CEO of the Year: Telesat's Dan Goldberg is at the 'epicentre of everything'

With his firm developing new satellite technology that could revolutionize the way the internet is delivered, Telesat chief executive Dan Goldberg is finally getting the recognition he deserves
Dan Goldberg
Dan Goldberg has become one of the region’s most respected CEOs. Photo by Mark Holleron

The Ottawa business community will celebrate Dan Goldberg's success at the Best Ottawa Business Awards on Friday, Nov. 22. Get your tickets now.

Maybe the best illustration of Dan Goldberg’s iron will came during a competition he didn’t even win.

It was a few years ago, at the London Marathon. Goldberg, the CEO of Ottawa-based satellite communications provider Telesat, was in the British capital to visit his good friend Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, and take part in the world-famous race while he was there.

But things were not shaping up well for Goldberg, normally a strong runner, that particular spring day.

“Dan was as sick as he’s ever been,” recalls Carney, who first met Goldberg when their kids played in the same preschool soccer league in Ottawa nearly 15 years ago. 

“I thought, well, he’d at least start the race just to have the experience. Remarkably, he finished the whole thing in quite a respectable time.”

The admiration in Carney’s voice speaks volumes about Goldberg, as low-key yet accomplished a business leader as you’ll find in Ottawa, or anywhere in Canada for that matter. Today, as he leads Telesat on a bold new path, Goldberg has set a much loftier goal than making it to the finish line of a 26-mile run: he wants to make his company the No. 1 satellite communications firm on the planet. It’s a race he is determined to win, and few if any of the people who know him well would dare to bet against him.

Goldberg’s leadership has earned him OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s 2019 CEO of the Year Award. It’s a pick that’s been cheered throughout the business community.

“He’s been under the radar, and I think that’s Dan’s personality ... He’s incredibly modest and humble. But in his world, he is at the epicentre of everything.”

“He’s been under the radar, and I think that’s Dan’s personality,” says his friend Harley Finkelstein, the chief operating officer of Shopify. “He’s incredibly modest and humble. But in his world, he is at the epicentre of everything.”

Since Goldberg moved to Ottawa to take over Telesat in 2006, the Baltimore native has taken what was already a very successful company to another level. 

“I think Dan is just the complete CEO,” says Mark Rachesky, chairman of Telsat’s board and another longtime friend. “He understands his company, he understands his employees, he’s got a good grasp of the operations, he’s got a good grasp of the numbers. And then, the most important quality he has, which is hard to find in a CEO, is vision.”

Carney, too, marvels at his friend’s talents as an executive.

“That sort of operating expertise, plus the strategic vision, is a pretty rare combination,” he says.

Under Goldberg’s disciplined watch, Telesat has become a far more efficient operation. Its operating margins, which languished below 50 per cent when he joined the firm, are now the highest in the industry at 85 per cent. The company’s annual revenues have grown more than 50 per cent to more than $900 million, while its adjusted EBITDA ​– a measure of earnings tech firms like because it takes factors such as depreciation of assets out of the equation ​– has more than doubled over that time, topping $750 million in fiscal 2018.

Any way you look at it, Telesat is one of the world’s pre-eminent satellite firms. Its 16 geostationary satellites have delivered services such as direct-to-home broadcast signals to some of the biggest names in the business, including Bell and the U.S.-based Dish Network. Its 450 global employees ​– about 250 of whom are based at the company’s Elgin Street headquarters ​– include some of the brightest engineering minds in the business, making Telesat the world’s leading satellite consulting organization.

Shift in technology

But if Goldberg has his way, all of that is just a prelude to the coming revolution in the way satellites provide ultra-high-speed internet service to customers, even in the most remote parts of the planet. And Telesat is at the forefront of that monumental shift in technology, thanks to a pivotal decision Goldberg made several years ago.

Though Telesat’s revenues from its direct-to-home services were still healthy at that point, he could see storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Customers such as Bell were noticing that what had previously been a steady growth in subscribers was starting to flatline as video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu were exploding in popularity. 

