Over the past year, Thorsten Heins has attempted to bring order to a chaotic creative process at Canada’s most iconic technology company.
Research In Motion Ltd. had no shortage of vision, with plenty of innovative technology on the shelves. But sources close to the company describe the production and planning process at the Waterloo, Ont.-based global giant as almost completely broken – plagued by conflicting messages from a divided leadership, organizational confusion that led to product delays, and a talented work force that did not function to its full potential.
As he takes over from RIM’s prominent former co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, who stepped down on Sunday, Mr. Heins promises discipline and “flawless execution” for a product portfolio he believes is on the right track but needs better marketing. His appointment, sources say, represents the need to streamline and simplify decision-making at the company.
Mr. Heins is largely credited with expanding RIM’s global portfolio of smartphones into lucrative emerging markets without taking the easy route of low-margin volumes. Having preserved the value of the BlackBerry brand across markets in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa, he has been pivotal in positioning the company as a truly global player with a reliable source of international revenues. Now, he’s seeking a new chief marketing officer to help turn around flagging fortunes in the United States.
According to people close to the company, Mr. Heins, as chief operating officer, worked tirelessly during the past year to address production problems – many of which resulted from the retirement in 2009 of RIM’s esteemed former COO, Larry Conlee. Without Mr. Conlee, RIM still had the technology and the people to finish challenging jobs, but was frequently bogged down as employees were reassigned, projects were killed, and new software features requested. The end result had been delayed products and a dented reputation, despite RIM’s strong fundamentals and global growth in emerging economies.
Like Mr. Conlee, Mr. Heins does not owe his career to RIM, having risen up the ranks to chief technology officer of the communications division at Siemens AG, a company – with more than 400,000 employees – that is much larger than RIM, with its approximately 17,000 workers. That experience, along with his strong personality, gave him the confidence to take bold stands and win boardroom arguments in meetings with RIM’s former co-CEOs, Mr. Balsillie – known to former colleagues as a forceful presence – and Mr. Lazaridis, considered an unbending perfectionist.
Adam Belsher, a former RIM vice-president who is now CEO of Waterloo-based tech firm JADsoftware, sat in many meetings with Mr. Heins and said “there was a gap” after Mr. Conlee’s departure.
“There was no real operational executive on the product side that would really get teams to hit deadlines,” Mr. Belsher said. “The thing about Thorsten is that he’s a pragmatic, operational type guy … The problem with RIM has been execution. That’s the super positive part of this story.”
In the era-ending shuffle on Sunday, which were the biggest management changes in RIM’s 27-year history, the former co-CEOs said they recommended Mr. Heins to the board. Mr. Lazaridis becomes vice-chair of the board and chair of the company’s innovation committee, where one source said he will focus on the technological evolution of the company without having to bother with the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the sprawling empire he helped create.
That duty now officially falls to Mr. Heins.