SEOTY Winner Steve Collar Comes Full Circle as SES CEO

In March, Steve Collar, CEO of SES, was named our Satellite Executive of the Year for 2019. Collar has been integral in the rejuvenation of SES. 2019 was a banner year for the company, and included a ground-breaking deal with Microsoft, as well as further confirmation of the strength of SES Networks’ business, providing the foundation for what SES hopes will be a prosperous future. Just after SATELLITE 2020, Via Satellite caught up with Collar to talk about his career, winning SEOTY, and what’s next for SES.

VIA SATELLITE: What is your reaction to having won this award? What does this mean for you personally and your team? Who would you like to thank?

Collar: I am hugely appreciative to be receiving the award and big thanks to Via Satellite and to those who voted and contributed. The line-up of execs was incredibly strong, any one of them would have been fully deserving so feel very lucky. From my perspective, the award is a recognition of all the work, and of what we are trying to achieve at SES rather than about me. Thanks to the whole SES team who are working every day to do amazing things in our industry.

VIA SATELLITE: What were your initial learnings in the industry when you were at Astrium in the 1990s before you joined New Skies? How did you get into the satellite in the first place?

Collar: I got into the satellite industry pretty much by accident 27 years ago and I have never left! I was always interested in aerospace, but more “aero” than “space.” During my university degree I was sponsored by GEC Aerospace who designed systems for commercial and military aircraft. As I graduated, they were not hiring but they pointed me to their sister company, Matra Marconi Space, now Airbus. I joined them straight out of university, fell in love with space and everything that it involves and have been faithful ever since.

VIA SATELLITE: Who would you say have been your biggest influences on your career in satellite?

Collar: For me, I am influenced much more by people that I have worked with than those that you might read about. I have been fortunate to have worked with great people over the course of my career, people that I have tons and tons of respect for, and that I have learnt a lot from.

An example would be one of my first bosses at Matra Marconi Space — Peter Tanton. At that time, Peter was probably in his early 60s and I was a young engineer in my early 20s. I remember being struck by how in-tune he was with what we were trying to achieve, his incredible calmness while making big decisions, and his ability to inspire. He weighed things carefully, chatted to his team and then made important calls to keep us moving forward. He was also incredibly personable and built great relationships within the team. No airs and graces or hierarchy. People wanted to work for him and with him.

After Matra Marconi, I moved into the world of satellite operators with New Skies Satellites and New Skies had that startup buzz and the feeling that we were hiring the best talent from around the industry. We had a bunch of satellites, a bunch of customers, but no people, no organization, and no set-up. Bob Ross, the first CEO at New Skies was a real character. He brought with him a great career and experience with CNN and Turner International and he really captured the entrepreneurial spirit, the need for us to be different, and to be ambitious. Many of the best people I have worked with I met at New Skies — Dan Goldberg who crystalized the management team and gave us focus and leadership. I loved working with Michael Schwartz, Andrew Browne, Scott Sprague and too many others to list, and I find myself trying to use bits of how they approached things in the way I lead.

VIA SATELLITE: Who do you most admire in the satellite industry?

Collar: There are some incredible names and inspirational characters that have formed and shaped our industry going back to Harold Rosen and even Arthur C. Clarke but a great current example is Mark Dankberg at Viasat. Mark has delivered success over a sustained period of time and done it with convictions and methods that were often not part of the received wisdom at the time. I have huge respect for what he and the Viasat team have achieved, starting more than 30 years ago with a clear vision for the business and still innovating today. Mark has a great mix of technical expertise and market focus and it is relatively unusual to have someone master both and use the combination to drive the strategy of the company. With that said, I will be expecting substantial discounts on our equipment purchases from now on!

VIA SATELLITE: We have spoken before about the time you joined O3b Networks and how you saw it as a gamechanger for the satellite industry. Why were you so keen to be part of the O3b Networks story when it was initiated?

Collar: I was really attracted by the unique architecture and technology and the potential that it offered. It was very different from anything else that I had seen and I had a strong conviction that it would work. Mainly though, I was sold on the vision and the ability to make a difference. O3b – the Other 3 Billion – it is such a powerful idea and the name said it all. That was what captured me and it has never left me.

It is very much something that we have taken on at SES. Our purpose is to do the extraordinary in space to deliver amazing experiences everywhere on Earth. For me, creating shared experiences and positively impacting lives is a hugely motivating idea. Space and the satellite industry has incredible reach — an ability to touch the lives of an extraordinary number of people and that is something that we should never lose sight of.

VIA SATELLITE: Your career seemed to go full circle, New Skies Satellites to SES, to O3b Networks and back again to SES. Was it not at the time somewhat disconcerting to go from the most talked about startup in satellite back to the big corporate beast that was SES, the very type of company you wanted to attack with O3b Networks?

