Space persuader

Adrian Ballintine’s unlikely career has seen him go from working as an assistant town clerk to owning one of the world’s fastest-growing satellite communication companies, and playing a major role in developing boats that can run on economical, eco-friendly fuel.

It is fascinating to discover that an Australian satellite communications company is owned by a gregarious “anti-nerd”, who’s much more interested in “footy, golf and fishing” than “science project technology”.

Adrian Ballintine, a one-time council worker from suburban Melbourne, is growing a multibillion-dollar business on the back of being the first Australian to launch a series of commercial geostationary satellites. He puts his current position down to an extraordinary personal and business journey that began in the most prosaic of circumstances, three decades ago.

“I was 27, an assistant town clerk and for the next 40 years all I had to look forward to was being promoted to Town Clerk. One day I was in a meeting about whether my boss’s company car should be a Ford Fairlane or Ford Fairmont, and I thought, ‘This isn’t for me,’” Ballintine recalls. “I realised that to get anywhere in the world you needed to be able to sell ideas, and so if I was going to be anything I’d better go out and learn to sell. So I did.”

Ballintine spent the next three years working in Europe selling fourth and fifth generation computer languages for technology company BBJ International, before quitting his job as an international sales director to enter into what would be the first of a series of partnerships with corporate titans.

“I tossed in my job the same day as Saurabh Srivastava, the President of India’s Tata Group. We pooled our resources and combined Australian-engineered technology and Indian know-how to sell products into Asia. That was quite successful, until Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated in 1990 and India was thrown into turmoil. Then Saurabh and I got involved in a firm called Gupta Technologies and promoted their technology throughout the world. When the company listed on the NASDAQ in 1992 we got a payout that we invested in other technology companies.”

Around this time, Ballintine began a business relationship with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. “I spent a decade working with Paul and the companies that Vulcan Inc. [Allen’s investment and project management company] created, helping them to grow in the Asia-Pacific region. As those companies – Asymetrix, Starwave and Ansearch – listed we got a bit of a payday, and in 1999, Paul Allen, the ANZ bank and I became the major shareholders in a company that was – after going through a couple of iterations, to become NewSat.”

NewSat launched as a provider of a broad range of media solutions, including communications. But before the company had a chance to get going, it was almost wiped out by the dotcom disaster of 2000. “Our market cap became so small that it wasn’t worth it for Vulcan Inc. to stay involved, so they sold out,” Ballintine says. “We were close to the wall for a couple of years. I was writing out cheques from my personal account to pay wages and keep the company going. It came down to finding a technology that could come out of the tech wreck and be sustainable.”

Bravely, Ballintine chose to bet the farm on “the dog” of telecommunications technology. “Satellite was the orphan of communications, but it seemed to me that it had a lot going for it and that if it experienced the type of quantum leap that I’d seen happen with other technology businesses, it would undergo a metamorphosis. Thanks to the thought leadership shown by some in the space industry, that is what has happened over the last several years. Also, there aren’t too many countries better placed for satellite than Australia; a big country with people in remote spots, such as mining camps and farms, who have a need for satellite communications. Also, Australia is politically stable, has a good climate for operating teleports [relay stations that plug data from a satellite into the internet or a corporation’s head office], and is an ally of the US, which opens up the potential for lots of business from overseas.”

From 2002, NewSat began leasing satellite capacity and teleport services to provide communication solutions to a range of customers. In 2005 Ballintine bought two teleports in Adelaide and Perth, allowing NewSat to “move up the food chain” and concentrate on enterprise and government clients based around the world, particularly those involved in oil, gas, mining and the military. In 2011, after a long series of negotiations, he was able to purchase eight orbital slots (parking bays in space) from AP Kypros Satellite Limited, a Cypriot company. Next year will see the launch of Jabiru-2, a satellite NewSat has bought significant capacity on, and naming rights to. The following year will see the launch of Jabiru-1, which NewSat owns outright and has contracted Lockheed Martin to build and Arianespace to launch. And there are plans to launch a third satellite, Jabiru-3, by 2015.

