For 20 years, the hyper-competitive Jim Balsillie has been the driving force behind Research In Motion Ltd., pushing the company’s BlackBerry to the far corners of the world and battling just about anyone who dared get in the way.
Now, after a dramatic shakeup in the company’s leadership, the question for one of Canada’s most prominent businessmen becomes: What’s next?
It’s hard to imagine RIM without him – in many ways, he became the face of the company, typically leading quarterly conference calls with analysts and popping up in exotic locations to tout the latest RIM innovation. For Mr. Balsillie, being reduced to a mere director at RIM – former co-CEO Mike Lazaridis was named vice-chair and heads an innovation committee of the board – represents a dramatic transition from several years as head of the country’s most important tech company.
And while he wouldn’t say what he plans to do next in an interview over the weekend at RIM’s head office in Waterloo, he hinted the company’s recent troubles had taken their toll. “It’s a demanding game,” he said.
“Having that 7-24 responsibility, it’s a big responsibility. And it’s very different to know that you don’t have 7-24 responsibility, where you’re going to get the calls in the middle of the night or the e-mails first thing in the morning. That’s a very, very different feeling.”
Friends don’t expect Mr. Balsillie to remain on the sidelines for long. At 50, he’s split from his wife (they have two children) and by all accounts he’s in remarkable shape, thanks to a health regime that includes cycling, hockey and many other sports.
“He’s a great Canadian and was very proud of his Canadian roots, I knew that from the first time I met him,” said James Bradbeer, an American businessman who met Mr. Balsillie at Harvard. “And, whatever he does I’m sure it will great.”
Wherever he lands, he brings a mixed legacy. Mr. Balsillie has developed a reputation as a tough and at times abrasive taskmaster whose competitive nature sometimes became a fault. That was evident in 2006 when RIM paid $612.5-million (U.S.) to settle a protracted patent infringement case brought on by a small-time American inventor who was dying of cancer. RIM could have ended the case years earlier for as little as $23-million, but Mr. Balsillie kept fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. At one point a U.S. judge threatened to shut down every BlackBerry in America, a prospect so frightening at the time the U.S. Congress got involved.
James Wallace, a Washington lawyer who took on RIM in the case, says by pushing so hard Mr. Balsillie opened the door to RIM rivals. That’s because so many companies got spooked by the possibility of the judge shutting down RIM, which dominated the market at the time, they began trying other hand-held devices. “That opened door to Palm,” Mr. Wallace said Monday. Companies “started allowing their employees to have a choice.” And, he added, that eventually cleared the path for Apple, Google and others to take on RIM.
So was Mr. Balsillie stubborn? Uncompromising? Difficult?
“I would say determined,” Mr. Wallace said. “I’m trying to be diplomatic.”
Others have been less diplomatic about Mr. Balsillie’s driven nature. That includes National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, who tangled with Mr. Balsillie several times over his botched attempts to relocate an NHL team to Hamilton. Mr. Bettman once drew up a 21-page internal memo on why Mr. Balsillie shouldn’t own an NHL franchise. And that was before the commissioner called him a liar in documents filed in a Phoenix court.
The league didn’t seem any more accepting Monday. When asked if the NHL board of governors would welcome Mr. Balsillie as a potential owner now that he is out of RIM, deputy commissioner Bill Daly replied: “Better to ask him. I don’t think being ‘out at RIM,’ though, affects any of the factors that disqualified him in the view of [the board of governors]before.”
Some close to Mr. Balsillie doubt he has the stomach or wherewithal to mount another bid for a team. The value of his holding in RIM has been cut by 75 per cent in the past year to around $430-million. Buying and moving a team, even if the league accepted him, would likely cost more than $300-million.
He has other interests. He runs a private charitable foundation that makes annual donations to a variety of causes. He has worked on projects with the United Nations, founded the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and set up the Canadian International Council. “It’s great to have him as chair and he’s been very generous to CIGI through the years so I hope there’s a continued involvement with CIGI,” said Fred Kuntz, a spokesman for the Centre. Mr. Kuntz said Mr. Balsillie’s role has been largely as member of the board, which meets four times a year.