The countdown to April 1, 2001 has begun. That is the date when Intelsat, a company that built a global-communications highway in the sky, is planning to make an unprecedented transformation — from an intergovernmental, treaty-based agency to a completely privatized company whose shares will eventually be sold to the public. "We need to change because our entire competitive landscape is changing," says Ramu Potarazu, 39, Intelsat's vice president of privatization and commercial restructuring.
Formed in 1964 to comply with an international treaty, Intelsat works as a kind of United Nations of global communications. Consisting of 143 member countries, it operates a fleet of 17 satellites that hover 23,000 miles above Earth, beaming telephone, television, and data transmissions around the world. Its customers include major ISPs such as WorldCom's UUNet, broadcasters such as CNN, and long-distance-telephone companies such as France Telecom.
But an impressive track record of technical accomplishment doesn't guarantee future success. For decades, Intelsat feasted on its treaty privileges, dominating the satellite industry. Last year, it pulled in nearly $1 billion in revenues. Now those same treaties threaten to hobble Intelsat, as a group of big-time competitors has grown up around it. Hughes Electronics Corp.'s PanAmSat and Loral Orion Inc. are eating into its broadcast and Internet businesses. Fiber-optic-networking companies such as Global Crossing Ltd. are going after its long-distance-telephone market. Intelsat must move fast to protect both its mind share and its market share.
Enter Ramu Potarazu and his change-minded colleagues. One symbol of Potarazu's challenge: a poster-size digital clock at the organization's Washington, DC headquarters that flashes an up-to-the-second countdown to privatization day.
Intelsat views the Internet as a primary engine of future growth. At every turn, the company is leveraging the Net to create a faster, nimbler operation. It has developed a sales-and-marketing extranet, dubbed the Intelsat Business Network, that's used by employees in Washington and overseas, as well as by thousands of external customers. Satellite-coverage maps, capacity listings, billing information, and tariff calculations are continually updated on the IBN. Intelsat is also using its intranet as a catalyst for change. CEO Conny Kullman sends out a weekly privatization-progress report, which Intelsaters from around the world can then view on the intranet.
As Intelsat attempts to reinvent itself, Potarazu believes that his organization can learn from its own product. "We've made our satellite fleet extremely dynamic," he says. "At the flip of a switch, we can change a satellite's configuration. That same dynamism needs to be reflected throughout the organization."
Bill Breen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Ramu Potarazu by email (email@example.com).
A version of this article appeared in the August 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.