BUSINESS

BlackBerry shareholders, potential partners in dark as Fairfax constructs bid

10/01/2013 04:16 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Amid the uncertainty over BlackBerry's future, one potential partner is still waiting to hear back from the smartphone maker's executives.

Alan Dabbiere, the chairman of startup company AirWatch, said he has tried a number of times to open talks with BlackBerry over some of its operations, but none of his calls have been returned.

"We are telegraphing through bankers and people we know who we think can get a message to anybody there that will listen," Dabbiere said in an interview.

"Right now they're in a bit of a lockdown process of trying to evaluate their strategic options. They're being a little bit myopic to consider the few options that may be on the table for them right now, versus things that may in fact be better for them."

AirWatch provides a mobile security platform that is similar to BlackBerry's coveted enterprise security technology for business partners that works on both Android and iPhone phones, as well as various operating systems like Windows.

Dabbiere said he has tried to open negotiations with BlackBerry on various business ventures for nearly two years, and been rebuffed at every turn.

The comments raise questions about how much effort BlackBerry's board of directors, and a special committee formed to review potential transactions, has dedicated to scouring the market for partnerships or acquirers for its businesses.

BlackBerry investors have been forced to sit on the sidelines and hope that what's being charted behind closed doors is best for them, even though the information they've received about the process, and the company's financial results, has been cloudy.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based smartphone maker has pulled back on some of its financial details in recent months, and the communication with both analysts and investors is limited.

Dabbiere is concerned BlackBerry's eroding share price will devalue the assets of the company even further.

"It is a melting ice cube that has now been thrown into boiling water," he said.

"The sentiment is getting negative really fast."

The lack of clarity has made it especially difficult for outsiders to digest a conditional offer from Fairfax Financial (TSX:FFH) of US$9 per share, which values the company at US$4.7 billion.

The proposal is being led by Fairfax head Prem Watsa, who sat on BlackBerry's board until about two months ago when he stepped down from the position due to potential conflicts. Since then he has been working to secure a group of financial backers who would acquire the company.

Since the tentative bid was announced, BlackBerry stock has fallen nearly 13 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange. On Tuesday afternoon, shares of the company were up six cents to C$8.16.

Analysts have been split over the proposal put forth by Faifax. Some of them say it drastically undervalues the smartphone maker, while others have placed the worth of BlackBerry's operations at even less.

"We believe BlackBerry and Fairfax are motivated to reach a go-private deal as quickly as possible, rather than maximize shareholder value at this stage," said GMP Securities analyst Deepak Kaushal.

"In this situation, we see no scenario where broader shareholder interest is well served."

During the past few months, BlackBerry (TSX:BB) has reduced the details it provides investors on the state of the company, including the tally of customers who still pay for Blackberry services. The figure is considered one of the key barometers for how well BlackBerry is faring.

Last week, the company scrapped its quarterly conference call with analysts — one of the rare times they're are allowed to question chief executive Thorsten Heins — citing the Fairfax letter of intent as the reason.

"In our view, the information provided — or lack thereof — offers little insight for investors at a critical time," wrote GMP Securities analyst Deepak Kaushal in a note that assessed BlackBerry's second-quarter financial results.

Near the peak of its stock price in 2008, BlackBerry, then known as Research In Motion, was valued at about $84 billion. Over the past few years, the company's stock has suffered a meteoric fall as Apple's iPhone and smartphones on the Android operating system have grown in popularity.

Since the launch of its latest line of smartphones earlier this year, Heins has been enthusiastic about the response to the devices, boasting that it sold record numbers in both Canada in the United Kingdom during its first week.

Despite those claims, the company declined to provide any specific sale figures at the time, a decision that stood in contrast to competitors like Apple who disclose figures after the first weekend of sales.

"It has always been my concern that (the company) has not been open with the shareholders and the investors in the community," said activist shareholder Vic Alboini of Jaguar Financial, who for several years has urged BlackBerry to sell itself.

"There's selective disclosure when things are apparently going well."

Heins had reassured developers that an update to its slow-selling PlayBook tablet was on the way about a month before he completely scrapped the device. Last month, he launched a massive initiative to cut another 4,500 jobs at the company in order to reduce expenses.

If BlackBerry does go private, Heins will receive a compensation package worth as much as $55.6 million for less than two years at the helm of the company. The agreement was reached between Heins and a three-person committee earlier this year that included Watsa.

In other developments, the company announced that its BlackBerry 10 devices and operating system have received approved by NATO for classified communications at the "restricted" level. BlackBerry's previous operating system and phones are also permitted to operate on the low-level of security clearance.

BlackBerry has also secured an agreement with Colombia's national police department to upgrade their BlackBerrys and shift to its new enterprise system, though it did not provide figures for how many smartphones would be ordered through the agreement.