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Satellite Executive of the Year: The Nominees

By | January 21, 2014

      The nominees for the Satellite Executive of the Year have very different stories to tell. Suphajee Suthumpun, Thaicom’s CEO, has only been in the satellite industry less than three years, but her turnaround of the underachieving Asian satellite operator has been remarkable. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, has led the company from concept to commercial success, which could re-define the launch services sector. Michel de Rosen, Eutelsat’s CEO has overseen an aggressive global expansion plan that is re-defining the company. And Khalid Balkheyour, Arabsat’s CEO, continues to lead Arabsat to new heights and set a template for regional operators. Here, we assess all the candidates in more detail.

      Suphajee Suthumpun CEO ThaicomSuphajee Suthumpun, CEO, Thaicom

      There is little doubt that Suphajee Suthumpun, who became CEO of Thaicom in 2011, has had a major impact in turning around the company’s fortunes over the last couple of years. In 2013, the company saw its profits and revenues grow by almost record amounts; in its half-year results, Thaicom announced year-on-year profits of more than 200 percent. The company has now had more than two years of net profits, which constitutes a remarkable turnaround compared to a few years ago. What is all the more remarkable about Suthumpun’s achievements is that prior to joining Thaicom, she had no experience in the satellite sector. She had enjoyed a 20-year career at IBM before taking on the position of boosting Thaicom’s fortunes. It was not an easy challenge to take on given that even now there are many questions related to the potential of high-powered satellites in Asia.

      So, what was Suthumpun able to do that others were not? According to Pawan Chongussayakul, a satellite equity analyst at Phatra Securities, she has brought a “presence” to the company, as well as outstanding execution that has met analyst’ expectations. “So far, what she has brought to the company has been more than just outstanding financial growth but her presence also becomes with the belief that it can be sustained,” Chongussayakul says.

      One area where Suthumpun’s impact has been tangible has been Ipstar, an ambitious satellite program that has taken years to become a success. Under Suthumpun, transponder capacity on the Ipstar 1 satellite has gone from little more than 20 percent to more than 50 percent. It now counts on companies such as NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, Softbank Mobile (Japan), NBN (Australia), BSNL (India) as major customers for Ipstar services.

      From being an underperforming operator, with the merits of the Ipstar program being questioned, Suthumpun has managed to turn Thaicom around in record time. She has changed the whole culture of the company creating “brand ambassadors” and “value champions” within Thaicom, really empowering the workforce. This maybe Suthumpun’s most impressive achievement to date.

      Lessons appear to have been learned about the past. The company is keen to have an Ipstar 2 satellite, but will only pursue it if it can get guarantees from customers for 50 percent of the capacity. Also, Thaicom would want more flexibility in terms of where it can allocate capacity.

      Thaicom appears more switched-on than ever and Suthumpun has been an inspiring leader at a time when the company most needed it. It is for these reasons that Suphajee Suthumpun has deservedly been nominated for Satellite Executive of the Year award.

      Michel de Rosen CEO EutelsatMichel de Rosen, CEO, Eutelsat

      The deal of the year in the satellite sector was undoubtedly Eutesat’s $1.1 billion deal to acquire Mexican satellite operator, Satmex, which has now closed. It was also the next step in Eutelsat CEO’s Michel de Rosen’s strategy for the company to become more of a global player, which has seen Eutelsat take a number of significant steps over the past year.

      In 2012, the company acquired the G23 satellite, which gave it more of a presence in Asia. The launch of the Eutelsat 70B satellite has also been key to the company’s Asia aspirations. In Latin America, Eutelsat was an “invisible player,” but like in Asia, made two key moves to change things. Besides acquiring Satmex, the company was able to gain orbital rights from Brazilian telecoms regulator Anatel at 65 degrees. This will give Eutelsat great coverage of Brazil.

      Under its previous CEO, Giuliano Berretta, Eutelsat had mainly focused on Europe, Middle East and Africa. De Rosen has now taken the company to the next stage and it could be argued it is now more part of a “Big Three” rather than a “Big Four” among global FSS operators. At $1.1 billion, Satmex certainly did not come cheap but for Eutelsat to become a major player in Latin America, it was simply a must. If Eutelsat had been unsuccessful here, there were virtually no other options to become a major player in Latin America.

      Raul Magallanes, a telecoms lawyer and long-time contributor to Via Satellite said “Eutelsat had done their homework” on this deal. With current growth forecasts for the company in the double-digit range, Eutelsat is entering into a profitable era. What the deal does is it makes Eutelsat a major force in Latin America, a high growth market for satellite. Sarah Simon, a satellite equity analyst at Berenberg also wrote in Via Satellite that the valuation of Satmex was not “unreasonable,” that the deal will accelerate the company’s growth rate, and that over time, the return on this deal will exceed the cost for Eutelsat. While Simon points out to the lack of revenues coming from video applications, compared to Eutelsat, it has definite potential to boost revenues from video in Latin America.

