Maxar’s path to growth runs through Worldview Legion
President and CEO
Dan Jablonsky, the former DigitalGlobe president, took the helm at Maxar Technologies on Jan. 13, six days after the company announced the loss of its Worldview-4 satellite. Immediately, Jablonsky set to work evaluating the corporation’s structure and components, including satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral. Maxar’s decision in February to retain that business and rename it Maxar Space Solutions was followed by layoff and reorganization to turn Maxar into a single operating company except for MDA of Canada, which remains vertically integrated.
Nearly three months into the job, Jablonsky, an attorney and former U.S. Navy officer, told SpaceNews Maxar has a strategy to return to growth. The firm’s Worldview Legion constellation is a key part of the plan as is the recent reorganization. Contrary to rumors Maxar was struggling to pay for Worldview Legion, the company is “fully able to fund” the constellation and investigating launching the first group earlier than scheduled, Jablonsky said at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
It seems to be you’re stepping into a challenging job.
Yes. But if it wasn’t challenging, they wouldn’t need me. Ships are built to go to sea and I’m built for an environment that is not completely safe and inside the harbor. I’m very comfortable with where we’re headed. I’ve got an amazing team. We’ve got the right strategy. We need to fix our capital structure as part of this. But I’m very bullish about the prospects for Maxar. Any good business starts with good customers and we have amazing customers, customers on the commercial side, the government side and in the international realm. We have amazing products and capabilities, including some things no one else on the planet can replicate right now. We’ve got amazing people. Now, we need to make that economic model work across the entire chain. We’ve got the right strategy to do that. I’m excited about that.
Why did you reorganize Maxar?
We are designing the organization to operate at high velocity and to react to market conditions and customer needs much more nimbly and quickly. Instead of being in the more siloed business unit structure with different strategies, we adopted a one Maxar operating model. It’s much faster. It also took out a lot of cost. We can retain the capabilities we have and be more efficient with them. We’re saving $60 million this year. We want to be good stewards of shareholder’s capital and $60 million is a lot of money.
Why has Maxar decided to retain the business formerly called SSL?
The day I took over, I conducted my own assessment of what it was worth to others, what it was worth to us and also what I thought the future that business was in terms of the end-to-end solutions we could provide as a Maxar portfolio. I went on a customer listening tour. I came to the conclusion, fully supported by the board, that SSL, now Space Solutions, as an integrated product line with GEO, MEO and LEO assets for both commercial and government customers running on two main product lines, a 1300-class and a Legion-class bus, was a very healthy business. They could play off each other on a smaller footprint and be much more robust inside that framework.
We have some work to do to change market perceptions about us being around and we’re underway on that. But the pipeline is very good especially for the smaller class buses and for government work. That will help underwrite and create resiliency for the GEO communications part of the business. We’ll be profitable on just the GEO communications part in the near term. We’re not there yet. But those businesses can feed off each other really well. Our objective is to be nimble enough to flex up and flex down in the different programs. Depending on what happens with the GEO market. If it stays as low as it is, we’ll still be okay. If it has a resurgence, we expect that to accrete very profitably to the business.
Are you trying to save or replace Worldview-4?
We had a very unfortunate incident with Worldview-4 in January of this year. We lost the mission. That was a Lockheed Martin satellite procured by GeoEye, one of the companies DigitalGlobe acquired. The loss was related to the control moment gyros built by Honeywell. It was a terrible loss. This was a satellite in its second year of what we expected to be a ten to 15-year mission. And it impacted us as a business. There was a very highly accretive revenue stream that we’ve got to replace to in order to keep growing the business.
One great thing is we were already two plus years underway on the Worldview Legion program. That had been designed as replacement capacity for Worldview-1 and Worldview-2 but with additional growth capacity in it. That will be used to recover from the Worldview-4 loss and to put us back on the path to growth. Also, since we’re building the satellites, we can add more to the constellation if the market demand signals are there. We don’t have those plans right now. We’re putting our money into the technology aspects of it within the original budget, more so than just more satellites on the chain. Right now, the technology is advancing faster so that we’re able to get the additional capacity without building more satellites. It’s very capital efficient for us.
What impact is the loss having on your business?
Our Earth observation, Earth intelligence business is very resilient. Even with the loss of Worldview-4, which was an important asset to us, that business will be flat this year. It’s not stepping down 15 or 20 percent or whatever, which you would normally think would happen with the loss of an asset like that. We’re able to keep it flat because we’ve built a resilient business. It didn’t impact the U.S. government. And a large portion of our business has been moving towards subscription and other products, which we are able to fill in a multi-constellation design.
