Thorsten Heins, New RIM CEO, Praised By Some; Others Skeptical
TORONTO - The man tasked with revitalizing a mainstay of Canada's corporate landscape comes to the job armed with a physics degree, an impressive corporate resume and an enthusiasm for technological solutions that will help him connect with the wavering customer base at Research in Motion, a long-time friend said Monday.
Thorsten Heins' low public profile, however, is raising questions among industry watchers about his ability to guide the struggling BlackBerry maker through the difficult times ahead.
Heins, the German-born physicist now at the helm of Research in Motion (TSX:RIM), is a comparatively enigmatic figure who has spent the past four years toiling in the long shadows cast by his predecessors, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis.
The company co-CEOs, who stepped down on Sunday from the top job, had become household names through their reputations as driven innovators and high-profile philanthropists.
Heins' associates, however, say the new chief executive brings comparable skills to the job along with a passion for technology that will help him reach out to new customers.
Marcus Breitschwerdt, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.K., has served alongside Heins on the board of the Canadian German Chamber of Industry and Commerce for the past several years.
He said his friend's scientific and social skills make him ideally suited to reassert Rim's position in the telecom market.
"It's not just about the technology," Breitschwerdt said in a telephone interview from London. "You have to converge. You have to translate social needs and human behaviour into a technological solution, and he's the right one to do so."
Heins _ who grew up in his native Germany _ was educated at the University of Hannover where he completed a masters of science and physics in 1984.
Upon graduation, he launched his career at international conglomerate Siemens AG, where he rose through the ranks over the next 23 years. He held research, customer service and management roles with the company before ultimately becoming chief technology officer of its communications division.
Heins left Siemens to join RIM in December 2007, where he immediately took on responsibility for the division that helped drive the company's success. A stint as senior vice-president of the handheld business unit was followed by rapid promotions, ultimately leading him to the roll of co-chief operating officer.
Breitschwerdt said Heins' rise was aided by his analytical mind, as well as his desire to take action when a task is set before him.
"He's probably not the kind of guy who's standing for hours at a hotel bar. He's the type of guy to go out there, to meet the people on the road and to actively do something," Breitschwerdt said.
Heins' tenure at RIM, however, has been marked by a rapid decline in the company's share of the mobile market and inability to develop products enticing to the growing base of tablet customers.
John Pliniussen, a business professor at Queen's University, said he suspects Heins' pedigree as an established RIM insider may hamper his efforts to revive the company's flagging fortunes. The man whose corporate profile presents the image of a steady hand at the wheel may not be the visionary marketing guru needed to set RIM on a new course, he said.
"I think a lot of us were looking for someone to come and be hired with world class marketing and public relations experience. What we saw was a known commodity," Pliniussen said. "In terms of his experience in transformational leadership, I'm not aware that he has that. In terms of his ability to be the face of an organization, someone who engages you emotionally and intellectually, I'm not sure."
Lazaridis and Balsillie have left particularly large shoes for Heins to fill, despite the company's recent woes, Pliniussen said.
Lazaridis, often touted as the company's visionary scientist, and Balsillie, the hard-driving businessman who is known as much for his promotional efforts as for his numerous attempts to lure an American NHL team back to Canada, had bold personalities that Heins may have to emulate if he hopes to succeed, Pliniussen said.
That capacity has not yet been demonstrated to company shareholders, Pliniussen suggested. RIM stock closed down 9.1 per cent at $15.67 Monday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
When pressure mounts for RIM's new leader, Brietschwerdt suggested he may have recourse to his favourite hobby. Heins is an avid motorcyclist who delights in long rides on his BMW, he said.
Heins and his wife, Petra, have two children in their early 20's.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Balsillie was one of the company co-founders.