S. government budget debate is GeoEye’s Analytics subsidiary, the new name for Spadac Inc., which GeoEye purchased in December for $44.3 million in cash and stock.

The Analytics division is devoted to sifting through vast amounts of data to predict the behavior of individuals and groups. The division has about 40 U.S. government customers. GeoEye is counting on Analytics revenue of about $35 million a year and on being able to turn existing Analytics customers into GeoEye satellite-imagery accounts.

Greeves said Analytics revenue for the three months ending March 31 was $7.4 million, but that the $35 million full-year revenue target is still valid.

GeoEye operates two satellites, the high-resolution GeoEye-1 launched in mid-2008, which is the company’s main breadwinner; and Ikonos, which after 11 years in orbit continues to operate and stock GeoEye’s image library.

GeoEye-2, which the company has estimated will cost up to $800 million including its launch and insurance, is scheduled for launch in 2013 and is needed for certain tasks to be performed under the EnhancedView contract. The company plans to contract for a GeoEye-3 satellite in 2013 and to have it in operation in 2017, O’Connell said.

GeoEye said that as of March 31 it had $280 million in cash and cash equivalents. Backlog, dominated by EnhancedView, stood at $3.5 billion, of which some $282 million was expected to be booked as revenue within 12 months. Revenue for the three months ending March 31 was $86.6 million, up 7.8 percent from a year earlier, with almost all of the increase due to the acquisition of the GeoEye Analytics division in December. EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was 51 percent of revenue.