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SES’s New CEO Adel Al-Saleh Lays Out His Strategy for the Operator

By Mark Holmes | April 5, 2024
      SES CEO Adel Al-Saleh. Photo: SES

      SES CEO Adel Al-Saleh. Photo: SES

      In October last year, SES announced the appointment of Adel Al-Saleh as its new CEO. It was an interesting appointment and marks a change of direction for the operator, bringing in someone from outside of the satellite industry. Previous CEO Steve Collar had a long history with O3b and was a well-known figure within the industry. Al-Saleh comes from a telecoms and IT background and will aim to bring a fresh perspective.

      2023 was a challenging year for SES. Discussions with Intelsat about a potential merger did not come to fruition. It saw Collar step down after many years as the face of SES and O3b. If that wasn’t enough, it saw significant issues on its mPOWER satellites. Al-Saleh is tasked with growing one of the industry giants at a time where there is more change and competition than ever before. In one of his first major interviews, Al-Saleh sits down with Via Satellite to talk about the road ahead for SES.

      VIA SATELLITE: Why did you decide to take the challenge of becoming the new CEO of SES? What excites you about the challenge? 

      Al-Saleh: The space industry is dynamic, disrupted, and changing — with that, comes opportunities. There are lot of risks that come along with changes and disruption. But there is also a huge opportunity for companies to evolve and adjust their business models so they can serve the market better and develop better services and solutions in the marketplace. I think it is a really exciting time for the space industry, and personally it was very exciting for me to think about what you can do in an industry that has been around for a long time.

      Whether becoming CEO of SES is going to be my biggest challenge is to be determined. I have had quite challenging jobs in the past, and in disrupted industries as well, where I had to transform a few companies. But you never know until you get into it. I am looking forward to it.

      VIA SATELLITE: You have a telecoms background. What can you bring to SES from the telecoms world?

      Al-Saleh: I spent six years at Deutsche Telekom (DT), which is the leading European telco. I have firsthand knowledge of what terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks can do. I know what the challenges for terrestrial networks are, the things they need to do in order to improve their services to their clients. At the same time, I was managing an IT services arm of DT. So my background is really IT, data, big data, AI, and software.

      What I think I can bring to the space industry is a different vantage point and angle, how to think about innovation and transforming our companies so we can be more agile. I come from a world where innovation is happening every day and new solutions come up every month. You are competing in a very broad market with new entrants every day.

      VIA SATELLITE: Coming into SES, what is the number one thing you feel you need to change/fix? Is the company culture where it needs to be for SES to be successful in the future?

      Al-Saleh: At SES, we are fortunate to be in a position of strength. It is a company that has been around for a period of time. We have a fairly modern constellation. We operate in multiple orbits. We have strong, experienced teams and fantastic customers that are loyal to us. We are in a very good position in an industry that needs to evolve.

      A big thing I am working on is — How do we accelerate? How do we think in weeks rather than quarters and years? How do we bring a different focus on the client? Not to say we aren’t client-centric, but we need to be more focused on the end user, more focused on the applications that our clients we are using.

      VIA SATELLITE: There is this argument that the big, traditional GEO players have been slow to change. Is that your initial impression?

      Al-Saleh: In any industry, if you have a player that has been in the industry for decades, and an industry that has been accustomed to a certain business model, there is a challenge in terms of how you change and evolve. How do you become faster and more agile? That is a challenge for a lot of players in the satellite industry, particularly as they are facing new competition. You have the likes of Starlink and Kuiper coming from a very different angle, from a software angle. Speed is critical. Speed of innovation is important. We must also not be afraid to fail and learn quickly and adjust. I believe this is a challenge the whole industry has. In order to adjust and survive, we need to change and be faster.

      VIA SATELLITE: How would you characterize your management style?  

      Al-Saleh: I am very focused on execution and results. When we build plans, decide strategies and look at our ‘change’ agenda, we need to execute and deliver. We need to put the right leadership teams together, empowering the people in the organization.

      I like to think of myself as a personal and approachable leader. I work with broad teams. I like to get my sleeves rolled up and get into the details of the business. I love meeting people that make things happen. I brought a mantra into the company – which is ‘People Make it Happen’ #PeopleMakeItHappen. Leaders can have a wonderful vision and have great plans, but execution, getting things done is down to the people you have and their commitment to their jobs.

      I come from an Anglo-Saxon background in management style. We like to plan and be disciplined but not get 100 percent complete because we want to be agile. I spent six years in Germany, and I learned very quickly that the German engineering culture of getting 100 percent right the first time was very critical. It was engrained in peoples’ thinking. To me, that was difficult as you have got to get to ‘good enough’ to try and start doing things, and then not be afraid to adjust.

      VIA SATELLITE: We have seen a wave of consolidation in recent times, Viasat/Inmarsat, Eutelsat/OneWeb. SES itself had detailed discussions about merging with Intelsat only last year. What are your views on SES being involved in some consolidation in the near future? Do you believe the industry can sustain the number of players it has now?

