I was reading my favorite travel publication on the plane today -- USA Today. What a great paper... where else do you get a half page on the war in Iraq, a half page on Tiger Woods' quest for a third straight Masters title and a half page on the three new reality-TV style movies coming out.
But along with those fine contributions to journalism was an interesting piece by Kevin Maney on the rebirth of Iridium. You may remember Iridium. Motorola poured $5 billion -- with a B -- into launching 66 satellites that would power a worldwide satellite phone network. Despite the $5 billion investment, the company went bankrupt and measured as one of the great business failures of our day. Until today -- perhaps.
It turns out the Iridium assets were bought out of bankruptcy for $25 million by a random collection of investors (Maney analogizes the acquisition price to paying $750 for a Porsche 911 or $2 for a night at the Ritz). The new owners cut out all the bureaucracy, stabilized the system and are now operating the company in the black, in no small part thanks to the many reporters and military personnel in the Gulf using Iridium satellite phones to communicate. Maney concludes "Once a joke, Iridium might turn out to be a leader."
I have no doubt that the excesses of the late 90's have led to a number of valuable assets being available for purchase for a song. That said, I find it a little hard to view the rebirth of Iridium as a business triumph. Iridium was a bad idea. There just wasn't sufficient business in the satellite phone market to justify $5 billion in capital costs to get it up and running. That the system is now making small amounts of money is a far cry from vindication for the initial supporters of the Iridium Project. It's great news for the new investors and more power to them -- good entrepreneurs can always spot an undervalued asset -- but the $5 billion Iridium Project remains a business mistake of pretty colossal proportions.