Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, whose names have become synonymous with RIM over their two decades leading the company, will turn over operational control of RIM to new CEO Thorsten Heins, the company's former chief operating officer, RIM announced Sunday.
German-born Heins, 54, who was chosen by Balsillie and Lazaridis as the most appropriate successor, will be tasked with navigating RIM back to its former competitive form and will have to assuage a host of less-than optimistic shareholders disgruntled by RIM's slipping performance and a year filled with glitches and setbacks.
"If we continue doing well what we're doing, I see no problems of us being in the top three players worldwide in the next years in wireless," he said in a video BlackBerry had posted to introduce the new chief to the public.
"What we need to get a bit better at is to have a little bit more of an ear towards the consumer. So I want to strengthen this by bringing some really good marketing expertise in. We need to be outright, we need to be constantly communicating with our customers, with the audience, with the public, telling them about BlackBerry."
While Balsillie and Lazaridis have left day-to-day operations altogether, they both still remain on RIM's board and will be able to exert significant influence through their large ownership stakes.
A number of RIM's shareholders have demanded changes at the top for months, blaming Balsillie and Lazaridis for several years of poor performance that have resulted in a precipitous drop in the company's stock market value — shares in RIM were once so highly priced it was briefly Canada's most valuable company, worth more than $70 billion. It's market capitalization is now around $9 billion.
Balsillie, 50, and Lazaridis, 50, have headed Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM together for the past two decades but investors lost patience with the pair in 2011 as the company dropped behind its peers in the lightning-paced smartphone market, suffering through the worst service outage in its history and losing tens of billions of dollars in market value.
Prominent among RIM's disgruntled shareholders has been Vic Alboini, president and chief executive of merchant bank Jaguar Financial Corp. in Toronto. Alboini launched a campaign last year to have Balsillie and Lazaridis replaced or the company sold as is or in parts.
While Alboini had praised the two for their past work in putting RIM on the map, he pushed for a new leader and a strong independent chairman. Alboini and his supporters make up almost 10 per cent of RIM's shareholders and he's said that stake is expected to grow to about 20 per cent as they continue to push for major change.
"I agree this is the right time to pass the baton to new leadership, and I have complete confidence in Thorsten, the management team and the company," Balsillie said in a statement.
"I remain a significant shareholder and a director and, of course, they will have my full support."
RIM founder Lazaridis, who will shift from co-chair to vice-chair of RIM's board, said the move is intended to "return the public's focus to what is most important: the great company we have built, its iconic products, global brand and its talented employees."
"Thorsten has demonstrated throughout his tenure at RIM that he has the right mix of leadership, relevant industry experience and skills to take the company forward. We have been impressed with his operational skills at both RIM and Siemens. I am so confident in RIM's future that I intend to purchase an additional $50 million of the company's shares, as permitted, in the open market."
Heins joined RIM in 2007 and has worked as senior vice-president for hardware engineering and chief operating officer for product and sales.
Heins added that he was someone who would drive the company not only to reach new technical heights, but also to deliver new quality products on time.
"We have to get better at execution, but we've learned a lot going from when I joined RIM in 2007,"he said. "Never loose this innovation spirit but also make sure that once we say a product is defined that we move decisively into execution mode and get the product done in good quality, on time and also at good cost."
Among other changes at the top of RIM, current director and former Toronto Stock Exchange CEO Barbara Stymiest will become independent board chairwoman and Fairfax Financial Holdings (TSX:FFH) CEO Prem Watsa will join the board.
Though RIM is by no means at death's door, it has fallen far behind its peers in the smartphone market.
Although RIM emerged in 1984, the modern-day BlackBerry was introduced to the world in 1998. Both the tech-savvy Lazaridis and the business-focused Balsillie were given credit for the company's meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the smartphone market. The BlackBerry's powerful Enterprise Server system — which quickly and efficiently routed messages, email and mobile calls — helped make it the No. 1 smartphone for businesses and governments around the world.
The addictive handheld device known to many as the "crackberry" has gained plaudits from around the world, and even U.S. president Barack Obama acknowledged he was glued to his BlackBerry during his election campaign.
At the beginning of 2011, RIM was in fine shape and gearing up to launch the PlayBook, its answer to Apple's hugely successful iPad. But its spring rollout left critics largely unimpressed. From then on, the news for RIM was mostly bad.
The company announced that it will take a US$485-million charge before tax on the cost of discounting the price of its PlayBook tablet and $50 million in lost revenues from an October service outage that affected millions of BlackBerry email and text users. It was forced to cut 2,000 jobs to keep costs in line.
In December, RIM reported third-quarter net profits of US$265 million, well below the $911 million for the same period a year before. That came despite the sale of millions more BlackBerrys than in 2010 and a 35 per cent rise in global subscribers to 75 million.
RIM was further shackled by the delayed launch of a new generation of BlackBerrys — which some have seen as a potential ray of light for the company — from early to mid-2012 due to availability of the chipset that will power the new BlackBerry 10.
The Waterloo, Ont., company saw its stock market value fall from about $50 billion at the beginning of 2011 to about $7.6 billion by year's end. Shares hit a low of $12.80 in 2011. They had hit a high of almost $140 in 2008.
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