Collar: I never saw O3b Networks as trying to attack anyone. To disrupt, maybe, but not attack. We were never the enemy of other operators or against anything that others were trying to do. Remember that SES was a very important investor in O3b. What O3b Networks was trying to do was achieve something extraordinary and aspirational — to connect people and do it in a way that hadn’t been done before.

We were all trying to deliver on that mission and everyone who worked at the company felt that way. No one was there to change or challenge the larger satellite companies. We were focused on connecting people. We lived to see the reaction of people in Pacific Islands, in towns and cities in land-locked Africa, in the Amazon that were connected to broadband for the first time. We were changing peoples’ experiences and that was gold dust for us. I think for a while, our people would have turned up to work for nothing. It is such a fun experience to be part of that environment.

Of course, we wanted to be successful, and we had to be successful as we had borrowed a lot of money and had to do right by our shareholders and lenders. But, what it taught me, is that you can do both. You can be a successful company financially, and also have a very strong purpose, and that is what we had at O3b.

VIA SATELLITE: How had the satellite industry changed from the first part of the millennium (say 2005) to when you came back to be part of the SES family in 2016?

Collar: The satellite industry transformed in that time, both in terms of the technology being launched and in terms of disruption in the markets that we serve. Our industry was pretty static for a long period of time. Huge stability in video and the data business was relatively small and niche. But since the start of the decade we have experienced a period to sustained disruption that has accelerated in the last few years.

That said, we are far from alone. Almost every business on the planet is both enabled by, and disrupted by, technology – software, cloud, automation, [Artificial Intelligence] AI, analytics etc. It has made the satellite industry a lot more exciting as there has been a lot more innovation but it also makes it more challenging. In the past, I think our industry was a little guilty of lacking innovation, driven by the high barriers to entry and the high cost of failure. It feels like there is a lot more ambition across the entire ecosystem now. At SES, our ambition is to move satellite mainstream, from niche and expensive to broad-based and affordable and I think we are making great progress.

VIA SATELLITE: Were you ever personally frustrated at that supposed lack of innovation just before five years ago?

Collar: When I met Greg Wyler back in 2008 and was introduced to O3b, part of the attraction was the innovation, the fact that the system was so different in concept, but it is also interesting that it came from the brain of someone outside the core satellite industry. And the industry was highly skeptical and not super accepting of it. Even as late as 2011 when I became CEO and went to SATELLITE 2011, one of the first audience questions I had to answer was “Who thinks that O3b is dead as a project?” The industry was a bit closed and there was an incumbent mentality that had developed that rejected the notion of the importance of low latency, for example. While there were a few exceptions, innovation was an underdeveloped muscle. Fast forward to today and the good news is that innovation is being embraced across the industry and the change is incredible.

VIA SATELLITE: Your appointment as CEO at SES appeared to come relatively suddenly. Did the call come as a surprise?

Collar: The day that the Board asked me to become CEO at SES, the largest satellite operator with an unbelievably proud 35-year history, was an incredibly humbling moment. It’s an incredible honor and for about 60 seconds I was pinching myself. And then I got this overwhelming feeling of responsibility. Responsibility towards the Board and the shareholders. Responsibility for protecting and building on that rich history but mainly responsibility to do well by everyone who works at SES. That hasn’t changed in the two years since.

When SES acquired O3b in 2016, they asked the leadership team to stay and to help build a new business inside SES by combining the existing data business and O3b into what became SES Networks. So I was very much part of the leadership team at SES and had a good sense of where the business was. That said, there is obviously a world of difference between running a business unit and running the company and I had never been the CEO of a publicly traded company before so I had a lot to learn – still do!

VIA SATELLITE: How difficult was it go from managing a company like O3b with a start-up mentality to SES which is obviously one of the giants of our industry? Did you have to change your management approach/style?

Collar: It wasn’t completely straightforward to go from a team where I knew more or less everybody — at O3b we had probably 200 people — to SES with more than 2000. It definitely took some adjustment on my part and, in hindsight, I maybe adjusted too much to begin with. I think in any leadership role, authenticity and trusting your instincts are really important. Keep doing the things that have stood you in good stead.

VIA SATELLITE: A lot has been spoken about the approach that SES has taken with its Networks business? Did you see early on that standing still and relying on video was going to mean a less promising future for SES? How difficult was it to come into a business where traditional business models were being turned on their head?

