Somewhat overlooked in last week's earnings release from BlackBerry (BBRY) was the departure of company co-founder Mike Lazaridis. Instrumental in bringing smartphones to the world, Mr. Lazaridis will relinquish his post as Vice Chairman as well his seat on the board effective next month, although he will hold onto his substantial holding in BBRY stock. His exit brings full circle a massive overhaul that has pulled BlackBerry back from the brink of irrelevance in just over a year.
The departed Mr. Lazaridis and ex co-CEO Jim Balsillie should rightly be heralded for being true technology pioneers and building an iconic global brand. Nonetheless, it became evident through a plunging market share and stock price that significant changes were required to compete with Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Google's (GOOG) Android.
The difficult job of righting the ship was given to Thorsten Heins, who in a short period of time has filled the executive ranks with capable lieutenants to move the company forward through its next evolution.
New Direction Was Needed at BlackBerry
January 22nd, 2012 marked a major turning point for Research In Motion. Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie stepped aside and officially appointed Mr. Heins as the new CEO, empowering him to staunch the financial bleeding.
The Waterloo, Ontario based company had just suffered through a tumultuous phase in its 29 year history. The once world leading smartphone maker had experienced setback after setback, not the least of which was a product pipeline that had not produced an inspiring offering in years.
One can debate the causes for this dramatic fall from the highest echelons of technological innovation, but competing head to head with market behemoths Apple and Google is a challenge for any company. Even so, much of the decline in market share, and the ensuing death spiral of the company's shares are arguably the result of factors well within the control of the firm itself.
At the time of the change, Mr. Lazaridis said in an official company press release:
"There comes a time in the growth of every successful company when the founders recognize the need to pass the baton to new leadership. Jim and I went to the Board and told them that we thought that time was now.
[T]he company is entering a new phase, and we felt it was time for a new leader to take it through that phase and beyond. Jim, the Board and I all agreed that leader should be Thorsten Heins."
Mr. Heins understood that a monumental shift in strategy was needed for the company not only to thrive, but perhaps just to survive. The radical change in direction Heins embarked on strained the relationship with Mr. Balsillie to such a degree that the onetime face of the company was forced from the board.
The changes imposed by Mr. Heins and his new management team in the past year have been dramatic, and the cost cutting efforts paid off with a surprising profit in the fourth quarter. With the financial house beginning to come into order, the focus can shift to regaining market share.
New Blood in the Corner Offices
The range, diversity of skill sets, and experience of the new executive team is impressive. The five men are all of different nationalities, and collectively have worked in senior roles for likes of Siemens (SI), Sony Corp. (SNE) Verizon (VZ), and the United States Department of Justice. With so many new faces on the team, it is too early to pass judgment on their efforts so far, but Mr. Heins seems pleased.
In an interview with the Die Welt, Mr. Heins revealed that the company has indeed gone through significant internal changes over the past year. Responding to a reporter, the BlackBerry CEO made the following comments (translated by Google) regarding what has changed:
"We have an entirely new management team. The company has become leaner, which meant that we have reduced costs. Meanwhile, decisions are made faster and responsibilities were redistributed. We are still in the middle of this process."
The reality is that turning around a company as complex as BlackBerry, while operating in such a competitive industry, requires some time and patience on the part of investors. The effectiveness of the new management will likely not be apparent until the later months of 2013 when the roll out of BB10 can properly be assessed.
Vision of Mobile Computing
The potential for new licensing arrangements, targeting multiple sectors of the handset market, and most importantly improved margins demonstrate that BlackBerry has more strategic options available than were possible just a short time ago. According to CEO Heins:
"This industry is not at the end of its growth, it's actually entering a whole new phase. If we move from mobile communication to mobile computing, that will enable so many new businesses, so many new different ways of how to work and interact…That's a whole new industry wave," he said. "At the end we will be a leader in driving this market towards mobile computing."
The next six months will likely be volatile for BBRY shares and provide opportunities on both the long and the short side for traders. For those with a longer-term investment horizon, however, buying BBRY now is as much about one's faith in the new executive team to move the company forward as any other factor.
The ability to get the firm in the black is a very positive sign that the turnaround is proceeding successfully, as is the emergence of a new strategic vision which was lacking in recent years. If Mr. Heins' swagger is any indication of what the future holds for mobile computing, BlackBerry may once again find itself an industry leader specifically doing what BlackBerry does best - innovation.