“GeoEye was the scrappy survivor within the industry,” said Chris Quilty, senior vice president at Raymond James. Then “they secured a contract that ensured the company’s long-term solvency and growth opportunities, so it was devastating for them to lose this contract.”
Uncertainty about the contract’s future was the impetus for the announcement last week that GeoEye agreed to be acquired by longtime competitor DigitalGlobe. For a company with a story line of perseverance, the deal marked an anticlimactic end.
“It certainly appears from where we sit today, knowing what we know about the fiscal environment coming at us, that this was really a prudent move,” said Keith Masback, president of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a trade group. “And really the only option that made a lot of sense for the investors and stockholders of these companies, and probably for the nation, moving forward.”
Today, GeoEye employs nearly 750 people, including about 430 in the Washington area. In addition to providing satellite images of Earth to government and corporate clients, the firm has a sizable team of analysts who help decipher them.
But the trajectory that brought the company to its current state has been punctuated by ups and downs.
Once called Orbimage, the company encountered a significant defeat in September 2001 when a rocket propelling one of its satellites into space didn’t have enough power to complete the task. The spacecraft plummeted to Earth and was lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Orbimage then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003 and the reorganization allowed the company to cut ties with its majority owner at the time, Dulles-based Orbital Sciences.
The following year, Orbimage was awarded a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency contract worth as much as $500 million to provide high-resolution satellite images for defense and national security purposes.
“The satellite business is a risky business in and of itself,” Gary Adkins, then Orbimage’s vice president of federal and national security programs, told The Washington Post in a 2004 interview. He left the firm four years later.
“If you’re thinking about the expense and the investment it takes to accomplish a construction and a launch and getting a satellite in orbit, you know, it’s quite risky. Just the general nature of the business itself has risk built into it.”
Spending time in the ‘bankruptcy penalty box’
Indeed, businesses that rely on satellites are no stranger to financial hardship. Building a satellite requires massive capital costs and years of work. They are then hurled through the atmosphere as executives watch with fingers crossed, hoping that no hiccups undo all that effort in a matter of minutes.