“Some years back, we became cognizant of the fact that we could no longer rely on our direct-to-home satellite video market to propel future growth,” says Goldberg, whose casual wardrobe for a meeting with an OBJ reporter ​– jeans and a purple T-shirt featuring his company’s logo ​– perfectly reflects his down-to-earth persona. 

“At the same time, we were seeing growth coming from broadband demand.”

What Goldberg sensed was that a new group of potential customers that hadn’t traditionally bought satellite services but needed a way to bring high-speed, reliable internet services to places that can’t be served by fibre-optic networks ​– cruise ships and airliners, for example ​– was about to emerge. He wanted Telesat to be there when they arrived.

“There’s a bigger opportunity out there,” says the 54-year-old father of three, who met his wife, Whitney Fox, when they were both attending Harvard Law School. 

For Goldberg and his colleagues, the challenge was figuring out how best to deliver those services. It really came down to two options: continuing to build traditional geostationary satellites that orbit about 36,000 kilometres the Earth’s atmosphere, or dramatically changing course to a new technology called low Earth-orbit satellites – LEO for short – that hover a mere 1,000 kilometres above the planet’s surface.

“We did a lot of soul-searching around what was the best architecture to capture that demand,” Goldberg says. “Our objective was wanting to develop something that would give us a long-term, sustainable, competitive advantage in the delivery of global broadband connectivity.”

After much discussion, Goldberg and his team made the bold decision to refocus the company’s efforts on LEO. It was hardly a slam dunk, however: the technology was still in its infancy and largely untested, it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to design and implement such a program and it would require getting regulatory approval from virtually every country on Earth to install the hundreds of satellites necessary to make the system work.

Other than that, it was a breeze.

“Where Dan was in his career and the success that he’s had, it might have been safer for him to take a less bold move,” says Michael Schwartz, Telsat’s senior vice-president of corporate and business development. 

“But Dan feels a lot of responsibility for the people who work at Telesat. We went about it in a very methodical and reasoned manner. We just didn’t decide one day to jump in with both feet. But that was a big decision, and it took a lot of courage to say that we’re going to try and reorient the company and do something that really hasn’t been done before.”

The crux of the decision really came down to physics. 

At a thousand kilometres above the Earth, LEO satellites are 36 times closer to the customers who need their services than traditional dishes. While it takes about 800 milliseconds for communication signals to travel to and from geostationary satellites, Goldberg explains, LEO technology cuts that a mere 15 to 30 milliseconds. The time lag for a signal to be delivered – known in the industry as latency – is lowered dramatically with LEO. 

Dan Goldberg2
Dan Goldberg inside Telesat's Ottawa offices. Photo by Mark Holleron

Listened to customers

To a layman, it’s all the blink of an eye. But when you’re trying to complete an e-commerce transaction, for example, every one-thousandth of a second counts when reams of data are being sent back and forth around the world.​

“What we ultimately decided to do – and it’s not gonna sound particularly revolutionary – is to listen to our customers,” Goldberg says. “Our customers, for years and years and years, have been telling us that latency is a real, real problem. It drove us to LEO. You can’t achieve low latency with your satellites 36,000 kilometres above the Earth.

“If you really want to tackle the big broadband global connectivity market, you’ve got to show up with something that looks like, smells like, operates like fibre. The apps that (customers) use just need to seamlessly work.

“We believe if we can’t adapt our network to keep up with that … we don’t think that our future is going to be terribly bright. The good news is we think that the technologies that allow us to do this are ready for prime time now. I think we saw this earlier than some. Now our challenge is going to be to bring it to market timely and in a way that’s powerful. We could get there faster with a less capable solution. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

Over the past five years, Telesat has poured millions of dollars into its LEO program, launching its first low-Earth orbit satellite in early 2018. The LEO constellation will ultimately consist of 298 devices that will circle the globe, providing high-speed service to virtually every part of the world.