      The company continues to see steady growth in its overall revenues, and with more capacity coming online, this trend is set to continue. It is a company highly regarded by the investment bank community, despite a relatively tough environment over the last couple of years. It now has around 108,000 subscribers on Ka-Sat, which is progress, but satellite broadband in Europe remains a tough sell, although numbers here have been encouraging.

      In 2013 we saw further evidence of a bold vision taking shape, which promises an exciting future for all those involved at Eutelsat. It is for these reasons that Michel de Rosen has been nominated for Satellite Executive of the Year award.

      Elon Musk SpaceXElon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer, SpaceX

      December 3 2013 will be a date forever etched in launch services history. This was the day that SpaceX took a major step in its own evolution by successfully launching the SES 8 satellite. After a couple of dramatic postponements, the success of SpaceX could have huge ramifications for the global satellite industry. Lets not forget, launching satellites is no easy business, and established companies in the sector such as ILS and Sea Launch have both struggled in recent years with high-profile satellite launch failures. Not only is the launch business tricky, but also to become a new player in this sector is even harder. However, SpaceX is now a commercial reality rather than a concept. Even for someone like Elon Musk, who is one of the most talked about entrepreneurs of his generation, this must rank as one of his finest successes.

      It has been quite a 12 months for SpaceX. In 2012, the company signed a slew of contracts with a number of satellite operators, which are eager to lower cost access to space. The contract dealflow in 2013 was quieter, although in June, SpaceX announced that it had signed a deal alongside Thales Alenia Space to launch Turkmenistan’s first satellite into orbit. It also won contracts to launch the German Radar Reconnaissance Systems, as well a contract to launch three satellites for the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) in Canada. These satellites will likely launch in 2018. Another commercial deal was also concluded with Israeli satellite operator, Spacecom.

      In 2013, it has all been about execution. In March, the company successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to orbit for SpaceX’s second mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

      While there were clearly bumps in the road in 2013 leading to the launch of SES 8 satellite, it would have been a surprise had it been any other way. What SpaceX has done is re-define the launch services sector and offer another competitor in the market. If it continues to launch satellites successfully, it will have done something that many in the industry thought was not possible, and that is create a viable low-cost launch services alternative. At this stage, it is too early to predict the ultimate impact that SpaceX will have on the global satellite industry, but there is little doubt its continued success will herald a new era in the commercial launch services market.

      It is still early days in the SpaceX story, but its achievements so far have been little short of astounding and the fact we have now seen the first successful SpaceX commercial satellite launch, a myriad of contract signings means Elon Musk fully deserves his nomination for Satellite Executive of the Year.

      Khalid Balkheyour CEO ArabsatKhalid Balkheyour, CEO, Arabsat

      Khalid Balkheyour, CEO, Arabsat, has been a perennial nominee in recent years, and it is not hard to understand why. He has created arguably the Middle East’s finest satellite operator which continues to go from strength to strength. Last year was another banner year for the company. The centrepiece of 2013 was a deal to acquire Greek satellite operator Hellas-Sat, which enables Arabsat to become more of a presence in Europe, offering its Middle East broadcasters more of a gateway into this region. Crucially, the deal takes Arabsat outside of its Middle East home turf and creates a more multi-faceted regional operator. The acquisition accelerates top line growth of Arabsat by over ten percent. New satellites, Hellas-sat 3 and Hellas-sat 4, will boost top-line growth still further. It is a deal that underlines Balkheyour’s ambition to create one of the most powerful regional operator’s globally. Likewise when we talk about Michel de Rosen taking Eutelsat to Latin America and Asia, Balkheyour continues to push the envelope for Arabsat with the Hellas-Sat deal, his most eye-catching yet.

      What is most impressive about Balkheyour’s tenure is his creative deal-making. It has pioneered in terms of hosted payload deals in the region and signed a contract with Emerging Market Communications (EMC) for a Ka-band hosted payload. In 2013, the company stepped up with a number of significant deals with companies such as Qatari satellite operator, Es’hailSat, which will see the Es’hailSat 2 satellite join Arabsat’s BADR fleet at 26.2 degrees east. Another major deal was signed with My HD, which plans to bring around 50 HD channels to households across the Middle East. Arabsat also signed an MoU agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information to build a new media platform in Saudi Arabia.

      The company’s numbers are also highly impressive with Arabsat set to achieve double-digit growth in both revenues and profits in 2013. It has the stated ambition of being the fifth ranked global FSS operator by 2020, which given its impressive growth in recent years seems well within reach.

      The Arabsat story once again showcases the power of regional operators, and in this area, Arabsat has few peers. From strong financial performance, innovative deals, as well as a potential game-changing acquisition for the company, Arabsat continues to tick every box for a regional operator and it is of little surprise that its CEO Khalid Balkheyour has once again been nominated to be the 2013 Satellite Executive of the Year. VS

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