An Abridged History of MDA

RADARSAT-2 painting. Credit: MDA.

Fifty years after MDA was founded as a private company it will be reverting back to being private, and not for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with the history of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., now known as MDA, herein find an abridged history of the company. This abridged history is written to provide context of significant events that shaped the company as it transitioned from a private company to a public company and back again.

This is the first part in a series of stories on MDA and where it fits into the Canadian space ecosystem as of early 2020.

A timeline of key events

John MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler incorporated MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia as private company in 1969.

The company has had three Canadian CEO’s prior to the execution of its U.S. access strategy. The three Canadians who presided over the company for 47 years were John MacDonald (1969–82), John W. Pitts (1982–95), and Daniel E. Friedmann (1995–2016).

MDA first went public in 1993 on the Vancouver exchange. In 1995 it was acquired by the American company Orbital Sciences Corporation for US$67 million in stock. MDA’s first foray as a public was short lived. Its second crack at the Canadian public marketplace would last longer.

After Orbital Sciences Corporation began experiencing cash flow and debt issues, it needed to divest some assets. One of those assets was MDA. In July 2000 MDA was once again a public company in Canada on the Toronto exchange. By June 2001, Orbital Sciences had sold its remaining shares in MDA to Canadian institutional investors.

In 2008 MDA tried unsuccessfully to sell itself to Alliant Techsystems but the government intervened and nixed the deal.

In November of 2010 MDA sold its property information business for $849.6 million. With the subprime mortgage disaster in the UK and the US, this turned out to a critical moment for the future of the company.

In 2012 MDA began to venture back into the U.S. market by acquiring Space Systems Loral (SSL). This was the beginning of its U.S. access plan and what would later become its transition to a U.S. domiciled corporation.

In 2016 MDA’s longtime CEO Dan Friedmann resigned, and leadership would pass to American Howard L. Lance, the former CEO of Harris Corp.

By late February 2017 Lance and the MDA board had made the significant decision to acquire DigitalGlobe for $3.1 billion (US$2.4 billion) in shares and cash. With the acquisition, MDA’s debt was now growing. By October of 2017 MDA was now known as Maxar Technologies.

In August of 2018 Maxar came under attack from Spruce Point Capital, a specialist in short selling. One of Spruce Point Capital’s major concerns was the mounting debt of the company.

At the same, orders for geostationary communications satellites, an important revenue source for SSL, was tanking.

By November 2018 Maxar shareholders had voted overwhelmingly in favour of being a U.S. domesticated company.

MDA at 50
MDA at 50. Credit: MDA.

In early 2019 Maxar lost its flagship satellite, WorldView-4, when its gyros failed. The satellite had been launched just over two years early. It was a significant blow to the company.

A week after the loss of WorldView-4 and with the company struggling to deal with its debt load, CEO Howard Lance resigned was replaced by Daniel Jablonsky who had previously been President of DigitalGlobe. The move was in part influenced by the Board of Directors who had recently appointed General Howell M. Estes III as its new Chairman.

With Jablonsky as the new CEO and revitalized Board, plans were made to reduce debt. By June of 2019 rumours began spreading that MDA, the Canadian business unit of Maxar was possibly going to be sold.

On December 30, 2019, Maxar announced that MDA had been sold to a consortium led by Toronto Based Northern Private Capital. Pending regulatory approvals, MDA will transition back to a private company again.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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