The resignation of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis as co-CEOs of Research in Motion marks the end of an era not only for the BlackBerry maker, but for Canadian business. Their raw determination and unapologetic ambition, so uncommon among Canadian business leaders, transformed a small consulting company into a $20-billion global behemoth with an iconic brand sought after by presidents and movie stars.
Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie are inspirational figures for their technological innovation, and the fact that they built RIM into a global company, but also for the way they have worn the maple leaf on their chests. They insisted, for example, on basing RIM in Waterloo, and in the process contributed substantially to the creation of what has been dubbed Quantum Valley, an R&D hub consisting of three communities and hundreds of high-tech companies.
And they have used their personal wealth to invest heavily in personal passions with global benefits.
Mr. Lazaridis gave $170-million to establish the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and $100-million to the Institute for Quantum Computing. Mr. Balsillie has taken on world politics and international relations, donating $20-million to found the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in Waterloo and $50-million to establish the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and serves as chair of the Canadian International Council.
These are tremendous gifts and the payback, especially of Mr. Lazaridis’s far-sighted ambition, will not be known for many years, but they do have the potential to profoundly alter our world.
With respect to RIM, however, the ambition of Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis has had its downside. RIM’s fantastic success, which confirmed the duo’s brazen bet on the completely new and untested technology of push e-mail, fed a culture in which they failed to recognize their fallibility, a not uncommon characteristic in highly successful people.
Mr. Lazaridis, an engineer who inspired his workers to achieve what many thought impossible, dismissed Apple’s game-changing iPhone as a toy. Mr. Balsillie, whose professed belief in governance was so great he founded a think-tank around it, treated RIM’s own board as a rubber stamp. Which is why, despite years of drift, disappointing devices and plummeting U.S. market share that slashed RIM’s stock price by 75 per cent in 2011, it took until this week for the two to decide to step down. Most CEOs would have been long gone. And their replacements, Thorsten Heins as CEO, and former RBC executive Barbara Stymiest as chair, are not, at least according to RIM’s sagging share price, what the market was hoping for. On taking the reins, Mr. Heins, RIM’s former COO, dismissed the need for any “drastic change,” saying the company just needed a “bit more of an ear toward the consumer market.” But it will take more than that. The former Siemens executive has inherited a conservative company, one much more at ease with incremental change rather than radical innovation.
RIM’s story is by no means written, nor for that matter are those of Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis. Despite the slings and arrows being directed at them, they never took the easy way out. They could, like so many of their Canadian colleagues, have sold out rather than take on giants like Nokia and Apple. Instead, they proved a Canadian start-up could take on the world and win. And so, while one era may be over, it is to be hoped that another equally ambitious one for RIM, and Canadian companies inspired by their success, is beginning.