BlackBerry Ltd.’s co-founders say they may launch a takeover bid for the beleaguered smartphone maker, intensifying a battle over whether the company survives as a stand-alone entity or is carved into pieces.
Former co-CEO Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, a former senior executive, revealed in a regulatory filing Thursday they “are considering all available options” with respect to the 41.7 million shares they control – representing 8 per cent of BlackBerry’s shares. That includes “a potential acquisition” of the whole company, possibly with “other interested investors,” the filing said.
The founders have lined up powerful Wall Street advisors: investment banking giant Goldman Sachs and Centerview Partners LLC, which advised News Corp. and General Electric on multibillion-dollar deals in recent years.
Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Fregin have known each other since childhood and founded BlackBerry, then called Research In Motion, above a bagel shop in Waterloo, Ont. in 1984. Last March, they launched a $100-million venture capital fund together to help finance new technologies created in the Waterloo region.
There is already a conditional $9 (U.S.)-per-share bid on the table for BlackBerry from a consortium led by Fairfax Financial Holdings, valuing BlackBerry at $4.7-billion. Although Fairfax CEO Prem Watsa and Mr. Lazaridis have been associates since 2009 – the former succeeded the latter as chancellor of the University of Waterloo and later accepted the co-founder’s invitation to join the BlackBerry board – they have not worked together on a bid for the company, according to sources familiar with the situation. Mr. Lazaridis resigned from the board last spring, while Mr. Watsa left in August when the company announced its strategic review to avoid being in a conflict of interest when he bid.
The two co-founders did not lay out in the filing what their proposed strategy for BlackBerry would be, and Mr. Lazaridis declined further comment through a spokesman.
However, in an interview last month with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Lazaridis indicated he would prefer to see BlackBerry continue as a stand-alone company, likening its current challenges to those experienced by tech giants Intel, IBM and Apple before their fortunes improved under new leadership. “It is really hurting me” to read of the company’s possible break-up, he said, days before Mr. Watsa’s bid was unveiled. “Everyone is talking about the most likely scenario being that it will be broken up and sold off for parts. I just can’t imagine what will happen to the region or Canada.”
Sources close to the board have also told the Globe Mr. Lazaridis strongly disagreed with his handpicked successor Thorsten Heins’s decision to launch the company’s new BlackBerry 10 platform with an all-touchscreen version rather than the company’s trademark keyboard-powered device. The Z10 has sold poorly, leading to a $1-billion writedown to the value of its inventory of devices.
With Mr. Lazardis and Mr. Fregin in the ring, there are two competing visions for the struggling company. Both Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Watsa have expressed a desire to see BlackBerry continue as a stand-alone company. Mr. Lazaridis, in particular, is an ardent Canadian nationalist who championed BlackBerry as the foundation of a thriving technology hub in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
His desire to signal a potential offer at this late stage may reflect concerns that BlackBerry may be acquired by a foreign company or sold off in parts. That appears to be a possibility, following reports that a variety of tech giants including Google and SAP have been invited to look at the company, but likely wouldn’t want the whole thing. Cerberus Capital Management, a buyout firm that specializes in distressed companies, is also taking a look and would likely seek to carve up the company, as it has done with past investments. Any deal involving foreign buyers would have to win the support of the federal government, which has been more active in blocking takeovers than previous regimes.
Industry analyst Jack Gold said a takeover led by the founders “might actually be a good thing. If Mike Lazaridis can find a formula to keep the company whole” but focused on a smaller niche market, “it could add value to BlackBerry beyond the current ‘breakup mania’ fire sale expectations going around … He was in charge on the downside over the past few years, but he may have learned his lesson and now could steer the ship in the new direction needed.”
Mr. Gold noted BlackBerry “is no longer the company he left,” but added the co-founders “may be the best hope to keep BlackBerry in one piece if Fairfax doesn’t pan out.”
One source familiar with many of the potential bidders said, “I think Mike's in a tough spot since his options are limited and [the filing] doesn't commit to anything.”
“They have the same issue as Prem does – they need to secure investors and financing,” the source added.
With files from reporters Iain Marlow and Tara Perkins