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Interview with 2015 EARSC Company Award winner, Peter Volk, Chief Executive Officer and Director of GAF AG

30 years of GAF: A long and successful history – the solid basis for an inspiring future
Customer orientation and excellence have been the driving forces behind the companys’ development towards a major European player in the Earth Observation field. The broad service portfolio has helped to establish a constant growth and made the company to perform excellently compared to many competitors – and also within the Telespazio Grouping. An outstanding positioning has been achieved in the Copernicus land service suite, in the demanding military and security markets, and the natural resource management consultancy field. It’s the volume of good ingredients and clients’ appreciation, that makes GAF bound for the future.

EARSC Company of the Year 2015

Last year was EARSC’s 25th anniversary when we intoduced the EARSC Company Award. This is the second year and the second winner of this now prestigious award is GAF AG. GAF is one of the longest-lived companies in the sector and this achievement was recognised by EARSC members in delivering the award to them this year.

This is for the company recognised by both peers and international experts as having made the most significant contribution to the growth of the EO services sector in Europe. Both EARSC members and the international jury selected GAF AG as the winner, please tell us what this means for you and how the important the prize is for GAF?

What we call the Earth Observation downstream or probably a bit more precise, the Geoinformation service industry was and still is partly characterized by a number of companies or semi-public institutions which have the one great business idea on which to grow a very ambitious development plan. Often such enterprises are hailed for innovation, making a lot of marketing noise and finally after some years disappear or re-arrange their profile completely.

This is not the story of GAF. We try to deliver something sustainable – though we do not forget about the advances in technology. My staff and myself believe it is remarkable that we have been selected after 30 years of existence – in an environment where the new buzzwords (Cloud Computing, Big Data, EO Smallsats) would naturally attract much more attention: we are very proud to be now one of the “officially” recognised European leaders in the EO service domain.


Tell us a bit about the history of GAF AG, how the Company was started and how it has grown over the years?

It was October 1985, that Rupert Haydn, with the support of an international development consultancy firm and the Wittelsbach Compensation Fund, founded the company with an initial staff of 5 – the only “operational” satellite instrument at that time was the Landsat Thematic Mapper with unbelievable 30 m resolution! It was soon obvious that even with the advent of the SPOT system featuring 10 m and then many others, growth had to be generated also by other “neighbouring” technological enablers plus a number of well-educated application experts. In 1996 the subsidiary Euromap was founded in order to secure exclusive access to Indian satellite data, which is now an integral part of the company following an upstream merger of Euromap into GAF in 2014. In 2003 the majority of company shares was taken over by Telespazio and today the company is a one of the most successfully operating entities within the Telespazio Group. The staff has grown from 5 to 220, and so have the revenues accompanied by solid profitability.

Please tell us a bit more about what GAF AG does? What are the key markets that GAF AG addresses?

It’s the marriage of technical excellence with a profound application/market knowledge that is special to GAF staff – for this reason we do have not a typical “Sales” or “Business Development” structure, we rather mobilise a technical expert with sales and project management experience. The person selling a solution or project is normally the one implementing it and making the customer service. Our services are all spatial data production and analyses, starting from a variety of satellite data reception and distribution (not only our Indian sensor flute), mapping and monitoring, GIS and spatial software systems down to consultancy services how to best use these services for better decision making or an improved administrative purpose. And we cover in similar intensity fields like agriculture, forestry, mining, oil&gas, infrastructure, environment and climate change topics. An important activity – of course – for GAF are the defense and security markets, where we believe to have the most complete one-stop-shop in Europe. Instead of talking too much about beacon activities I may refer you to our news section on our website.

What is beyond GAF’s expertise, can often be addressed by using our Group resources or long-lasting partners in the research or industry arena.

When the company started in business, what specific idea, purpose or vision was the driving force?

