Alum Spotlight: Matt Desch

This story first appeared in the Summer 2013 WGA Evans Scholars Magazine. View the original story.

In college, Matt Desch had a nickname: Mr. Perfect.

If there was an event to run, he was organizing it. If there was a club to participate in, he was leading it. And if there was an award to be won, he was earning it.

He never knew about the nickname, given by family members and some Evans Scholars friends — and that’s because he had other things to focus on. During his time at The Ohio State University, Desch served as president of several campus events or groups, while helping to lead, found or participate in dozens of others, including some within the Evans Scholarship House.

His outstanding participation didn’t go unnoticed: His junior year, he was named Evans Scholar of the Year, the Program’s top national honor, as well as Ohio State’s Homecoming King. His senior year, aside from racking up numerous student leadership awards, he received the university’s most prestigious award for leadership, service and academic achievement. 

“You could always tell he was going to be a leader, that he was cut out of a different mold,” says his brother, Joe Desch, a WGA Director and Miami Evans Scholars Alum. “There was never something he didn’t achieve. He was always that way, so focused.”

In July 1980, Matt shared highlights from his final college year in a letter to WGA leaders. “The future awaits,” he wrote, “and I’m anxious to pursue even greater challenges and opportunities.”

For Matt Desch, the road from caddie to CEO was fairly straightforward. And inevitable, thanks to an ambitious work ethic and a determined passion to be at the top — of work, of life, of the world. “I always wanted to be right in the middle of where it was all happening,” he says.

And that’s exactly where he is now. As CEO of Iridium, the world’s only global mobile satellite communications company with voice and data services that cover every part of the Earth’s surface, Desch has become one of the country’s top experts in the telecommunications industry. Quite literally, he is leading the way in changing how people communicate with each other.

The Iridium system features 66 satellites orbiting the earth about 500 miles above the planet. After joining the company in 2006, Desch’s biggest challenge was to replace its aging satellite network, a process that first required going public and then securing $1.8 billion in financing to build the new system. In doing so, he surprised critics and solidified the company’s future.

Today, Iridium’s voice services help people communicate in some of the planet’s most remote locations, with customers ranging from disaster and relief workers to U.S. military personnel. The company’s system even played a role in Seal Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

And Desch continues his long resume of leadership: aside from chairing or sitting on numerous industry groups, he’s an active public speaker who has testified on Capitol Hill on security and communications-related matters. He also is a member of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, appointed by President Obama.

In his spare time, he indulges a fascination with anything that flies, regularly piloting his Cessna T210. In some ways, he sees his job and side interest as one and the same. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of things that went up in the air,” he says. “I love the freedom and the challenge, a lot of the same things I love about technology.”

A laserlike focus, and a solid belief that he can always do more, keeps Desch from ever believing he’s reached all his goals. “I still don’t think I’ve accomplished what my parents and others made me capable of,” he says. 

Born to Lead

Growing up in the Desch household in Dayton, Ohio, it wasn’t about if you had a job, worked hard or became a leader. It was when all those things would happen.

His parents had humble roots but they gave their five sons and one daughter a foundation that helped them thrive.

Stressing independence and leadership, they encouraged creativity and competition. Don’t just be a member of the club. Lead it. Don’t just show up to the party. Throw it. “Their message was always, ‘Go out and make an impact,’” Joe Desch recalls. “Carve your own niche; make something of yourself. That was always their mission.”

It worked: Their kids all grew up to enjoy successful careers, with each reaching at least a senior-level management position. The eldest, Chris, was a highly respected doctor before his untimely death in a plane crash in 2006.

The family wasn’t rich. But the kids were bred to be hard workers, holding multiple jobs from an early age. In eighth grade, Desch followed Chris to caddie at Dayton Country Club. “Frankly, I didn’t know I had the choice,” he recalls. “It was just what you did.”

And he did it well, caddying every day for four summers. He enjoyed interacting with the golfers. “He had no problem telling a member who had a plane, ‘I’ll wash your plane every week if you take me up flying,” says Joe Desch.

Desch was a natural fit for the Evans Scholarship, and he followed Chris to Ohio State. Brothers Joe and Dave also were scholarship recipients.

Five weeks before starting college, a golfer asked him about his major. “I thought I’d impress him by saying I wanted to be a patent attorney,”  Desch recalls. “He told me I was an idiot. I asked what he thought I should do and he said, ‘Go into computers.’ In 1975, that wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice for a kid, but I thought that was as good as a patent attorney and signed up for computer science.”

In college, Desch excelled in the classroom and even more so on campus, taking advantage of every opportunity. “I knew I was making my own way,” he says. “I wanted to get the most out of this experience.”

Rise to the Top

In 1980, Desch began his career as a software developer with Bell Laboratories. Within several years, he had become a supervisor and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. He spent the next three decades advancing in telecommunications management during a time when cell phones were in their infancy. He was president of Nortel’s fast-growing Wireless Networks division before serving as CEO of Telecordia Technologies, which supplies software and services to the telecommunications industry.