Collar: What struck me early on is that we had two fantastically strong businesses but that they deliver very different things to SES. We have the largest video business in the industry. I am continually blown away by the idea that we provide video and programming content to 365 million TV households worldwide. That’s over a billion people touched by our network and it is mindboggling to think about the possibilities and potential that offers. But our video business also continues to deliver huge value to SES in terms of cashflow, visibility of future revenue, profitability, backlog — all of which are enormously important. Then in Networks, we have a business that can deliver very exciting growth. Networks has grown revenue 21% in the last two years and with O3b mPOWER and SES-17 on the way we expect double-digit growth for the foreseeable future. That’s exciting and there aren’t too many satellite operators who are growing that fast. We are in the unique position of having two incredibly strong businesses that complement each other under one roof.

VIA SATELLITE: The satellite industry has always appeared to be on the margins, connecting communities in the Pacific for example? Do you ever expect it to go beyond it? Even in a 5G world, will it be relegated to the margins once again?

Collar: I think that under-calls the contribution that we can make as an industry. Our superpower is reach. Inevitably we won’t deploy data services in the center of the network as terrestrial does the job there. To connect people, to impact their lives, we have to deliver enough bandwidth and with enough quality to deliver the same experience that you or I enjoy in a big city. The satellite industry has been connecting people for 30-40 years, but when it comes to data, we have been connecting people largely for critical communications.

That all changed with O3b. We delivered enough bandwidth and with low-latency and the right performance to ensure that that all internet applications worked. That the experience was the same as fiber. If you went on the internet and you wanted to get educated, or connect with your friends over Facetime, or build a business on line, you could do it. And we have taken on that mantle with SES Networks – honing our network in the cloud, delivering automation, flexible multi-orbit connectivity to moving platforms. I don’t think this is niche or marginal at all. We have transformed the aviation industry and will transform it further in a future as cloud connected aircraft and, ultimately, autonomous travel becomes a reality.

5G will provide faster speeds for all users and broaden the usage to include home access networks but it is mainly the network slicing that will benefit satellite and allow us to serve a broader base of use cases. Integrating with terrestrial, cloud enabled networks and becoming an extension of those networks is our ambition.

VIA SATELLITE: On a more somber note, the world is entering a very difficult period right now with the coronavirus pandemic. Industries such as aviation and potentially maritime are going to be really hard hit. What impact do you see this having on the industry?

Collar: The satellite industry is a resilient industry. This is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis and I could not have more respect for the healthcare workers who are putting themselves on the line for the rest of us at this time. I think the broader challenge for our industry, as others, will be the impact that COVID-19 has on the global economy and how long it lasts. That is hard to gauge at this stage. It is heartbreaking to see so many small, innovative business impacted and under stress. Certainly, some of our verticals will be affected and maritime and aviation are obvious examples. We are working proactively with our customers, showing up as a partners and being as helpful as we can be. I am optimistic that once we have this horrible virus under control globally we will see these verticals rebound pretty quickly.

On a positive note, the satellite industry can have a really meaningful impact on society. We provide connectivity and entertainment, and both are incredibly important. We have seen a big pick up in linear and live TV viewing in the last few weeks. As more and more people work from home and in remote locations, satellites can help to offload networks and keep them running. We are delivering broadcast news and fantastic entertainment to millions and millions of people. And we all need that at times like this.

VIA SATELLITE: How difficult will it be to manage SES during this period? What challenges does it present someone like yourself as you continue to look to drive the future of SES?

Collar: Our first priority is to protect our people and ensure that we keep satellite and network operations up and running. We took some fairly important measures early on. We sent everyone home and locked down our operations centers – I wasn’t allowed in! We segmented our operations teams and put them in shifts to avoid direct contact with one another. We have kept our people, our satellites, our networks, and our customers safe and it is a huge credit to the teams of folks at SES who run our operations. We are all getting used to remote working. We are having a lot more video calls. I am particularly enjoying the virtual happy hours!

We also have great program at SES called Giving Back where everyone can take paid time to go and make a difference however big or small. The only thing they have to do is share the experience and those stories have been inspiring for all of us — for our people shopping for their vulnerable neighbors, to delivering food from food banks and volunteering in health centers and hospitals, in this crisis it is the local impact that we can have in our communities that makes us feel human.

VIA SATELLITE: We have just finished SATELLITE 2020. What do you think will be the main talking points at SATELLITE 2021?

Collar: Looking ahead to SATELLITE 2021 the world will be emerging from Covid-19. I think this virus will change our culture and will impact the way we see the world around us. The fact that we will all have learned to work remotely and be online more will have interesting benefits. We are a long-term industry so we tend to ride through short-term disruption, but this is unprecedented. The stock market has only seen this level of volatility three times in the last 100 years. 2021 will be about how our industry emerges from this period. I am optimistic. We have to be responsible and thoughtful about what we do but I think there will be huge opportunities for us to deliver fantastic services and be relevant in a post-Covid world.