It was the convergence of several ideas:

1) the concept of using satellite data for resource management in remote areas much more effectively than by traditional field surveys only,
2) the utilization of digital image processing techniques to extract subtle reflectance features from CIR airphotos, and
3) to earn money by letting the staff develop their own project areas.

What has been the greatest challenge the company has encountered and how was it overcome?

There have been many, but this one comes just to my mind: GAF is a bit exotic with its massive out-of-Europe experience, mainly in the developing world. One of these larger projects has been a 4 years capacity building project for the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Kabul. As one can imagine it was not easy to find highly specialized experts to stay for years in an unstable environment. It took us massive manpower research, 2 missions to KBL and a 6 months internal planning and decision-making process to finally negotiate a workable contract. The solution has been a senior key expert from Zimbabwe, when asked if he would have a problem to work a long time in Kabul, he responded: “If you have lived a long period in Southern Africa you would not ask this question…”

What do you consider are the most important competences of GAF that help you succeed?

In short: Put staff in positions where they perform best, high flexibility thru our multi-role system, a family-type environment and last not least putting the customer first. Though we belong to a big industrial grouping, many EO service works are tailor-made for SME structures. Too much strategizing destroys sometimes the chances to be successful in a highly competitive environment.

What do you see as the main challenges facing GAF-AG in the next 1-2 years?

In our opinion, the market outlook for the EO service industry has never been so inspiring as it is now. Coming from the spatial resolution “revolution” now down to 30 cm, we think the next step is the repetition dimension with large constellations of micro/small sats. It is up to us to design and implement completely new information services. A lot of noise is currently made about highly automated analysis platforms, yes, we believe here are a lot of advances possible. However, it is our experience of more than 1000 projects successfully completed, to really sell a safe service to a customer the human interaction is and will be still an important factor.

Market Views

The three disruptive satellite startups: Planet Labs, Urthecast and Skybox Imaging, continue to make headlines following the recent move by Planet Labs to acquire German-based Blackbridge geospatial companies, including its RapidEye suite of core offerings. In June, Urthecast agreed to pay €74.2 million for Spain-based Elecnor SA’s Deimos Imaging unit, which operates Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 satellites. Exactly a year before that, Skybox Imaging was bought by Google for €450 million in cash.

How do you think that these deals will affect your business? what do you think mean they mean for European companies?

We do have too few details on these deals and the rationale behind – it might be sometimes more simple than we think initially. One thing is the deal, another the business concepts driving such acquisitions. It appears on the surface that again the US industry somehow is starting to buy into successful European firms and developments. I am sure the background is more complex and players from other nations are playing their role in some of the deals.

In our view the key will be not the novel systems per se but rather the know-how around novel information services generated.

Are there lessons for GAF or other European companies to be drawn from them?

There are so many other initiatives and there are since long plans from the public side, we need to use everything available in form of a multi-mission platform to base our service offering. The Client needs a reliable and affordable information service and normally does not care about the technicalities, systems used or if they are derived even only from traditional in-situ data.

What are the main issues you consider may affect the evolution of the market you are addressing and where do you see the greatest opportunities for growth?

From the Copernicus program we will have not only direct service contracts for the industry, but on a medium-long term we will see a plethora of new public/commercial applications based on existing service lines. It has its dja vu: the COFOR (cost for reproduction) distribution era of Landsat data 20 years ago with the result of a strong increase in EO data utilization. Thanks to hard work GAF is today in a prominent position to assist in value creation from the Copernicus opportunity.

For the aspects outside Copernicus, I have to repeat a bit: the temporal resolution by maintaining a high-very high spatial resolution. If we add to the end of the decade also the hyperspectral dimension and the unique features of SAR-monitoring, all coupled with automated data screening/change detection algorithms, we will see a completely new market scenario. GAF is heavily preparing for this, and we collaborate intensely here with e-Geos (SAR) and the most important optical system operators such as Antrix, Airbus Defense, Blackbridge, Digitalglobe/EUSI.

Are there particular threats which you see for your business?