“Matt moved through the ranks rather rapidly,” says longtime friend and former colleague Brian McNealy. “We used to always say, ‘It’s so nice to see a great guy get ahead.’ He’s a strong leader. People want to follow him. He has a collaborative style, as in ‘I like you, I believe in you, I understand you.’ People resonate with that.”

“What I really wanted to do was more,” Desch says of each position he held. “Every time there was a new role, I thought, ‘There’s more I can do.’ I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to be involved in technology and cultural change. I wanted to be a part of something that was really important.”

The ‘Next’ Phase

Since Desch joined Iridium, the company has more than doubled its subscribers and nearly tripled its operational earnings. Aside from government and military personnel, Iridium’s customers include pilots, oil rig workers, mountain miners, search and rescue teams and special operation forces. Often during natural disasters, its satellites are the only system that works. “I know we’re saving lives,” Desch says. “We’ve heard the touching stories of ‘but for us, those people would’ve died.’ That makes us proud.”

But the company’s future wasn’t always secure. Created initially by Motorola, it went bankrupt in the late 1990s, one of the most famous of its kind, before a group of investors bought the firm for $25 million. With a shaky history, Desch says no one believed Iridium could afford to replace the aging satellite network when it stopped working, around 2018. “A lot of people were betting against us,” he says. “Someone told me it would take five consecutive miracles to keep the company.”

Desch took a huge gamble — betting on a risky startup called SpaceX, whose rockets would carry the new satellites into space. A $492 million contract was signed, the single biggest commercial launch contract in history. By not choosing to go with a more seasoned aerospace company, Desch could save the company a half a billion dollars — if the rockets worked. And they didn’t have a great history.

The gamble paid off, and the deal secured the startup as a major aerospace player — eventually securing a contract with NASA — and forever solidifying the future of Iridium.

“My real challenge was finding a way to make the company last forever, to build a replacement network so we could become big enough that by the next time in 2030 we needed to replace the satellites, we’d never to have to worry about using other people’s money,” Desch says.

Colleagues point to his leadership style as a key role in his success. “He’s the perfect blend of having the vision to run a high-tech company and understanding technology,” says Scott Smith, who heads Iridium’s tech development and satellite operations.” And he’s not one to ever settle. “With Matt, his job isn’t done yet,” Smith says. “Iridium is only part of what it could be. He’ll never be personally satisfied until he takes it as far as we can go.”

The next few years will be focused on the launch of the new satellite system, which begins in 2015. The $3 billion system, called Iridium NEXT, will replace the existing constellation architecture of 66 low-earth orbiting satellites covering the entire globe. Billed as a game-changer that features advanced voice and data connectivity and asset tracking, it ultimately will change mobile communication on land, at sea and in the air. 

For example, for the first time ever, air traffic controllers will have the capability to continuously track aircraft anywhere in the world, including over oceans, the polar caps and remote regions where radar service has never been available. There are lots of implications, including saving airlines billions of dollars in fuel costs by offering better routes and increasing passenger safety.

Though it’s impossible to predict the future in technology — who’d have guessed social media would change how we communicate? — Desch says the next focus is on connecting everything using wireless and satellite technologies. This could include tracking things from vehicles to at-risk animals to refrigerators and other appliances. ”Now that we’ve connected people, the next focus is on connecting things,” he says. “There are a lot of exciting possibilities — what can you do when everything talks to each other?”

For now, Desch, who lives in McLean, Va., with his wife, Ann, is exactly where he always wanted to be — right in the middle of it all. As is his track record, his leadership has garnered several industry honors, including being named a “Tech Titan” by Washingtonian Magazine and Executive of the Year by Via Satellite magazine in 2011 for making “a lasting business impact on the global satellite market.”

But he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Aside from generously supporting The Ohio State University and the Evans Scholars Foundation over the years, Desch serves as a WGA Director and continues to participate in other community service projects. And he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

“I was programmed from birth to lead, and that gives you the drive to achieve your full potential,” he says. “Frankly, I think I’m a slacker. While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, there is always something more to contribute.”

Iridium At A Glance

•Iridium launched in November 1998, with the first call made by then-Vice President Al Gore.
•The Iridium satellites can be seen in the night sky as satellite flares or short-lived bright flashes of light.
•Iridium signed a $2.23 billion contract with Thales Alenia of France in 2010 for 81 new satellites, the largest space contract in years.
•Iridium was the only emergency telecom service available during the early stages of Hurricane Katrina and played a key role in the 2010 Haiti earthquake and 2011 Japanese tsunami.
•Iridium satellite phones have been featured widely in popular culture, whether by Jack Bauer in “24” or Brad Pitt in “World War Z.”