RIM Finally Pulls the Trigger
Lazaridis and Balsillie are out as co-CEOs, as COO Thorsten Heins (shown here) takes over the smartphone maker at a crucial juncture.
In a move that has been anticipated (even "prayed for") for the past several months, the Co-Chairmen/CEO’s of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie have announced that they are stepping down effective immediately. The company's board of directors unanimously named current director and former Toronto Stock Exchange CEO Barbara Stymiest independent board chair and chief operating officer Thorsten Heins as president and CEO; the moves were endorsed by Messrs. Lazaridis and Balsillie. Fairfax Financial Holdings CEO Prem Watsa was also named to the board.
Mr. Lazaridis will become the vice-chair of the board of directors and will chair the new innovation committee. Mr. Balsillie will remain on board of directors in an undefined role and apparently with no operational responsibilities. Investors were clearly pleased as RIM's Frankfurt-listed shares jumped more than four per cent to 13.77 Euros. In the US, RIM shares were up 67 cents to $17.67 on the Nasdaq before the markets opened Monday, and a similar jump is expected when the Toronto Stock Exchange opens. In 2008 RIM's stock hit $148, but took a historic nosedive as competition from iPhone and Android smartphones took their toll and RIM lumbered from one mis-step to the next.
Mr. Heins is something of an unknown quantity having worked in the shadow of Lazaridis and Balsillie. He the joined RIM four years ago after 20-years with Siemens AG. He was appointed chief operating officer for product and sales in August 2011. A piece in CBC News reads in part "the new CEO Heins is held in high regard for his skill in operational matters". In a conference call Monday morning, Mr. Heins confirmed the company is actively recruiting for a new CMO, a position that has been vacant since Keith Pardy left the company in March of last year.
Clearly this is good news for the beleaguered smartphone icon that at one time had the highest market cap of any company in Canada. Palm essentially invented the smartphone with the Treo, but RIM popularized it and rode the crest of the wave as the market grew. What few realize is the explosive growth in RIM’s sales came from its moving beyond business customers to consumers; at its peak, approximately 70% of BlackBerry sales were to consumers. Unfortunately, those were the first customers to jump ship when the iPhone and Android options burst onto the scene.
While most analysts have already written RIM's obituary, it’s important to remember that the company is still profitable, has 75 million subscribers, and a brand that is recognized around the world. Those profits have been shrinking, and in December the company reported a third-quarter net profit of US$265 million, well below the $911 million recorded for the same period last year.
Mr. Heins will have his work cut out for him. RIM has yet to produce a touch screen phone that comes close to the iPhone or Android models, and the long-awaited BB10-based devices that will use the operating system technology RIM acquired with QNX Software Systems in 2010 are not due out until later this year. In the meantime, Mr. Heins confirmed in the Monday morning conference call that the PlayBook 2.0 software is due out in February and will include a native email client (at last) and more importantly an Android player.
RIM has also been criticized for the relative paucity of the app selection in BlackBerry App World when compared to the Apple and Android options. However, the smartphone market continues to evolve, and the pendulum may be swinging back with regard to "app mania". I've long held that I don't need an app on my phone for a coffee shop I visit twice a year, and I think we will see an accelerating shift toward web-based apps that will be accessible from any smartphone. If you take apps out of the equation, other attributes like design, quality, battery life, and the all-important "user experience" will come to be the driving factors in the smartphone business.
RIM has always made great products- maybe not "insanely great", but great. I feel that many of RIM’s difficulties were a result of the miscalculations and obstinacy of Messrs. Lazaridis and Balsillie; as the saying goes, "they may have been wrong, but they were never in doubt!" While Mr. Heins is an untested quantity, at least there’s hope of some fresh thinking. The first major test will be how quickly RIM can fill that CMO position and with whom.
RIM has a steep hill to climb to regain its position as a significant factor in the smartphone market, but they have a ton of talent that will hopefully get the opportunity to flourish under the new management. The key test will be what BB10 can do and how well it will measure up to the ever-expanding expectations of the mobile consumer. Good luck, Mr. Heins and turn your horses loose.