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The AST Group, a global satellite communications company with headquarters in Great Yarmouth, is celebrating its 30th year in business – having become an industry leader with offices across Europe, Asia, Australia and the USA.
The company was founded in 1992 by chairman Gregory Darling, whose late father George owned Great Yarmouth-based Gardline Group, which specialises in marine geographical surveys. Gregory started his career at Gardline and became group chairman before its sale in 2017 to Boskalis. His early experience with the family business exposed him to some of the challenges facing the maritime industry – one of which inspired him to invest in the setting up of AST.
“Gregory was exploring what else is happening in the marketplace and saw that satellite technology was starting to make its way up to the top of the agenda,” said Andrew Peters, group managing director of AST. “It was already being used by some of the vessels that Gardline owned – Gregory saw an opportunity to deliver global satellite services and solutions into the land and maritime sectors.”
It wasn’t just his time at Gardline that equipped Gregory with the acumen to launch his own firm. After leaving school in Lowestoft, he attained a business degree at Sheffield University and then worked on an offshore oil rig for US-based Santa Fe Drilling. Further travel took him to Australia, where he worked in an iron ore mine.
It’s no coincidence that AST now has a presence in the countries where Gregory spent the early part of his career. “He saw that there was a market in Australia, for example, for land-based satellite services,” Andrew explained. “One of Gregory’s many strengths is spotting gaps in markets and then investing in building the infrastructure, partnerships and relationships to be able to support global growth.”
In the UK, the business has made strategic acquisitions in markets beyond its maritime roots – including Norwich-based Applied Telematics, a specialist provider of advanced satellite telematics and remote monitoring solutions for fixed and mobile assets in the disaster recovery, maritime and land sectors.
“There are lots of examples of where Gregory has had that vision and understanding of how you could take something a bit further and wider, but always using communication services as the platform,” said Andrew. “These services have not necessarily been satellite-based – because sometimes it's delivered by other devices and communications mechanisms – but he always believed that no matter how far away anything was, you will always be able to communicate.”
Especially for the maritime industry, seamless communication is critical – but seabound vessels haven’t traditionally enjoyed the same connectivity that can be achieved onshore. This is the problem that AST originally set out to solve, and which it continues to help customers with today.
“If you look at the maritime industry, there were many parts of the world where you couldn't get a mobile signal – you certainly couldn't get a fixed line,” said Andrew. “As more and more satellites have gone up into the air and the population of satellite data has become denser, you've been able to get faster upload and download speeds to enable a ship to essentially be more like a house.”
AST started out as a partner for satellite companies such as Inmarsat and Iridium – developing the technical expertise to implement their systems for distributors. The company continues to act as a trusted intermediary for these firms, but has invested significantly in the development of its own software to monitor customers’ assets once they are installed.
It now offers a range of software solutions including engine management, fuel monitoring and environmental services – to name but a few. “We're starting to become a more software-led, managed services business to the extent that if you were a maritime or land-based business, and you wanted to manage your geographically dispersed assets more effectively, we could do pretty well anything, within reason!” said Andrew.
From humble beginnings in 1992, AST now has more than 160 employees worldwide – with over 100 in East Anglia – and generates annual revenue in excess of £60m. Andrew, who joined the company in November 2021, said there’s a lot more to come. “We want to take this business to the next level,” he concluded, “and it's got the foundations laid already to be even more successful. We continue to recruit talented people to support our growth strategy in many areas of our business including software technology, customer support and sales.”