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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Joseph Wright

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-04

Joseph Wright is less thrilled by twinkling stars than by the 24 birds he put up in the sky.

"You can't see them with the naked eye - they're 22,300 miles up there," the president and CEO of PanAmSat, said. "They're up there, and they are stationary."

They are satellites - "birds" in the lingo - put up there to provide communications services for news organizations, telecommunication companies, DirecTV, Internet networks and governments around the world. PanAmSat is one of the largest providers of such services, and it has embarked on an unusual program to promote connectivity in poor countries.

"Entertainment isn't only what we beam," Mr. Wright said yesterday. "Now we're helping connect schoolrooms, hospitals, public-health institutions that have education programs about HIV/AIDS, and facilities that monitor weather changes so that endangered areas could be given early warnings."

In Mexico, for example, more than a million primary-school classrooms will receive television images through special satellite transmissions from PanAmSat. The program is sponsored by the Organization of American States, and will also be extended to several countries in Latin America. In South Africa, PanAmSat, in cooperation with the Liberty Foundation, beams video programs of math, science and history to 1,000 schools. Clinics in southern Africa also receive programs focusing on AIDS.

"The key to this kind of communications is to develop good local partners," Mr. Wright said. "We also made sure than we started with only those countries where we had regulatory authority."

Dealing with governmental bodies on matters such as regulatory authority comes readily to Mr. Wright. He headed President Reagan's Office of Management and Budget, and was deputy secretary of commerce. Mr. Wright also served on the President's Export Council, and received the Distinguished Citizens Award from Reagan.

That makes him an old Washington hand, a status that is invaluable to someone in the telecommunications field. The capital, after all, is a town characterized by its own connectivity. Even though the Reagan presidency has receded almost a generation into history, the personal and political networks it spawned have endured.

Mr. Wright understands a thing or two about networks. As a child growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he witnessed first hand the working of the oil and natural gas industry: his father, Joseph, was an engineer.

The close-knit industry fostered many friendships, and the young boy was encouraged to join the business.

"It was hard to see beyond the world of oil and natural gas," Mr. Wright said.

He would work summers at drilling sites or in refineries. He worked as a welder's assistant on gas pipelines. He worked on exploration teams, where he sometimes saw the first geyser of new-found oil shoot out of the ground.

"It didn't get any better than that," Mr. Wright recalled.

After such formative experiences, it was only natural that he go to America's leading school for oil engineers, the Colorado School of Mines. Like his father, Mr. Wright majored in petroleum engineering.

"It was expected that I would join the oil industry," he said.

But Mr. Wright decided that he wanted to acquire a graduate degree. So he enrolled at Yale University's engineering school, and eventually obtained an MBA.

After that it was on to London, and then ExxonMobil hired him to work at its Houston headquarters.
Mr. Wright proved to be a natural for corporate America. His rise was rapid - he was recruited by the consulting firm of Booz, Allen and Hamilton, where he became partner before the age of 30. Then it was on to Citicorp, where Mr. Wright rose to become president of retail consumer services and credit-card subsidiaries.

"To me, life is always outward bound," Mr. Wright said.

He developed a set of three principles during his years in the corporate world.

"You must enjoy being with the people with whom you work," Mr. Wright said. "There must be mutual trust."

The second "principle": "You should do something that's not only important to you but also to society at large."

"And my third principle is that you should always foster change," Mr. Wright said. "The corporate world values people who aren't static, who bring innovation and ideas to the workplace."

The corporate world also values those who, like Mr. Wright, have enjoyed access to the highest echelons of government. Not long after the end of the Reagan presidency, Mr. Wright became vice chairman of W. R. Grace & Company, chairman of Grace Energy Company, and also president of Grace Environmental Company. He was also co-chairman of Baker & Taylor Holdings, Inc., an international book/video/software distribution and e-commerce company. From there, it was on to GRC International as chairman and director.

GRC International was a company that provided advanced Internet, IT and software technologies to government and commercial customers. After it was sold to AT&T in 2000, Mr. Wright moved to PanAmSat.

"It's actually quite moving to look up at the sky and realize that you helped put objects there," Mr. Wright said, capturing the mission of his company.

That mission primarily involves placing in stationary orbit some 24 satellites. Those "birds" bean more than 2,000 television channels to scores of countries. PanAmSat's clients include Disney, the ABC network, Time Warner, Viacom, Fox, Japan's NHK, and DirecTV. Only Europe's SES Global has more satellites - 30 - but PanAmSat is the world's largest provider of television transmissions through satellites.

Its satellites need to be stationary because each has a specific imprint - or geographical area - to beam programs. Mr. Wright said that communications satellites need to be placed at the highest altitude - 22,300 miles, in most cases - because of the size of their imprints. Satellites that are used for imaging usually orbit the earth at 600 miles, and those used for telephony orbit at around 300 miles.

Can Mr. Wright decide to place his "birds" anywhere he wants in the sky?

He smiled.

"You've got to get your slots," Mr. Wright said. "Those slots are given for life - as long as you behave yourself."

The reference was to permissions granted by the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union.

At any one time, some 250 high-altitude satellites are in place over the equator. They hover over the equator in order to maintain a fixed position over the earth.

One of the more recent uses for these satellites has been for the American military in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq to provide badly needed communication services to troops. Mr. Wright's satellites were also used in emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, where they were only form of communication for several days after the disaster.

"This is one of the main reasons why I became associated with the industry," Mr. Wright said. "Not only is it in period of change but what we do is important to society when people cannot communicate in any other way. We actually save lives."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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