VIA SATELLITE: Finally, we enter the 2020s, how do you see the satellite industry fundamentally changing in this decade?

Collar: From an SES standpoint, I almost want to get through the 2020s to see how we got on with our vision of a ubiquitous, multi-orbit cloud-based network that customers can roam onto and off with electronically steered antennas, which will be plentiful and cheap and form the basis of a lot of mobility networks.

We should also have made a dent in the four billion people who are not well connected today. If we have not done that, then shame on all of us. I would also like to think that we have become a better planet and hit some of the United Nation’s sustainability goals.

Steve Collar's peers sound off on the CEO's win

John Dick, former Chairman, O3b Networks:

“Steve is one of the most impressive CEOs I have ever worked with. I have been involved with a lot of public companies, and he is one of the top CEOs I have come across. What he is, in addition to all of his other qualities, is a great team builder. He has the welfare of the people who he works with firmly in his sights and he is always supportive. We made some remarkable progress at O3b under Steve’s guidance and I think the success of that business was largely due to the fact that Steve was our CEO. I think his tenure at SES bodes well for the company and something we can be all very proud of.”

John Padgett, Chief Experience and Innovation Officer, Carnival Corporation:

“Steve Collar is transforming SES into one of the most admired and respected consumer-centric organizations in the communications and connectivity industry. He is a true innovator who thrives on breaking down legacy constraints to create new models that are not only re-platforming the satellite industry, but literally changing peoples’ lives across the globe. Steve’s leadership impact is profound because of his dedication and commitment to advancing the connected customer experience while maintaining unmatched strategic resolve.”

Gwynne Shotwell, President, SpaceX:

“Steve is an asset to the industry, one of SpaceX’s most valued partners, and a friend. He’s shown great leadership throughout his career, besting unprecedented challenges and successfully navigating through the uncertainty of the times. Steve is a visionary leader, and truly exemplifies what it means to be Satellite Executive of the Year.”

Dan Goldberg, CEO, Telesat:

“Steve has that incredibly rare combination of deep technical expertise, strong commercial instincts, long-term vision, and world class analytical and communications skills that makes him such an effective and impactful leader in our industry. Steve always operates with the highest degree of personal and professional integrity, and it has been my great privilege to work closely with him over the many years we’ve known each other. It’s also essential to say that Steve’s also just a great guy, a great colleague, and someone I consider to be a great friend.”

Romain Bausch, Member of the Board, SES (former SES CEO):

“The first time I got aware of Steve’s competencies and strengths was at the occasion of an SES leadership summit we organized in Berlin shortly after the acquisition of New Skies in 2006. Steve and I happened to be members in the same small working group where we were tasked in a breakout session to deal with a defined development project. We were so impressed by this guy’s performance that we elected this newcomer to the SES family as our spokesman to the larger audience. It was thus not surprising that Steve’s career within the SES Group progressed at fast speed.
Besides his industry knowledge, one of Steve’s main strengths is that he is a charismatic leader who can form teams and motivate people to relentlessly work with him. For sure Steve deserves this recognition and I am pretty sure that there we will see more from him in the years to come.”

John Finney, CEO, Isotropic Systems:

“I had a unique opportunity to serve in Steve Collar's management team in O3b. Few people recognize that almost all of the original founders, left the company several years before O3b went into operation. It was Steve that transitioned O3b to a new vision that was commercially successful leading to a $2.7 billion exit. Starting as a payload engineer and working his way up to the top of the world's largest satellite company, his career history alone is an inspiration to all newcomers into the industry. Savvy at every turn, Steve possesses a leadership style that makes him incredibly popular and where every employee is tremendously proud to follow his leadership, feeling equally valued as any other employee regardless of title. The biggest lesson I learned from Steve's leadership is the value of being consistent and creating a safe environment for everyone to contribute ideas and challenge the status quo.”

Jean-Yves Le Gall, Chairman, CNES:

“I’ve known Steve Collar for around 20 years now. What strikes me most about him is that he’s always at the cutting edge and at the same time so realistic. With O3B, he has built the first genuinely successful commercial constellation, while crafting SES’s strategy around geostationary satellites. And for launch services, he has gone for the disruptive route with SpaceX while continuing to use the venerable Soyuz vehicle. In short, he has found the right balance between the conservatism of yesterday and the dreams of tomorrow, making him the perfect modern manager.”

Mark Dankberg, Chairman and CEO, Viasat:

“Steve is a deserving winner of the SEOTY award. His strong leadership skills and insight into data networking have made him the right CEO for SES during a major transformation in the satellite services industry.” VS

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