When do the first Worldview Legion satellites launch?
Right now, the publicly released schedule is first quarter of 2021. We’re under contract with SpaceX for two launches. This is the first block of a multi-satellite constellation. We’re looking at ways to possibly pull that into the back end of 2020. We’ve been having meetings with others here today to see if we can pull those back to the left. Right now, we’re still on a path to get to first quarter of 2021, but we’re seeing if there are things we can do pull to the left, into 2020.
I’ve heard rumors that you don’t have enough money for Worldview Legion.
That is completely and utterly false. We’re building it on our own. We have more debt than we want to right now, which we’re working on in terms of getting our capital structure into a different place that would be better for our shareowners on the equity side. But we are fully able to fund the Worldview Legion constellation. This is the highest capex year for it. Raytheon is providing the instrument, a highly designed advanced instrument per our specifications. Space X is under contract for launches. We’re building the satellites on our own. I’m absolutely certain we’re going to do. Our credit facilities and other things provide us way more latitude than we need with this program.
Are you having trouble paying Raytheon for those instruments?
Did you respond to the Chilean Air Force Request for Information for an Earth observation satellite?
We typically don’t say when we respond to an RFI. What I would say is if you’ve read the RFI, it looks tailor-made for a Legion-X type program. We’re very bullish on the prospects of Legion-X. We’re able to use the heritage from the Legion satellites, our ability to monetize outside the region of interest, our ability to quickly provide these assets on orbit and then pull it into the ecosystem of what we do: flying satellites, operating them, maintenance of them, data handling, propagation of data and what you can tell from the data. Getting you a bunch of data is just one step. And that’s probably not the step you’re most interested in. Having that data make sense to you is the thing that you’re most interested in. And that’s where we can be very helpful to anybody that comes into that program as well.
What is the Legion-X business model?
We’re pretty flexible. We ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” Depending on who you are, the Legion-X model could be a satellite you buy and operate yourself. We’ve got an entire commercial business built on that premise. But that’s usually not what people want. They’re trying to answer questions. If you buy one satellite, you have to operate it. You have to move the data around the world. We’re very good at that. If you want to enter in that ecosystem, we can fly the satellite for you.
Also, you can buy into an entire ecosystem of Earth observation assets. One satellite might pass with a certain periodicity. But if I have lots of satellites, I can guarantee the sort of refresh you want. I can help you analyze and move data into the decision-making phase. We’ve built the platforms and the tools and the analytics to help you make sense of the data fast. And also, I can help you get the data to the people that need to make decisions. Then, it’s not sitting in a national intelligence center or an air force headquarters. We can provide that sort of end-to-end solution for the customer.
A lot of people looking at Legion-X right now have a defined region of interest. We’re a global company with customers around the globe, serving global needs. If you’re highly interested in this particular grid on the earth, we can certainly help you with that. But if you’ve bought into the system and you don’t need intelligence about other areas of the globe, we can help monetize and underwrite the core assets.
That seems like a new model.
We thought it up ourselves. It was designed to align more closely with customer needs and budgets. How do we help them? Is there a way to meet their budget needs and their data and information needs in a way that is still accretive to our shareholders but that solves their problems? It’s innovative and we’re very pleased about the prospects for it. I’m sure others will copy it at some point. We have the worldwide reach, data handling capabilities and all the rest to make us very efficient. So, we will just keep innovating.
What do you see in terms of opportunities for robotics?
We have one of the richest heritages for on-orbit and planetary robotics programs. There are five robot arms on Mars right now. We built all five through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Space Solutions. One of the key missions we’re working with NASA right now is Restore-L for satellite servicing in low Earth orbit. If you think about space becoming much more like other places we’ve done human development, it will become an entire ecosystem. But space is very inhospitable to humans. So, robotics will play a large part. If you can service assets on orbit that becomes a way to do more work in space, extend asset lives and make it more economical for things to happen.
The other piece of our robotics program is on-orbit assembly. Right now, a lot of what gets put into space is limited to the fairing design of the rocket. With in-orbit construction, you’re not limited to a five-meter fairing or what you can unfurl in a very complex fashion. You can actually build it in space. We’re working closely with NASA and others and some of our own programs to do that kind of work. We think that’ll be a key enabler for the entire ecosystem to be able to do more, more economically and more efficiently in space.
Anything else you want to say?
I would like to say a big thank you to the Maxar team. They’re not only innovative, hardworking and some of the brightest people on the planet, but they’re working around the clock to help solve some of the world’s most critical sustainable development, intelligence and defense issues around the world. It’s a real privilege to work with this group of teams.