Saturday, January 11, 2020

 

Meade on the Rocks, Rock Bottom...




Aw for—! Meade’s at it again! Muchachos, it’s barely been six years since we last had to visit this subject: the failing fortunes of America’s beloved former telescope giant, Meade Instruments. Last time, things went bust shortly after the company moved its production to Mexico. The familiar faces who made Meade a name were gone, and the company was soon bought by a Chinese corporation, Ningbo Sunny, who was never much more than a cipher. Now, we fans of Old Blue learn she’s sinking again. Ningbo has declared bankruptcy and is looking for a buyer.

You can read more about the story here, and a Google search will quickly turn up further details. The short skinny, though? U.S. telescope dealer Orion (who is, need I say, not the same Orion Tim Giesler started, just like Meade ain’t the Meade John Diebel started and Celestron ain’t the Celestron Tom Johnson started) filed a 180-million dollar anti-trust lawsuit asserting Meade/Ningbo Sunny colluded with other Chinese manufacturers to set prices (we assume that “other” is Synta). Meade is in the process of selling itself under court supervision.

None of which surprises me much. I’ve long been aware relationships between Chinese corporations are almost invariably incestuous sorts of things. And I’ve long speculated that Synta and Ningbo Sunny might actually be the same entity.

What happens next? Does Orion buy Meade? I wouldn’t be surprised. How about Celestron? The FTC has never looked favorably upon a Meade - Celestron merger or buyout, and I would guess they’d look even more unfavorably on it now due to the Synta factor. But how did we get here, anyway? How did two once great telescope companies go right down the drain?

Celestron’s story is relatively simple. The company was started as Celestron Pacific by California electronics engineer and amateur telescope maker Tom Johnson. In 1970, he expanded Celestron’s sales efforts, which had been focused on small colleges and schools, to amateur astronomers. Celestron quickly put hordes of famous Newtonian telescope makers like Cave, Optical Craftsmen, and Criterion in the grave. Despite competition from Meade beginning in 1980, Celestron dominated the serious telescope market. Until two things happened.

First, Tom Johnson decided to sell his company and enjoy life. The buyer was the Swiss holding company Diethelm. The problem was that Diethelm didn’t know much about telescopes—nor did most of the people at the company care—and just wanted to take money out of Celestron. Celestron did make money during Comet Halley, but they wore out their workforce and their machine tools and equipment in the process, and the hangover was nasty. Though Meade had a similarly difficult time during Halley, they were again under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel, who, like Johnson, had begun the company on his kitchen table. Under his guidance Meade began to dominate Celestron as the 1990s came in.

Celestron was chronically undercapitalized by this time and had a hard time coming out with an answer to Meade’s computerized LX200 telescope, a telescope that pointed at sky objects reliably and automatically. The irony is that Celestron had introduced the first goto SCT, the Compustar in the 80s. Unfortunately, it was expensive and fussy. Meade ruled the roost through the 1990s and just went from strength to strength, following the LX200 with the ETX, the LX90, and the LX200 GPS.

Things didn’t change for the better for Celestron until they were free of Diethelm. In the process of freeing themselves, they briefly became an employee owned company, but, again, there wasn’t enough capital. In what we at first thought heralded disaster, they were bought by notorious telescope importer Tasco. Those of us who came up in the 60s and 70s have some pretty unfavorable memories of Tasco’s cheap department store scopes, but there is more to that story than you may imagine. You can read the rest of the story right here. Bottom line was that Tasco’s capital allowed Celestron to develop an outstanding line of goto telescope, the NexStars, which showed the company could again be competition for and even a threat to Meade.

At first, however, it looked like we’d be down to one scope company after all, Meade. Tasco declared bankruptcy (that had nothing to do with Celestron, which was the only money-making part of the company) and Meade attempted to buy Celestron. The FTC said “no,” optical giant Synta stepped in, and, frankly, it was downhill all the way for Meade from there.

Meade’s problems didn’t just concern the resurgence of Celestron. A couple of their actions had contributed. First, the company went public. Certainly, that sounded reasonable when the company was on top of the world, and certainly Mr. Diebel deserved to profit handsomely for his long hard years of work. But Meade wasn’t quite as stable as they appeared to be, and going public just made things dicier. A blow came when most Walmarts stopped selling Christmas Telescopes not long after a major dealer of the things, Discovery Channel Stores, went under. Meade’s numbers were good, but a lot of those numbers were due to the department store end of the business that really wasn’t that profitable anyway. Take away the el cheapo part of the equation and things began to look a lot bleaker for the blue team.

One other misstep, I’ve been told, was the company’s dalliance with an optical communications company. All those ETX 125’s with metal rear cells you’ve seen surplused out were built for this failed endeavor. A company with deep roots and resources like a GE can afford a few disasters. A company built on the shifting sands of a niche market? Not so much.

And so, production halted at Meade’s big factory site in Irvine (not far from Ducks Stadium) and the facility  was soon on the chopping block. Meade still operates from a nearby location, but the once grandiose home/factory of the world’s largest and most successful telescope company is no more. The top-line amateur scopes began to be produced in Mexico and everything else came from Ningbo-Sunny or one of their “friends” in China.

And there things have sat. Read the piece linked in the first paragraph, Pore Old Blue, if you want more details on the circumstances at the time of the Meade's sale (including a couple of utterly disastrous product introductions). Following the Chinese buyout, from what I could see, Meade continued on pretty with business as usual—if at a level that appeared to place them a distant second to Celestron for the first time in a long while. The big, splashy everybody-will-want-one Meade product introductions, and that crazy, wonderful old full-color glossy print catalog were but fading memories, but Meade was still producing good telescopes.

I found that out when I got my hands on my first new Meade in a long time, the company’s new LX80 GEM. Admittedly, some things did  spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for me. Like a shipping container that was made out of what appeared to be recycled Kleenex, and a manual that was not only incomplete, but which was merely a half-hearted rewrite of decade old LX75 instructions. However, everything worked. I was quite impressed by the Meade answer to the Celestron AVX—I thought the Meade was actually superior in some ways. Certainly, the Meade ACF 8-inch SCT presented wonderful images (you can read my LX85 Test Report in the January 2020 Sky & Telescope).  My thought as I was shipping the gear back to Meade? “I’m impressed. They done good! Things are looking up for Old Blue!” Alas, shortly thereafter the outcome of the Orion lawsuit became known.

What do I think will happen next? If you’re a Meade fan, I wouldn’t worry too much. The name has value, and the products still sell. Someone, Orion or whomever, will buy the company and continue to market most/some of the telescopes, I would guess. What makes me really sad is not the fate of this incarnation of a once great company. It’s that two famous and outstanding American telescope companies are now but fading memories gone these many years.

So, that’s it for this time, Muchahos. When will the next one appear? When the mood strikes your old uncle, but most assuredly before February runs out. If you’d like the blog updated more frequently, tell me. Comment here, on the thread I’ll put in the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, Websites, and Other Media” forum, or by email or on Facebook. And please spread the word to former Uncle Rod fans who may have lost the thread.

Uncle Rod News! The long-awaited (well, one or two people asked about it) second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT, my vaunted SCT book, is due to be published in April. It has been completely updated and much has been rewritten. I think you are gonna like it.

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