The federal government has climbed on board as a major partner in the project, signing a deal earlier this summer to pay Telesat $600 million over the next 10 years to provide bandwidth aimed at providing high-speed internet service to rural customers in areas where fibre isn’t an option. The feds are also chipping in $85 million towards R&D for the program.

“They get how important it is in a 21st-century economy to have good broadband connectivity for everybody,” says Goldberg. “Our constellation can solve that.”

Still, there are plenty of other high-flying corporate titans vying to dominate the LEO universe. The list includes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the billionaire co-founder of Tesla, whose company SpaceX has ambitious plans to deploy thousands of low-orbit satellites by the mid-2020s. 

But if Goldberg is looking over his shoulder, he’s hiding it well. 

“I think where we have a very significant advantage is our very deep understanding of the markets that we’re focused on serving, of the technology that we believe that we need to deploy to be successful. We’ve got a lot of experience in this market, and I think that we’re extremely well-positioned,” he says with a smile.

"Right now, we’re one of the largest satellite operators in the world. If we’re successful here, we very much would be positioned to be the largest. That’s our ambition."

“If we’re successful – and we are, as you can imagine, super focused on being successful – we will grow our revenue by multiples. It will put Telesat in a whole new league. Right now, we’re one of the largest satellite operators in the world. If we’re successful here, we very much would be positioned to be the largest. That’s our ambition.”

Rachesky shares his friend’s confidence in the project.

“He’s really done an incredible job getting LEO where it is today,” he says. “It’s not easy to find CEOs that, you just trust them, you leave them alone and you know they’re going to perform incredibly well because they’re talented. And that’s Dan.”

Trusted mentor

Friends will tell you Goldberg is modest to a fault. Fittingly, he credits his father Henry – a pioneer in the field of satellite regulation who was general counsel in the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy in the early 1970s and later launched his own highly successful law firm in the D.C. area – for being the ultimate role model as he was forging his own career.

A self-described “indifferent student” in high school, Goldberg graduated with highest honours from the University of Virginia before attending Harvard, where his classmates included an aspiring lawyer from Chicago named Barack Obama. After cutting his legal teeth at his father’s firm, he moved into the satellite field as an in-house counsel at a firm called PanAmSat. Later, he joined European satellite firm New Skies as general counsel, quickly rising up the ranks to become chief operating officer and ultimately CEO of the Netherlands-based company.

In 2006, soon after New Skies was sold to Luxembourg-based competitor SES, Goldberg and his family – which by then included three children – decided it was time to relocate back to North America to be closer to their extended family. 

As fortune would have it, a headhunter called right at that time with the opportunity at Telesat. Goldberg felt it would be a good fit and said yes. 

Thirteen years later, it’s turned out to be among the best of many great decisions he’s made.

Goldberg, Fox and their kids – Grace, now 18, Claire, 16, and Jack, 14 – became Canadian citizens in 2016, and the family has put down firm roots in its adopted hometown. Goldberg and Fox have become a ubiquitous presence at charitable events supporting local causes such as the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, and he has become an invaluable source of insight and encouragement to a new generation of entrepreneurs that includes Finkelstein, whose office is right next door at 150 Elgin. 

“I speak to Dan every single day,” the Shopify exec says. “It sounds kind of crazy, but I do. Dan is usually the phone call that I make on my way home and sort of run a problem by him, see how he’s doing and also see if he can help me … and how I can work through my own issues. It’s just been this wonderful relationship. Over time, actually, Dan has become almost more like family to me than he has become a friend and a mentor.”

Rachesky is quick to agree.

“He’s a great dad, great husband,” he says of Goldberg. “He’s just an all-around good guy.”

Told of such accolades, Goldberg just shrugs and offers a sheepish smile. When asked what really defines him, his answer is simple and straightforward: “Family and friends.” 

Ottawa, he says, has become his home, and he sounds like a man who wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It’s been a great place for my family to grow up,” Goldberg says, admiring the spectacular view of the capital from his corner office on the 21st floor of Place Bell. “People here are just … they’re world-class people. We consider ourselves just unbelievably lucky to have landed here in this community.”

He can rest assured the feeling is mutual.