Monday, May 09, 2011

Fighting Words from MacDonald Dettwiler

MDA CEO Daniel Friedmann.
MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) CEO Daniel Friedmann has announced that his firm will either buy a space company with US roots or else return to shareholders the $793 million CDN acquired through the January, 2011 sale of the MDA property-information business.

Friedmann made the comments during MDA's first quarter 2011 results conference call and Annual General Meeting on May 3rd, 2011 which is archived and available for review on the MDA website.

The announcement is in contrast to 2008, when the company attempted to sell it's space division to US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) while retaining the property information business. As outlined by the April 10th, 2010 CBC News article "Federal government blocks sale of MDA space division" that proposal fell afoul of the federal government, which eventually blocked the sale.

This time it's the property information business that's been sold (as outlined in the January 4th, 2011 MDA press release "MDA closes sale of U.K. and North American Property Information Business") with the space division remaining in Canada but with MDA executives now looking for another company to acquire to help provide the space business with a solid entry point into the US market.

According to the May 4th, 2011 Space News article "MDA Corp. Sets Internal Deadline for Reaching Acquisition Decision," Friedmann said that his company will either "decide on a large acquisition of a U.S. satellite hardware or space-services company by July (2011) or return to shareholders the cash it is now retaining for such a deal." The article further stated that: 
... Friedmann made clear the company is searching for a large target, and not a strap-on acquisition. Key characteristics of the target company would be a solid entry into the U.S. government market, and a presence in markets where MDA has expertise that could be transferred to a U.S. operation for access to government business.
Consistent readers of this blog know that MDA has been repositioning itself into a full service satellite contractor (as per my November 1st, 2009 post "Canadian Component Builders "Moving Up the Food Chain" to Build Complete Satellites") while also developing a totally new business wrapped around on-orbit refueling and commercial satellite repairs (as per my April 3rd, 2011th article "A Short Primer for On-Orbit Satellite Servicing").

The MDA on-orbit satellite servicing system, as announced in March 2011.
A company with that many space focused interests requires access to international, and especially US markets to prosper. 

Canadarm 2, part of the ISS Mobile Servicing System.
MDA presently  has contracts to act as prime contractor for a variety of telecommunication satellites plus Canada's next-generation Radarsat Constellation (RCM) Earth observation system and ongoing maintenance contracts for the iconic Canadian CanadArms in use aboard the US space shuttles and on the International Space Station (ISS). MDA has also recently objected to Canadian Space Agency (CSA) efforts to parcel out RCM contract awards in small slices covering only short periods by arguing that it lengthens lead times and drives up total costs.

MDA executives might just have a point regarding their CSA issues although that point and two and a half bucks is likely only really useful for a cup of coffee. This will remain true at least until some decisions start getting made at the political level (hello twelve to eighteen month "aerospace review").

But then again, what sort of an "aerospace review" is going to pass judgement on a company making the sort of positive market moves that MDA is in the midst of doing?

Of course, the "proof is in the pudding" as my grandparents used to say. Let's wait to see what MDA actually ends up doing with the money before passing any sort of judgement on their actions.


From: Tom Tucker

Hi Chuck,

The article on MDA and the machinations of Canada's largest commercial space company seem to mirror the same, or similar, patterns that Spar Aerospace went through in trying to find:
  • Traction in space markets
  • A US based space asset to acquire
  • An overall niche/role
Why is there this rush now to make an acquisition based on setting a deadline to buy a US based space enterprise? Any US based space enterprise that is to be acquired will have to be non-strategic. Otherwise the US Department of State will block that sale just as the Government of Canada did with the MDA space assets in 2008.

This begs the larger question as to the direction and purpose of a Canadian Space Agency which has not, in its entire existence, had a cogent space plan and continues to spend much of its budget on astronaut training.

How does the astronaut program provide benefit to Canadians in the development of space technology and in creating jobs in its space industry other than providing work for civil servants in Quebec?

The concepts used in satellite servicing market have been around for well over thirty years or more and have cost versus technology option/adoption issues as well as timeliness. Europe already has at least two SAT servicing companies (UK based-Orbital Satellite Services and Greco-German company Kosmas Georing Services come to mind) and far bigger budgets so looking to bootstrap Canada into that business is a costly proposition without good partners that can provide a fully integrated servicing capability.

Regards - Tom Tucker

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