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Dan Friedmann, president and chief executive officer of MDA (LAURA LEYSHON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/LAURA LEYSHON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dan Friedmann, president and chief executive officer of MDA (LAURA LEYSHON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/LAURA LEYSHON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Report on Business

For MDA, space pays Add to ...

In his cramped office, Daniel Friedmann spends a lot of time working on gas stations in space.

The CEO of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. wants to build the high-tech equivalent of a service station, load it up with fuel and spare parts, and launch it into orbit to come to the aid of aging satellites.

It's an audacious idea that has the potential to revolutionize the space industry by allowing companies to squeeze extra years of life out of hugely expensive satellites. The bold concept is even more remarkable considering that just two years ago MDA was trying to get out of the space business.

In 2008, Mr. Friedmann struck a deal to sell MDA's space division to a U.S. firm. Ottawa, fearing a loss of sovereignty, spiked the sale. He still maintains the sale would have been the best deal for shareholders, but he quickly accepted the government's decision. "I just got on with life," he said.

In fact, he did far better than that. The veto turned out to be the boost that MDA's space business needed. Following the decision, Ottawa began to provide more support to space-related projects while MDA searched for ways to break into new markets.

It has scored a string of successes. Among the company's new projects is a satellite for Ukraine and unmanned surveillance planes for the Canadian military in Afghanistan. What really gets Mr. Friedmann excited, though, is the idea of building refuelling stations for satellites, a business that could deliver a revenue boost of $100-million a year to MDA.

"This is the last human infrastructure that has no service industry," Mr. Friedmann said in a rare interview at the company's spartan suburban Vancouver headquarters. Satellites provide vital services, from broadcasting television signals to providing online maps, but there is, as yet, no way to repair the orbiting devices, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "It's like getting some potholes in the road and abandoning the road."

If MDA succeeds in fixing those potholes, it will prove that a small Canadian firm can blaze a pioneering path in space, against competition from much larger rivals. In an unusual display of confidence, MDA told a major industry conference in March in Dubai that it wants to demonstrate the refuelling technology in space in 2013 and commence a commercial service immediately thereafter.

"It's real daring," said Peter de Selding of the industry journal Space News. "It does sound like they've got something, like they've gone further than anybody else. But things that take a lot of guts can fail as well. That's why they call it daring."

An earthbound direction

Confronted with an obstacle, Mr. Friedmann finds a way around it. Back in 1979, fresh out of the University of British Columbia with a master's degree in engineering physics, he interviewed for a job with MDA. He was rejected. He pestered the firm for another interview. He struck out again. Finally, desperate, he wrote a letter to John MacDonald, the company's co-founder. Impressed with Mr. Friedmann's academic work, Mr. MacDonald told the head of engineering to hire the 22-year-old kid.

"I think they may have been a little afraid of Dan," laughs Mr. MacDonald, who stepped down as MDA chairman in 1998. "He's got a mind like a steel trap. And he has a business mind - it's intuitive, he doesn't have to puzzle, he just knows what to do."

The company, described in an online job forum as an "interesting, challenging, low-paying" place to work, reflects Mr. Friedmann's austere style. He works in a modest office, a smidgen smaller, by design, than everyone else's. Around him is a rabbit warren of other offices, where engineers toil on space robotics and satellite projects. The few frills seem out of place. A volleyball net sags, unused, in a grassy courtyard; a lone foosball table sits idle in a drab cafeteria.

When it comes to compensation, Mr. Friedmann leads by example: His base salary has remained fixed at $435,000 during the past six years.

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