Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Jim Balsillie, left, and Mike Lazaridis, CEOs of Research in Motion (RIM) (Hand-out/CNW Group)
Jim Balsillie, left, and Mike Lazaridis, CEOs of Research in Motion (RIM) (Hand-out/CNW Group)

Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis set standards in the smart-phone market Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

More related to this story

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, co-CEOs of RIM, have been selected as Transformational Canadians.

--------------------------

Last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs boasted that his company had beaten Research In Motion in the smart-phone wars. This claim earned the iPhone manufacturer a tongue-lashing from Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry maker RIM. "We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple," Mr. Balsillie retorted.

No matter who triumphs, there's one thing Apple can never take away from its Canadian archrival. RIM - headed by Mr. Balsillie and technological visionary Mike Lazaridis - practically willed the smart-phone market into existence.

For now, anyway, BlackBerry also remains the standard by which smart phones are measured. Eleven years after its first phone appeared, RIM has a market cap of $30.5 billion and more than 12,000 employees.

Despite fierce competition from Apple and Google's Android operating system, RIM shipped 12.4 million BlackBerries in the third quarter of 2010, according to market intelligence firm International Data Corp. And in fiscal 2010, it earned $2.46 billion when its revenues jumped 35 percent to almost $15 billion.

Today, it's almost impossible to imagine life without BlackBerry, which has some 41 million users worldwide. This ubiquitous device came from humble beginnings: a shoestring startup helmed by Mr. Lazaridis, the Istanbul-born, Windsor-raised son of Greek immigrants. In 1984, he dropped out of engineering studies at the University of Waterloo to launch RIM with his childhood friend Doug Fregin.

For the insightful Mr. Lazaridis, 49, a conviction that wireless was the future set the stage for BlackBerry. As he told author Rod McQueen in an interview for the recent book BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research In Motion, he printed an email address on his business card the year RIM opened its doors.

"I had something special, something new, something relatively few understood," Mr. Lazaridis said. "The more I got people asking me, 'What's email?' the more I realized how important it was."

Despite some successes with its early wireless products, RIM was a tiny, struggling shop before Mr. Balsillie arrived in 1992. Gregarious, athletic and just as sharp as Mr. Lazaridis, the Ontario-born Harvard MBA took the business side and ran with it. During the 1990s, Mr. Balsillie signed deep-pocketed investors and forged alliances with major players such as BellSouth and Intel.

Known to be combative, 49-year-old Mr. Balsillie is also highly quotable. "A lot of people blame BlackBerries for ruining meetings," the Canadian Press reported him saying at RIM's annual shareholder meeting last year. "I like to think that BlackBerries have liberated people from boring meetings."

While maintaining their unorthodox joint command of RIM, Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis give generously to philanthropic and academic projects. Mr. Lazaridis has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma mater's Institute for Quantum Computing and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which he co-founded with Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Fregin.

In 2002, Mr. Balsillie established the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). In 2007, he donated $50 million to the Balsillie Centre of Excellence, also known as the Balsille Campus, with $50 million in matching funds from the federal and provincial governments. More recently, the ardent sports fan made a controversial attempt to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move the NHL franchise to Southern Ontario.

RIM just introduced its BlackBerry Torch smart phone and has announced plans to ship the new PlayBook tablet in 2011. As it battles Apple and other competitors, the company is also sparring with foreign governments. Unhappy that RIM encrypts BlackBerry data, India, the United Arab Emirates and other nations have threatened to ban its phones.

India and the UAE called off their bans, but not before Mr. Lazaridis voiced his frustration that BlackBerry had been singled out. "Everything on the Internet is encrypted," he fumed to the Wall Street Journal in August. "If they can't deal with the Internet, they should shut it off."

As Mr. Lazaridis confided for the BlackBerry book, his one fear for Canada is that it will become complacent in its success. He explained that his parents and RIM built themselves up from nothing, facing few roadblocks along the way.

"There were trials and challenges, but government was supportive all along. The community was supportive," Mr. Lazaridis said. "So, Canada has all this potential but we must continue to be a beacon of success and forward thinking."

Editor's Note: In 2007, Jim Balsillie donated $50-million to the Balsillie Centre of Excellence, also known as the Balsillie Campus. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This version has been corrected.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeBusiness

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories