Righting the Ship: An Interview With Maxar CEO Daniel Jablonsky

Maxar Technologies came into existence in November 2017 through a titanic merger across North American borders. Canada’s largest space company at the time, MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates (MDA), along with its fairly recently acquired satellite manufacturing subsidiary SSL, acquired leading imagery operator DigitalGlobe, formed a new company, and moved south to the United States.

This is also the time when Daniel Jablonsky arguably made his most life-changing career decision. He was DigitalGlobe’s long-serving general counsel and general manager of its U.S. and international defense and intelligence business at the time of Maxar’s birth, helping executive leaders close deals and finalize mergers. His efforts were recognized and he was offered the keys to lead the entire DigitalGlobe business as president. Jablonsky accepted and would eventually work his way up to lead its parent company.

Things seemed to be going well for Maxar. The parent company made more acquisitions, and was moving aggressively to create a space technology giant that could dominate multiple levels of the supply chain. … Then the bills came.

Both Maxar’s board of directors and investors quickly realized that the debt the company had taken on was too much. The weight of it would significantly slow things down for a company with an ambitious mission and only a few years to accomplish it. When former Maxar CEO Howard Lance stepped down in January 2019, the board turned to Jablonsky, their former general counsel, himself a former U.S. Naval Officer, to fill the role. If there was a CEO who could put things in order, prioritize government business, and eliminate debt while maintaining course, Jablonsky was it.

Now almost two years into the job, Jablonsky sat down with Via Satellite to talk about Maxar’s building financial comeback, why it had to let go of one of its founding businesses, how it is navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic, the true value of Earth Observation (EO) data, and its upcoming Legion constellation.

Via Satellite: You’ve made several transitions throughout your career — from U.S. Navy officer to attorney, and then to executive leadership of DigitalGlobe and now Maxar. Was this the path you planned to take, or were there certain events or people that pulled you in different directions?

Jablonsky: After I completed my initial commitment to the Navy as a surface warfare officer and nuclear engineer, I could have stayed on to become a commander. But I went to law school instead. For a number of years, I worked inside and outside of government as a corporate and securities attorney, helping companies and clients finalize contracts and solve really hard business problems.

This is initially how I joined DigitalGlobe as their general counsel. It was an interesting time for DigitalGlobe. The company had gone through quite a bit of transformation and I was very happy being a lawyer and an advisor to their board and to their management team. Jeff Tarr, the former DigitalGlobe CEO and now member of EchoStar’s board of directors, became a friend and mentor to me. He pulled me aside one day and said, “Dan, I think you've got some aptitude for business. I don’t want to lose you as general counsel, but would you be interested in also having a business role?”

I said “yes” and took on DigitalGlobe’s international defense intelligence profile. That eventually led to me taking on more and more responsibility and running the entire U.S. government business. Around the time that the merger with MDA was completed and MDA became Maxar, Howard Lance, who was about to be announced as CEO of Maxar, asked me to stay on as the president of DigitalGlobe. I was honored to be given the chance. But, Jeff Tarr was really the one that got the ball rolling on my executive career and has given me a lot of great advice along the way.

Via Satellite: Do you still go to Jeff for advice?

Jablonsky: Jeff Tarr and I still keep in pretty close contact. He’s been fantastic. I do have a network of friends and some other CEOs that I've come across over the years that I speak to regularly and admire. I ask them questions when I need answers. But, the most important relationships I have right now are with the Maxar board of directors. I think we have an outstanding set of directors that bring expertise in government services, business, industry, and space technology. Our chairman Gen. Howell Estes, and Gen. Robert Kehler [U.S. Air Force retired], are both wonderful mentors and advisors, as are all of the board members. They have been incredibly influential in shaping the vision of Maxar as it enters a new phase.

Via Satellite: When you took over leadership of Maxar in January 2019, it was a company with big dreams and ambitions, but also a lot of debt. How did you approach the task of reducing debt without killing your company’s innovative spirit?

Jablonsky: We did have, and still have more debt than we would like, although we're finishing up a phase where we've been investing an awful lot of innovation and dollars in capital programs into the Legion constellation. We're getting ready to transition from building out a massive and innovative capital program to being able to enjoy the investments we've made. That in itself is a big change. We also took a hard look at our strategy and the most important things we could or should be doing. That's when we decided to move into the One Maxar model. We saved quite a bit of cost by just having to support one brand instead of five different brands.

We also decided to consolidate focus on the areas of business where we had world leadership, and which were really exciting growth areas for the company. We collapsed DigitalGlobe and Radiant Solutions into the Maxar Earth Intelligence business. And, we took our constellations, including the Legion constellation, and combined them with SSL to create the Maxar Space business. Both businesses are still diversifying rapidly into other programs and doing more work with NASA and a variety of other customers.

Narrowing our focus allowed us to free up resources and energy to make more exciting investments, including an investment into the Vricon joint venture. By purchasing the rest of the 50 percent we didn't already own in Vricon, we put Maxar in a position to clearly be the world leader in 3D technology. This, combined with the sale of our MDA business, and the sale of our leaseback agreements for satellite facilities in Palo Alto, allowed us to clear about a billion dollars in debt in a single year. This also puts us in a very strong position to be able to go forward and complete the Legion program and start to move into the launch phase.

Via Satellite: I understand that selling the MDA subsidiary allowed you to clear debt, but why did you decide it was better to sell it than roll it into your Maxar Space business?

Jablonsky: When we were conducting the strategic review and narrowing our focus, we thought about who our customers were and where the most exciting growth opportunities were for us as a company. MDA is a fantastic business, but it wasn't as essential to our core business as we would have liked. Selling MDA helped us free up a lot of energy for the types of investments we want to make internally, narrow our focus as a management team, and get closer with our most important worldwide customer, the U.S. government.

Via Satellite: Do you plan to get back into the ground systems business in the future with maybe another acquisition, or another in-house reconfiguration?

Jablonsky: We still have a ground systems operation and it’s important to us, but it’s just different than what MDA was doing with their facility. We're still very involved in some key U.S. Army programs, as well as with our international customers with direct access facilities. We use certain vendors, including MDA, for parts of the value chain, but we've been making very substantial investments in software and processing and analytical capabilities. As you bring in computers, antennas, infrastructure, and the ground systems power supplies to a building, they are essentially going to run on the Maxar suite of software, with Maxar data being fed directly into the system. Ground systems will continue to be important to our business, but we're very comfortable with where we are as part of that value chain.

Via Satellite: Is there a definitive limit as to what Maxar could be or wants to be, in regards to its presence on the value chain?

Jablonsky: We want to continue to be the world leader in all things related to Earth intelligence and we are running as fast as we can to continue to figure out ways to solve customer needs and objectives. We also want to be a world leader in space capabilities, particularly space infrastructure, communication satellites, power, propulsion, and robotics, which I think is going to be very important to our future.

The investments we will make are going to be smartly oriented in those two directions. On the Space and Earth Intelligence side, the most important program we've got right now is the WorldView Legion constellation. Those six satellites will be launched in 2021. We're working very hard to incorporate the Vricon technology and capabilities into our entire Earth intelligence infrastructure. And, we're continuing to invest in Artificial Intelligence [AI] software programs, which are not only important and apparent across the Earth Intelligence business, but in other things that are going to be happening with our Space business. For example, on-orbit robotics – the ability to put things together in space — will be demonstrated very soon on the [NASA] Restore-L mission [which is now called the On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM-1) spacecraft]. It may just seem like this stuff is being used for only science experiments now, but Artificial Intelligence software really has an exciting future in various ways, working in a non-human environment.

Via Satellite: After all of these adjustments, do you feel that the company is where you want it to be financially?

Jablonsky: We’ve largely completed our turn-around phase, and are now getting into the traction and growth phase. So yes, we are in a very good place right now, and I think we've got great things to come. I'm very excited about the trajectory we’re on and I'm very excited about what we, as a team, have been able to accomplish so far. Thanks to the leadership of people like Nancy Coleman [Maxar’s senior vice president of Marketing and Communications], we’re able to connect better with our customers and the marketplace and it’s been a fantastic journey.

Via Satellite: Let’s talk about the Legion constellation. Maxar already has a comprehensive constellation offering. What new capabilities do customers get with Legion’s high-frequency revisit rates?

Jablonsky: We're really excited about Legion. With it, we're going to be tripling our 30 centimeter capacity and dramatically increasing the amount of area coverage we get on the globe every day. And as you pointed out, we're also going to be able to collect data from any point within Southeast Asia, the Middle East, most of North America, and Europe up to 15 times a day, or 15 times at the same point. Being able to do this gives us a much higher level of fidelity. We’ll be able to better understand change detection and the enhanced intelligence will also enhance our problem-solving capabilities.

With Legion, we’ll be able to continue building out the world in 3D. 3D machines need lots of imagery to be able to work at a very high level of fidelity. Legion satellites can capture and collect data from an entire metropolitan area — think of something the size of the New York metropolitan area — overnight, and create 3D models of it in real-time. The frequency of the satellite data collection also gives us a real time estimate of everything that's happened there in that space. This can unlock new applications for training purposes, infrastructure, and building programs.

Via Satellite: Are your customers excited about Legion? What are their expectations?

Jablonsky: The customers that we've been speaking with are very excited about Legion, because the amount of information Legion captures, combined with our software and modeling capabilities, creates truly actionable data that can help them solve their most critical missions.

Via Satellite: The summer has come to an end and the COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting all of our lives. COVID-19 has also impacted the satellite industry as a whole — not just financially, but also in the way it operates. Do you feel that Maxar was able to properly insulate and protect itself and its workforce from the virus?

Jablonsky: During the first weeks of March, when people were first starting to understand how impactful this might be and how global it might be, I spoke with business and government leaders up and down the chain at the state, county, national level. They emphasized the importance of our Earth intelligence data in being able to fully understand this new environment. They also told me that they wanted to make sure we provided their analysts with access to our data and tools and software to support COVID prevention efforts. From our perspective, we’re not losing business, and I figure that our markets will take care of themselves.