      Al-Saleh: I think the industry will have to go through a consolidation process. The industry is currently very fragmented with too many players. For example, there are a lot of national players as a lot of countries would like to have their own space capabilities and sovereignty. But for an industry to survive, it requires scale. The levels of investment you put into the infrastructure – whether satellites, constellations or terminals — it requires scale. It requires an ability to generate cash. It requires the ability to fund investments without having to over leverage or overburden your balance sheet.

      It is also important to know that there are multiple types of consolidation here. First of all, there is an obvious scale/synergy consolidation. You can think of it as horizontal consolidation. Then there are certain vertical integrations that can move more towards managed services which create a better experience for our clients. There are also other types of consolidation — engineering work, owning certain parts of the value chain — where you consolidate to get a specific advantage, functionality or capability. In short, buying capabilities that would take a long time to build organically. I believe consolidation and M&A activity will be quite active in the few years to come.

      VIA SATELLITE: A number of experts are convinced that SES will play a big role in this consolidation. Is this likely? 

      Al-Saleh: We are in a very fortunate position with our balance sheet which gives us the opportunity to evaluate multiple options, organic, in-organic, and shareholders return. The question we are trying to answer is what is best for SES, our clients, and our shareholders going forward. We will try and play a role in consolidation and have the capability to do it. But we need to make sure it would be the right steps for us.

      VIA SATELLITE: Can SES compete effectively against the likes of Starlink going forward? Can any of the traditional GEO operators do this now?

      Al-Saleh: First, my hypothesis based on everything I have learned right now is there is not one satellite provider or satellite operator that can be an answer to all requirements in the marketplace. I don’t believe in it, and I have not seen it in my career.

      Second, when you look at the different solutions in the marketplace and the applications we are trying to serve, through the lens of physics in terms of latency, coverage, resilience and scale, I believe all three orbits provide value to our clients. There are certain applications where GEO satellites are perfect, and one of them is broadcasting and distributing content across the world or to regions around the world. If you think about what Starlink has been able to do around broadband, it is obvious they have a very compelling solution. When you think about enterprise and enterprise applications, I think a combination of LEO/MEO/GEO is formidable and something our clients really want.

      I absolutely believe we can compete. We need to pick the right battles, and make sure we have a compelling solution for our clients without being really absorbed into this big wave of news in the market where it says LEO is the answer to everything and GEO is dead. You have to focus on the clients, and what they need. 

      VIA SATELLITE: We saw John Deere recently choose Starlink in an RFP process. Do you believe SES can win its fair share of deals in these new mobility markets? What do you see as its competitive advantages?

      Al-Saleh: At SES, we prioritize a few markets. Governments with military applications and their need for multi-orbit solutions is an obvious priority because they are looking to build resilient networks and solutions. Another priority is the mobility markets, and top of mind are aero and cruise.

      While it can be interesting for us, we need to understand better what John Deere is trying to do. Are they trying to track every piece of equipment in the farms or are they trying to do over-the-air management of this equipment, or are they trying to do something completely different? The applications will determine what the best solution is. In this case, John Deere seems to be a very specific application and not in the sweet spot of SES’s architectural network. SES serves the mining, energy and agriculture industries differently, and are best suited for cloud applications and business-critical applications. What the John Deere/Starlink deal has shown us is that there are new ways of doing things and capturing new markets. We can compete here and can grab new markets in the future, but we need to match the right solutions to the right applications.

      VIA SATELLITE: If you look at the cruise market SES had a very dominant position here, had most of the big cruise players signed up, but now a lot of them have moved to Starlink. This has to be worrying? 

      Al-Saleh: Cruise remains a very important market to us, and we have a lot of ships that are connected via our satellites. There is clearly a lot of experimentation going on in the cruise market with customers testing the various solutions out there.

      We realized that a combination of a MEO/LEO is a compelling combination which is why we started offering an integrated solution and have announced Virgin Voyages as a first customer. The reason why Virgin decided on this combination is that there are certain instances where LEO just doesn’t provide the service required, whereas MEO is able to overcome these obstacles and provide the same experience in open seas and very congested areas like big ports, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean etc. The resiliency and being able to commit to certain SLAs of specific speeds and bandwidths is important to them. I think this combination of MEO/LEO and also GEO where we partner with Starlink is a compelling solution. We will do more of these things to cater to the different things our customers are launching. 

      VIA SATELLITE: When you look at different markets, telco, government, mobility, which of these offers most growth potential for SES?

      Al-Saleh: The biggest growth for the satellite industry is around government applications. Governments around the world now realize a combination of government owned and commercial assets is the best solution to serve military and non-military applications.

      At SES, connecting governments especially in remote areas is a sweet spot for us. Within that, you have a variety of applications we can use, both from a pure communication, and others in critical missions, when deals have to be awarded through specific government agencies. We believe that investments coming from the US and Europe will be consistent and provide a very attractive space for the foreseeable future – not just a cycle of two years before drying up but more for the next couple of decades.