It costs around $500 million to build and launch a satellite, such as Jabiru-1, that will earn $3 billion during a 15-year lifespan, yielding an 80 per cent profit margin. NewSat’s eight orbital slots can house a total of 16 satellites and Ballintine aims to launch 10 of them over the next decade. While most existing satellites are Ku-band, NewSat’s will make use of the more advanced Ka-band frequency, which will offer them six times their competitors’ capacity, while still operating similarly to the Ku-band industry standard, meaning customers won’t need to change their systems. Jabiru-1 and Jabiru-3 will chiefly cover the Middle East and Africa, while Jabiru-2 covers Australia’s North West Shelf, Papua New Guinea and Timor, crucial areas for NewSat’s many mining, oil and gas clients.

The satellite communication industry, worth approximately $180 billion per annum, is currently divided up between three large European corporations, which account for 70 per cent of the market, and a second tier of around 40 niche, regional players. NewSat, which has enjoyed 15 quarters of record growth, is currently in the latter category, but its owner wants to propel it into the former. Ballintine, who was named Teleport Executive of the Year at the 2011 World Teleports Awards, and whose teleports are regularly ranked among the world’s best, says, “There’s only two things that really matter – having the customers and having the real estate in the sky. Once we get customers we don’t lose them, so our reputation for good service precedes us. The orbital slots are like beachfront property, there are only 180 of them, one every two degrees around the orbit, and we’ve got eight of them in perpetuity giving us the real estate to be a global satellite giant.”

Demand for satellite communication capability is exploding in an age where it’s crucial for everything, from piloting unmanned drones and remotely operating robots on mine sites, to monitoring fires and multicasting on-demand TV programs. “The world is developing fast and people in China, India, Africa and the Middle East rely heavily on satellite communication,” observes Ballintine. “NewSat is concentrating on getting more bang for buck out of satellite technology, making it a more usable and attractive technology.”

As if shaking up the satellite communication industry wasn’t enough to keep Ballintine occupied, in 2006 he bought a motor yacht company and soon thereafter entered into another alliance with a billionaire entrepreneur. “I had a 60-foot motor yacht made by an Australian boat builder called Cresta and I loved the brand so much I bought the company. Its founders were in their nineties and I thought I could rejuvenate the business they’d started in 1965.

“We decided to make vessels for the international market, so we had to get rid of the old moulds and technology and employ the best people: great naval architects, great engineers, great designers. We’ve now designed what we think is the best sub-100-foot motor yacht in the world, which is launching soon. Our intellectual property is created in Australia, we use components and technology from all around the world, and the boats are manufactured in China. That allows us to produce an extremely cost-competitive luxury product, and one that we believe will be extremely well-received in places such as Brazil, China and the Middle East.”

By 2015, many of Cresta’s boats will be running on Silicon Fire, a carbon neutral, silicone-based methanol fuel developed by Dr Peter Grauer, a reclusive Switzerland-based billionaire who made his fortune in solar energy. “Peter sought me out a couple of years ago. He’d seen me on TV talking about satellites. He told me, ‘It was the first time I had seen someone able to explain space to the ordinary person. You might be able to help me explain to the ordinary person why Silicon Fire is a worthy fuel.’”

Grauer took a stake in Cresta and invited Ballintine to sit on the board of his company, Silicon Fire AG, and take a major role in convincing the world’s boat owners to embrace his product. “Peter’s poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a synthetic, totally green fuel that will ultimately be significantly cheaper than traditional fuels. I’ve seen it used and it works. The issue is that you need distribution points. They already exist in Switzerland and Italy and I think they will appear in Australia as people observe the benefits. Peter is helping me sell Cresta motor yachts in Europe and I’m helping him commercialise Silicon Fire worldwide.”

While Ballintine’s CV suggests he will throw himself into plenty of other grand endeavours before his remarkable career draws to a close, the man himself insists he’ll be staying focused on his existing ventures. “Mate, seeing NewSat become a global satellite power and Cresta become a worldwide provider of luxury motor yachts, those are two difficult tasks that will require a fair bit of time, and I’ll be very happy putting 100 per cent of my energy into those two great initiatives,” he says.