The most important question we asked ourselves during that early stage was — How do we make sure our entire team stays safe? We had to figure out how to protect the 4,000 people we have working for us, while providing an essential service to protect the public against the pandemic. This wasn’t easy. We've got very sophisticated software programs and AI capabilities and a number of facilities. Our head of internal operations, Jeff Robertson, very quickly moved 3,000 people to full time work-from-home status within three days. We set up video calls, various levels of business authentication, and in a pretty seamless way, transitioned into keeping our critical missions going at 100 percent efficiency.

The remaining 1,000 of our employees have jobs that require them to work in a SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility], or fly satellites at a specific location where they had to keep building critical infrastructure projects like communication satellites or robotics for other missions. For those employees, we put protocols in place very quickly on social distancing, wearing masks, temperature checks, and other protocols to make sure that those employees were safe in those environments and could keep doing their jobs.

I think Maxar has done an excellent job in this effort. We took action very early, I think we took action very smartly. Out of 4,000 total employees, we've had maybe 20 confirmed cases of COVID that we've identified over the entire course of the last six months, and only one or two of those happened at a Maxar facility.

Via Satellite: Some have suggested that, if used properly and ethically, contact tracing could have prevented the spread of COVID-19. None of us want to go through this again. Could Maxar and other EO companies provide data that helps prevent another outbreak?

Jablonsky: As much as I wish I could say otherwise, I don't think Maxar is equipped to prevent a pandemic. First of all, we're very cognizant and very careful about the privacy aspects of what we do, especially considering the number of government customers that use Maxar data. I think Maxar has been most impactful with helping people understand what's happening and how it's happening. We can’t do contact tracing. What we can do is illustrate the effects of when a city shuts down. It can provide transparency as to why a city shuts down. Satellite data can be very helpful in planning a rapid deployment of field hospitals, or take on the very serious responsibility and tragic task of determining where burial grounds should be located.

Via Satellite: When I talk about the value of Earth Observation (EO) and sensing data with people outside of the industry, they always ask me the same question – How many lives and how much time and money can the world save with this data? They want a specific number that they can share with other people. How would you answer that question?

Jablonsky: It is hard to quantify, but this is a question that always comes to my mind when I think about whether or not Maxar is fulfilling its vision and purpose. It's impossible to place a value on even one life, but we definitely know from the success stories we've gotten in the field and how relevant it is to people that it does save many lives and it is making a difference in people’s lives.

We’ll never have an exact idea of the exact number of lives we save. We could say millions, but it may be more than that. In terms of money saved for customers, it's definitely in the billions of dollars. I can confidently say, based on what I know people pay for this data, that we save our customers lots and lots of billions of dollars. They wouldn’t pay us if it didn’t.

At Maxar, we see value in our purpose to build a better world. In order to do that, you need to see a better world and that’s what Earth Observation intelligence does. Maxar data is the foundational data inside Google Maps and Apple Maps. Think about how many people in the world are using Google Maps and Apple Maps to get around the planet, and how much time it saves, and how much energy it saves, and how much frustration it would create if we didn’t have these tools. In other areas, we’re rolling out infrared data in areas where wildfires are happening and creating photo-realistic 3D representations of what those areas look like. So, rescue crews don’t have to rely on flat maps of mountains and canyons. They can see the elevation, and how fires are moving and breaking on slopes. This data also helps save lives.

On the government side, we've transitioned from just delivering data to having customers do their own mapping with it. We have over 300,000 users now inside the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence agencies that access and utilize data within minutes of it coming off the satellites. And that's enabling U.S. Army personnel in the field to use Android tactical advanced kits for tactical maneuvers. In that case, the satellite imagery and the greater infrastructure are actively saving lives and helping with mission success in the field. In the end, we know that our data is doing its part to make the world a better place.

Via Satellite: Is the data also living up to its maximum potential? Are we doing all we can with it?

Jablonsky: The first big EO revolution was just having satellite data and not having to fly an airplane over something in order to get a picture of it. That was really important. Satellite data helped analysts and a lot of people in a lot of different use cases solve problems. Today, we process between three and four million square kilometers a day of high resolution, high accuracy satellite data into our platforms.

The next big revolution, of which we're still in the early stages of, has been the advent of cloud computing, paired to the massive amounts of computing power that is being harnessed today. We can now distribute data, in near real time, to lots and lots of people as it's becoming actionable. We can run software algorithms on top of that and help people understand what's changing or what's not changing in a specific frame. And, we're now moving toward a kind of computing and cloud-enabled power that can create full-on, global 3D map sets of the Earth that are constantly updating and changing. This will allow us to do things like navigate vehicles autonomously using a reference layer inside of those vehicles.

We're also now able to do things like build a synthetic training environment for the U.S. Army. Our One-World Terrain program can create gaming scenarios based not on hypothetical information, but on immersive, photorealistic, highly accurate 3D representations of the globe. And everybody in those virtual missions — from the helicopter pilots to the battalion commanders, to the people that are thinking about taking strategic points on a bridge — are going to be able to interact with a real time scenario with real world data.

I think we’re on the cusp of a series of exciting advancements in EO intelligence and geospatial data. I think we can go a lot further with this data. VS

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