      After that, aero and cruise are really attractive segments for SES as this is where satellites prove their value. If I look at the airline industry, it is now a given to have Wi-Fi connectivity in the plane for long-haul durations. It is not a differentiator anymore. It is a must have. If you don’t have it, it is a big issue when it comes to attracting business travelers, but also general consumers.

      Supporting telcos is also important. You have seen us being active in regions like Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia where we are connecting the unconnected. Coming from the telco industry, I know where fiber buildout and network buildout hits the walls. Satellite plays an important role there as well.

      VIA SATELLITE: How big of a setback has it been for SES to have these issues on the Boeing O3b mPOWER satellites? Given the intense competition right now, have these problems come at the worst possible time for SES? 

      Al-Saleh: I don’t know if they came at the worst possible time, but it is headwind for us. It is never good when the constellation you are deploying suddenly has to be delayed and fixed.

      The demand for mPOWER solutions is very high. Our clients are banging on our doors for this service. Our job for 2024 as we go into commercial operations in April is managing demand and spacing our deployment of mPOWER services. Clients who came to us first and placed their pre-orders a few years ago will be onboarded quickly.

      We have a good solution with Boeing. While the first six mPOWER satellites have been impacted and don’t have the technical capacity and life cycle that we initially expected, we have two new satellites that are going to be completely healthy and launched at the end of this year. We also have three fully healthy satellites that will be launched in 2025 followed by another two satellites in 2026. It will take us a little bit of time, but we should have a very good constellation and solution for our clients then.

      VIA SATELLITE: What are your ideas around capital expenditure and the balance between investing in GEO and non-GEO assets?

      Al-Saleh: We are committed to GEO and MEO constellations and we partner with LEO partners. We believe we are positioned not only as a multi-orbit operator but an ‘all-orbit’ operator. We provide solutions across all orbits. We are prioritizing our investments and capital expenditures on making sure we get our new MEO satellites up and operational. At the same time, we are focused on replacing some of the important GEO satellites. In the summer this year, we will be launching a new GEO satellite – ASTRA 1P — for our prime orbital position at 19.2 degrees East. This orbital position is critical because a lot of video and broadcast business goes through this position. ASTRA 1P replaces four satellites that are co-located in this orbital slot.

      We will also be launching more GEO software defined satellites in 2026. We are doing things in parallel, but with an emphasis on our MEO constellation, while we replace some satellites at key GEO locations. We are in a unique position to be able do this, maintain our investment grade, pay dividends, giving investors the biggest yield that any satellite player is able to give them. We are very proud of this.

      VIA SATELLITE: Do you believe GEO will become less and less relevant over the next 10 years?

      Al-Saleh: I don’t believe that. I think there will be more NGSO capabilities built beyond LEO. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more MEO constellations go up there to compete with us, but I don’t think GEOs will go away over the next decade.

      The broadcast business is facing headwinds and people are streaming more. Yet there are 8 billion people on Earth — how many of them can afford streaming? What happens to the rest? How are they going to get content? For example, in Germany, we have almost 17 million TV households who are watching content via satellite. For most of them, this is the only way they can get their content, so there is a certain level of dependency from the government as well. Broadcasting is changing and has been on the decline, but I don’t think GEO satellite disappears. Future GEO satellites will have to be smarter, more powerful and flexible.

      VIA SATELLITE: You have a very strong IT background, what kind of AI strategy might SES deploy?

      Al-Saleh: AI is a game-changer for all industries and is a huge opportunity for us. AI can play many different roles for us. If I look at our internal business management – BSS/OSS processes – we manage enormous amounts of data. Deploying AI to help us be more efficient in how we tackle that data and extract value of that data. If I look at how we operate our networks, they are already highly automated today with a lot of software deployed. It can be taken to the next level of efficiency, productivity and being able to predict certain things such as maneuvering for maintenance. If I look at how we deploy technology in the ground segment, optimization too can be introduced via AI and be an opportunity for us.

      You will see a lot more from SES around AI usage and deployment across our entire value chain going forward. There is no need to rush, but we need to start experimenting with it. Our engineering team is already playing around with multiple solutions with some big partners. There will be more news on this in the future. It is a big area of opportunity for us.

      VIA SATELLITE: Finally, what do you see as SES’s place in this new satellite world that is emerging? What represents success for you as the new CEO of SES?

      Al-Saleh: Success to SES and me is making sure that SES is one of the top-tier satellite operators in the world. It is not an easy task as the industry is seeing a couple of very large players investing a lot of capital, and some consolidation that is creating more scale. We must be a growing company; how we grow this company, how we get it back to growth, both top line and bottom line, is key. While you can never have enough money to do everything you want, I want to have a balance sheet that allows us to do things organically and inorganically. We need to invest in the right areas without being super constrained.