It was Wednesday. The day that third-grader, Matt Desch, was scheduled to make his weekly deliveries of the local advertising paper, called the “Shopping News”. But he didn’t feel well. “It was funny how every Wednesday I would get taken over by some illness,” he laughs. “My mother called it ‘the shopping news blues’ and, of course, she would send me right out the door, because she knew I wasn’t really sick.” Amazingly, Desch always “recovered” while delivering the last inserts when nearing his home.
Desch’s mother passed away last year, but while giving her eulogy, his brother reminisced about their childhood and how hard-working they all were.
“I didn’t think that was so unusual because everybody in the family worked. It was more about getting out there and completing the job.” His mother’s insight was fueled by a desire to instill a strong work ethic, which would be essential to his success in life.
Desch, the second of six children, grew up in Dayton, Ohio. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we didn’t know that at the time.” His father was an assistant manager of a forklift truck distributor. “My father had no college education, though he was quite smart and demonstrated great values to his kids.”
Tenacity and the willingness to work hard are two of the values that have proven to be the cornerstone of Desch’s stellar career. As Chief Executive Officer of Iridium Communications, headquartered in McLean, Virginia, he has come a long way from the little kid who had not yet heard the siren call of ambition.
While that first paper route taught him diligence, the boyhood job that most developed his confidence and leadership skills was caddying at the local golf club. “There were 60 or 70 kids who had all been trained to caddy,” Desch recalls. “Everybody would get together each morning between 7 and 8 a.m. I was interacting with lots of kids from different schools, different socio-economic backgrounds, and different parts of Dayton.” He also enjoyed spending time with the golfers, many of who were lawyers, doctors, architects, and real estate brokers. He became so popular that club members began to request him. “Learning how to interact with adults was powerful mentoring for me,” he confirms.
There was another valuable perk of Matt’s golf club job. It made him eligible for The Evans Scholars Foundation, which gives college scholarships to caddies from modest means. He was awarded a full scholarship, majoring in computer science at Ohio State University.
After graduation, Desch was hired as a programmer by Western Electric, (part of AT&T). He quickly became a manager and found a way to get transferred to Chicago to fulfill his goal of earning an MBA from a top five school. He succeeded, receiving his master’s degree from The University of Chicago. By that time, AT&T had deregulated and their growth slowed considerably. “I really wanted to get into something faster moving where I could make a bigger impact,” he recalls. So he relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina and became a product manager for Northern Telecom (Nortel), a small Canadian company which was expanding into the United States.
Over the next few years, Desch realized that wireless was the next big thing. He opted to move to Nortel’s Network Division in Richardson, TX. Starting out as a first level manager, he ascended to President of the Division, which he grew to $4.5 billion in sales and the # 2 position in the market.
While in London, running Nortel’s international operations, Desch was told that he and another executive were being considered for CEO. Six months later, the other person was chosen. “That was fine with me, but unfortunately the newly chosen executive asked me to leave as a way to remove the competition. It was at the peak of the telecom bubble and I suddenly found myself on the street.” But with a solid reputation, and because he’d been a part of the development of the global wireless industry, he rebounded quickly, being called to transform another telecom icon Telcordia Technologies and consulting with a number of venture capital firms helping start-ups.
By the time Iridium came calling, Matt had amassed 25 years of varied experience in telecommunications. “I was immediately attracted and excited to be involved in a company with this kind of potential,” he discloses. Six years later, he continues to successfully lead the only provider of global voice and data communications with complete coverage of the entire Earth via a network of 66 low orbit satellites positioned 500 miles above the planet’s surface. “There’s no network like us in the world and never will be,” he claims. “We can do things no one else can.”
Iridium’s inspiration for this massive system is the stuff of lore. While on vacation in the Caribbean in the late 1980’s, a Motorola executive’s wife complained that she couldn’t get a connection on her cell phone. She wished that there was a phone that worked everywhere in the world. Thus, the idea was seeded.
Eight years later, the satellites were successfully launched. Unfortunately, the business couldn’t service the massive debt it had amassed to construct the system and Iridium filed bankruptcy several months afterward. Private investors bought the company in 2000 and immediately restructured it. They decided to direct all their efforts away from competing with cell phones and toward providing services to enterprises and governments for use in areas that don’t have cell phone coverage. These areas still constitute over 90% of the globe.
Under Desch’s guidance, the company has grown, going public in 2009. “We have doubled the revenues and roughly quadrupled the earnings in the 5 years I’ve been here,” he shares. Other growth includes nearly doubling their partner base, expanding operations to other countries, and dramatically increasing the product line. “Like many satellite companies, we’re not quite at the mature stage, but we’ve already achieving 50% operating margins, and expect 60 – 70% margins in the coming years,” he reveals. Iridium’s biggest project is updating the current satellite network, which must be replaced every 15-20 years.
Desch knew he could get financing to replace the network, but it would take a lot of convincing especially because the company was in bankruptcy only 10 years prior. “We are now fully financed and committed with a team of partners who will put our Iridium NEXT satellites together in the next four years, launch them between 2015 and 2017, and replace our complete network,” he reports. “I wasn’t expecting a global recession, but it makes it even more satisfying that we were able to take the company public and get financed in the middle of all that.”
Notwithstanding his exceptional professional achievements, Matt is most proud of his reputation, his relationships with people, and his overall accomplishments as a person. “No matter what I do in business, I consider those my most important assets. If I ever left this business to do something else, that’s the only thing I’ll take with me, and when I retire that’s the only thing that I’ll have to manage through the end of my life.”
Matt feels honored to be associated with Iridium’s turn-around. “I’m very proud of taking the company from being a good company, but one limited to a 15-year run, to one that now has long-term success ahead and is financially secure.”
Beyond Iridium, Matt wants to create change in other causes that he supports. Ever since his first airplane ride at age 9, he’s been passionate about general aviation. “I’m trying to find ways to preserve general aviation in the US and help it start growing again,” says the long-time aviator who flies a large single engine Cessna. Instead of just talking about it, he took advantage of the move to the DC area to volunteer support to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the 400,000 member organization tasked with protecting general aviation. Within a few years of volunteering his time, they asked him to join their Board of Trustees to take advantage of his knowledge and leadership.
‘Passion in action’ might describe the leadership development program that Matt created at his alma mater called The Buckeye Leadership Fellows. “We just had our first class of 20 exceptional students who are going to get experiential learning in leadership during their junior and senior years,” he beams. His vision is to bridge the gap between college and their future work life to help prepare students better for the challenges that await them after graduation.
He also challenges aspiring leaders to think bigger, have bigger dreams, set their goals higher, and then act as if they were achieving those goals. “Look around and start acting like the leaders in your organization,” he counsels. Don’t focus on promotion, just start acting in the more senior role and when people see you doing that, taking those responsibilities, achieving results – they almost have to give you the title for what you’re already doing. It’s not about waiting or doing time.”
From the springboard of a deeply rooted work ethic, Matt Desch models a blueprint for doing whatever you set your mind to, through hard work, taking the initiative, and reaching for the stars. Using his broad expertise and a pragmatic approach, he has piloted an almost failed business from the brink of insolvency to the very pinnacle of success as an industry and world leader with financial stability and growth forecasted through 2030, and beyond.