The Right Time and Space for a CFO

With $1.8 billion in financing and 250 dealers doubling as an R&spamp;D arm, Tom Fitzpatrick flies high while his employer's satellite-communicatio...
David McCannNovember 8, 2011

Having the instinct to take the right job and the luck to find it at the right time are easily as important to an executive’s career growth as having the right skills to do the job well, and probably more so.

Take Tom Fitzpatrick, CFO of Iridium Communications. He is not a job hopper. He spent more than a decade each at two publicly held, wireless-services companies: Bell Atlantic (which later merged with Nynex to form Verizon) and Centennial Communications, serving as a divisional CFO for both. Fitzpatrick left the latter when AT&T acquired it in 2009 which only led to a better opportunity.

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His personal network led him to Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, a satellite-telecommunications provider that had gone public a few months earlier. Fitzpatrick, appointed to lead finance for the company in April 2010, considers himself fortunate.

His first major task could hardly have been more crucial: negotiating a $1.8 billion financing package with a consortium of European banks, with the help of Coface, France’s import and export agency. The money is part of the $3 billion it will take to build out Iridium Next, a new satellite network, already under construction, to replace the company’s 10-year-old, 66-satellite constellation.

Between the financing deal and Iridium’s expectations for increasing revenue, Iridium Next is fully funded, Fitzpatrick says. One big opportunity will come with the new generation of satellites in the form of “hosted payloads” that will allow governments and enterprises to put proprietary functionality on Iridium’s network.

“This is an important business,” says Fitzpatrick. “We’re less than $400 million in revenue, but when I was at Bell Atlantic Mobile in the 1980s, we lost money every month and didn’t know whether mobile telephony would ever grow into a viable business.”

That seems a long time ago, at this point. That few people in the industrialized world go anywhere without their cell phones “dovetails nicely with Iridium’s unique capability,” Fitzpatrick says.

That is, Iridium provides the world’s only communications network that covers the entire Earth, including poles, oceans, and airways. The network divides the planet into six planes, with 11 satellites orbiting each one. “There is huge demand for connectivity regardless of your location,” the CFO says. “That is going to create great shareholder value, which is the first thing you should think about when moving to a new career opportunity.”

The network’s reach combines with a second important element of Iridium’s value proposition: the functionality derived from having a large number of satellites orbiting at the low altitude of 483 miles.

All traffic is handed off in space from satellite to satellite until it reaches Iridium’s facility in Tempe, Arizona, where it terminates to either the public telephone network or the Internet. Iridium’s largest client is the U.S. government, which doesn’t always want sensitive communications beamed to geostationary satellites 22,000 miles high and then directly down to recipients.

But there are many potential applications for the network outside of government. Iridium doesn’t employ its own direct sales force but rather relies on dealers and value-added resellers (VARs) that play a second role as developers.

“Think of VARs as experts in the vertical market to which they cater. It could be another industry, like oil and gas or forestry,” says Fitzpatrick. “Our VARs are thinking all the time about solutions for their vertical markets that they can build around the Iridium platform.”

For instance, Celestica, which manufactures phones for Iridium, also makes a short-burst data modem that enables machine-to-machine communications, the fastest-growing terrestrial wireless segment. A piece of heavy equipment can receive signals from the modem through the Iridium network telling, say, how much fluid is in the vehicle or whether the driver should slow down.

Another company, Delorme, is developing a GPS-powered product called InReach, billed as the first two-way personal locator. A hiker or skier who is off the terrestrial phone grid, for example, will be able to hit a panic button connected to first responders.

“That product wasn’t in our portfolio a year ago, and we think it can bring hundreds of thousands of new subscribers,” says Fitzpatrick. “The idea was not created by us but by our dealer channel, 250 dealers strong, thinking of applications for the Iridium network.”

But, the CFO notes, he doesn’t have to be an expert on the underlying technology of the network or applications built for it. He just needs to know enough to understand the commercial implications and to articulate the technology’s value to analysts and shareholders.

You may have seen one of Iridium’s satellites. They are frequently visible in the night sky as satellite flares, typically observed as short-lived flashes of bright light.

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