The Return of Ashtech: A GNSS Pioneer Leaves Magellan Brand Behind

The Return of Ashtech: A GNSS Pioneer Leaves Magellan Brand Behind
François Erceau, Ashtech vice-president & general manager

One of the oldest names in the GNSS industry — Ashtech — is returning to the marketplace as both a corporate identity and branded product line.

Magellan Professional announced January 7 that the France- and California-based company had renamed itself Ashtech, confirming the staying power of a precision technology brand that first appeared in 1987.

One of the oldest names in the GNSS industry — Ashtech — is returning to the marketplace as both a corporate identity and branded product line.

Magellan Professional announced January 7 that the France- and California-based company had renamed itself Ashtech, confirming the staying power of a precision technology brand that first appeared in 1987.

Ashtech’s reappearance reflects business realignments that saw the consumer products division of Magellan’s GPS business sold to Taiwan-headquartered MiTAC International Corporation in December 2008.

Ashtech Holdings and subsidiary companies in France, Russia, the United States, and elsewhere will remain enterprises owned by Shah Capital Partners, a private equity investment firm that acquired the core business from the Thales Group in 2006.

The renaming will enable the 160-employee company to clarify and distinguish itself from Magellan consumer products, which continue as a brand of a MiTAC subsidiary based in Santa Clara, California. “Through 2009 we decided we needed to clarify and strengthen our commitment to the professional business,” says François Erceau, Ashtech’s vice-president and general manager.

In conversations with customers, distributors, and other business partners, company leaders found a unanimous preference for the Ashtech name. The renaming will benefit from Ashtech’s early and deeply rooted presence in the high-precision GPS — and later, GPS/GLONASS — application markets such as surveying.

“It’s a rebirth, but not a comeback,” Erceau told Inside GNSS. “The equity we had in the [Ashtech] brand was so incredible that it would have been a waste not to leverage it.”

Indeed, although under the terms of the agreement with MiTAC the company could have retained its Magellan identify until 2012, company leaders decided to “accelerate” the transition to the new name.

Erceau says the company will focus on communicating the switch to Ashtech during the first quarter of this year before beginning to roll out new and upgraded products with the Ashtech label in the second quarter.

Markets: Application and Geographic
Ashtech has four primary product lines: OEM, with a series of GNSS sensor boards (such as MB500 and AC12); high-precision land survey (Proflex 500 and ProMark 500); mobile mapping, including handheld GNSS receivers (MobileMapper 6) and software targeting geographic information systems (GIS) and related applications; and a marine and sensors product line.

The company will continue to rely on its GNSS design center in Moscow, Russia, that creates the ASICS, sensor boards, IP, and algorithms at the core of the Ashtech product technology. Similarly, solution-level product design will remain at the Ashtech European headquarters near Nantes, France.

GNSS core OEM products represents about 20 to 25 percent of Ashtech’s revenues, Erceau says, and is a market segment that “has been pretty good for us,” adding, “we want to grow this business. The market expects Ashtech to be at the forefront of technology and innovation.”

“It’s one thing to be proud of [the Ashtech name],” Erceau told Inside GNSS, “but the market wants a number of proof points about what [the name change] means and what difference it will make.”

In addition to incorporating GPS and GLONASS technology, Ashtech is also watching the emergence of other GNSS systems, including Galileo and Compass, and assessing the right time to add those capabilities to its products.

Although the company remained profitable during the last year, Erceau notes that “2009 was not the easiest time for the industry.” In particular, the U.S. and Canadian markets proved challenging, with China, India, and Latin America showing more resilience. The privately held company does not disclose its financial results.

“The biggest challenge for us is in the United States, where the economy has made it really difficult,” he says. “Our most striking successes have been in the developing countries.” Nonetheless, the hardest part of the recession may be behind the industry, and Erceau expects 2010 to be “a better year.”

The company expects the new identity will benefit it beyond just product sales. Erceau speculates that some channels will come back to Ashtech and wants the company to be flexible and creative in its partnerships.

“We want to bring innovation not only on the product side, but also on the business model side,” says Erceau.

GNSS Genealogy
The history of the Ashtech name is part of the long story of convergence and divestiture within the GNSS industry over the past 25 years. Indeed, the earliest element of the company arose more than four decades ago with the founding of Sercel, an electronics company that later developed the first European GPS receiver in 1985. The company facilities in Carquefou near Nantes, France, trace back to Sercel.

Magellan Systems Corporation, founded in 1986, introduced the first commercial handheld receiver in 1989 — the single-channel, sequencing NAV 1000. Orbital Sciences Corporation acquired Magellan in 1994 and merged it with Ashtech three years later to become Magellan Corporation.

Meanwhile, Sercel sold its radio-positioning division to Dassault Electronique in 1996, with a joint venture formed under the name Dassault Sercel Navigation Positioning (DSNP). Dassault Electronique, which became the full owner of DSNP in 1998, merged with two Thomson-CSF subsidiaries the following year to become Thomson-CSF Detexis.

In 2000, DSNP acquired MLR Electronique, a radionavigation (and later consumer GPS) company founded in 1980. Also in 2000, Thomson-CSF changed its name to Thales Group, and, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Thales Group, DSNP changed its name to Thales Navigation, S.A. Then in 2001 the Thales Group bought Magellan Corporation from Orbital Science and merged it with the French company to form Thales Navigation.

The original Ashtech, Inc., was founded by Javad Ashjaee with 51 percent ownership by the large French high-tech manufacturer Sagem. Ashjaee headed the company for the next eight years until he left to start a series of eponymously titled enterprises, most currently Javad GNSS. Somewhat ironically, the new Ashtech and Javad GNSS will continue to compete in many of the same market segments going forward.

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