Appropriate procurement procedures are still in the minority in many tenderig processes. Some public and commercial clients believe EO services can be procured like washing powder or cars. Typical is a low entry barrier in technical merits, and after that only price counts, sometimes even adorned by liquidated damages. This is totally inadequate for complex servicing contracts where experience, know-how, a sound technical workflow and a good project management is required.

This type of cheapy-procurement could even destroy the EO service market in a longer term!

At the moment, innovation seems to be on everyone’s list of things to promote, what is your perception of innovation in the EO services sector? How do you approach innovation within GAF AG?

Means for us to look for new ways to improve the quality of our services and make them more efficient – and to bring completely new products and services to the market. All this under very practical aspects. We believe the best innovator is a staff member who knows the customer, the technologies, the process, the economics and his own and the colleagues’ capabilities. We have a large number of such people in the company and try to give them enough freedom to innovate in their daily work or participate in cross-Group innovation actions. It is key for us to leverage on our staff for continuous improvement. Besides in-house innovation we are very happy to have intensified development actions with the DLR Earth Observation Centre located next doors in the past years – a perfect example for a fruitful industry/R&D-centre co-operation.

EO Service Development and Stakeholders

In the EO services sector, governments can have a strong influence over the way business develops. Aside from being a good customer, what’s the one other thing governments can do to support the development of the sector?

It is small, incomplete list that comes to my mind:

1) Apply the correct procurement method, put more emphasis on quality and sustainability
2) Provide separate budgets lines or at least some moneys for pilots
3) Exclude non-industrial players from bidding to avoid unfair competition

EARSC is the European trade association dealing with the geospatial services sector; what for you are the main benefits of EARSC membership?

For GAF, EARSC is the most important membership in a professional association. It is the European industry platform that does not hesitate to clearly express an industry view towards EO service customers, financers, politicians and non-industrial EO players. And real practical advances come from the service industry! EARSC’s record of activities is impressing, for instance to promote qualification schemes in a small and heterogenous market where a customer can be sometimes not sure what he gets for his investment, or as an another example, its arguments for more industry participation in the Copernicus atmosphere and climate change service lines.

What do consider is the main issue for EARSC to address today on behalf of the European EO services sector?

I think EARSC should elaborate with the big public customers an advisory scheme on how to choose a specific procurement method based on EU law. This would help all company members, the client side, and most important, the European taxpayer, to receive a lasting and real value for money.


Finally, what can you say about your outlook for the sector and how companies in this sector should be positioning themselves?

Regarding EO there is a great future ahead and GAF as one of the largest service companies in Europe is just one example of what can be achieved. Our premier European raw material is brainware, a constant improvement and solid performance. Though I became 60 this year, I am looking forward extremely interested and I would be pleased to see a really wide commercial market being established by the aid of the dramatic technological developments ahead.

Peter Volk, CEO GAF AG

Dr. Peter VOLK has graduated in applied geology at the Faculty of Geosciences (Chair Prof. Bodechtel) in Alpine sedimentology, tectonics and remote sensing in 1982. Working on a research project lead by Prof. Bodechtels’ Deputy Dr. Rupert Haydn using Earth observation, Geophysics and GIS for mineral exploration in Southern Spain, he received his PhD from Munich University in 1985. During and after his thesis he was active as geotechnical engineer in a local firm before joining (again) Rupert Haydn in the freshly founded GAF in 1986 as expert for image processing and EO land applications. During his long history at GAF he developed and managed many research and application projects ranging from geology, water, agriculture, environment, regional planning and cadastre in more than 30 countries with a focus on Africa and the Arab world. In 1991 he became Head of department and proxyholder, in 1993 member of GAF management board, in 2004 he was promoted COO of the company and followed Dr. Rupert Haydn as CEO in 2007. He further acts since 5 years also as country manager for the Telespazio Group in Germany with more than 650 staff working in the two companies Telespazio-VEGA Germany and GAF.