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Blackberry CEO John Chen. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Blackberry CEO John Chen. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

STRATEGY LAB

Should BlackBerry be in your portfolio? It depends Add to ...

Chris Umiastowski is the growth investor for Globe Investor’s Strategy Lab. Follow his contributions here and view his model portfolio here.

One technology stock that I own in my personal portfolio but not in my Strategy Lab model growth portfolio is BlackBerry Ltd., the one-time iconic manufacturer of the top smartphone brand in the world.

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Long before the term “smartphone” existed, the company then known as Research In Motion sold corporate customers a way to instantly push business e-mail to a tiny pager. Bankers, lawyers and government workers loved the easy-to-use device with a fantastic thumb-driven keyboard. The original technology worked on special data networks that existed in the United States and Canada. To expand its growing enterprise business into Europe, it needed to build a push-e-mail experience that would work on cellular phone networks.

Having followed this story since 1999, I remember how its wild success in the enterprise segment spilled over into the consumer market. The company never realized its consumer market growth would be so strong that it would dwarf the original enterprise market.

When I first bought the stock around that time, I saw the company as a long-term visionary leader in enterprise mobile e-mail. But BlackBerry let its success in the consumer market steer its efforts almost completely toward that market. They lost their focus on the business customer that first brought them success.

As a former Bay Street analyst, it’s clear that I made a mistake in 2007-08 when I continued to recommend the stock to clients despite Apple launching a far superior consumer experience. I was wrong to believe BlackBerry could remain a strong consumer brand by fixing its weaknesses, which included adding touch-screen devices, launching an app store and improving their mobile Web browser. I didn’t realize how ill-equipped they were to catch up to Apple, and then Google.

Today BlackBerry is led by John Chen, a man with an impressive record in the world of technology software. He’s best known for the highly successful turnaround of database company Sybase, which he eventually sold to SAP. When Mr. Chen took over the CEO post at BlackBerry, I was intrigued with the speed at which he refocused the company’s energy on its core enterprise customers.

The fight for the consumer is over. Apple and Google have won. But there is still a huge opportunity to help big companies manage the mobile devices their employees use. This means re-engaging with the government, financial, legal and health care sectors. These are all highly regulated industries where BlackBerry thinks (I believe correctly) that it can add a lot of value. BlackBerry’s mission is to sell these customers an end-to-end solution of hardware (handsets) and software (servers). BlackBerry is not competing against Apple and Google here. Instead, BlackBerry is the largest player competing against mostly private, smaller companies.

So, is this a stock you should own? If you are looking for high-quality companies with proven leadership in a fast-growing market, BlackBerry doesn’t yet deserve a place in your portfolio. But if you’re the type of investor who has a genuine interest in digging deeply into the potential of a technology turnaround and you decide that BlackBerry has a significant chance of turning back into a profitable enterprise-focused company, then it may very well deserve a place in your portfolio.

In a recent interview with Reuters, I think John Chen summarized it best by saying, “I think the company is very undervalued … rightfully so.” The market values BlackBerry at about $3.76-billion, or less than next year’s consensus revenue estimate. A profitable software company should trade at least two to three times higher than where BlackBerry trades at today. But BlackBerry is not profitable. Not today.

I think the stock will be fascinating this year and into 2015. In November, the company is scheduled to release its latest enterprise server technology for mobile device management. If BlackBerry can bring its handset business back to break-even while demonstrating that its core enterprise audience plans to stick with the brand, then I expect strong upside in the stock. I’m comfortable owning shares personally because I enjoy digging into the details of the turnaround. But until it succeeds, I would not consider it suitable for my model growth portfolio.

 
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