Activist investor Victor Alboini has made a number of mistakes in his career. He has been on the wrong side of securities regulators and the investment industry’s regulatory body. But even his detractors on Bay Street should give the man some credit.
It was Mr. Alboini, the chief executive officer of Jaguar Financial Corp., who said in 2011 that BlackBerry Ltd. – then known as Research In Motion Ltd. – should put itself up for sale. He argued that the company would never shine brighter than when it was still promising to reinvent the smartphone, and that its prospects would likely fade once consumers and business users actually got to see its new devices. He was right. While the new BlackBerry 10 phones have received decent reviews in the specialized press, they have barely moved the needle for the Waterloo, Ont., company that bears its name.
As BlackBerry’s share of the market gets smaller, so does the company’s chance of remaining an integrated, standalone company. The most likely outcome of the strategic review? The business will wind up in foreign hands, probably in pieces. That’s true even if there’s a takeover led by a Canadian financial player such as Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.
BlackBerry had to come up with a truly revolutionary phone to catch up with Apple, Samsung and other handset manufacturers that rely on Google’s operating system, Android. It couldn’t – and that should not be a surprise. Most of the big advances in smartphone technology happened years ago. Even the industry’s giants, including Apple, are now struggling to innovate. The iPhone 5 was only marginally smarter than the previous iPhone 4S, for instance. Short of designing a phone that could talk to your toaster and coffee maker and whip up breakfast on voice command, BlackBerry had set itself up for failure.
BlackBerry 10 was too little, and it arrived too late – the sin of all tech sins. In late June, it even attempted to camouflage its lacklustre BB10 shipments, which were conspicuously absent from the press release for its latest financial results.
Some Canadians are now pinning their hopes on Fairfax, the Toronto holding company that owns close to 10 per cent of BlackBerry shares. This would offer some sort of national consolation, as BlackBerry’s demise only highlights how few Canadian tech companies have a mass appeal and a global scale. Fairfax’s controlling shareholder, Prem Watsa, is stepping down from BlackBerry’s board to avoid any appearance of conflict as the company is weighing its sale and other unpalatable alternatives. Mr. Watsa is exploring ways to set up a consortium of buyers, sources have told The Globe.
But even if a consortium of institutional investors takes the company private, this will only postpone the inevitable.
Private-equity firms don’t hold their assets forever. They would want to flip the company for profit, as this is their preferred way of doing business. There are a number of ways they can do this. However, barring a miraculous turnaround in BlackBerry sales, it is unlikely they would be able to return BlackBerry to the stock market.
With shrinking profit margins, smartphones are increasingly a commodity business. Handset manufacturers need a lot of marketing muscle to grab the consumers’ attention. A fourth-ranked player such as BlackBerry, whose global market share has fallen behind that of Windows Phones to a meagre 2.9 per cent, according to the latest figures from IDC research firm, is unable to spend enough on marketing.
So a financial consortium is more likely to sell BlackBerry’s most valuable assets to other smartphone manufacturers, to industrial groups or to tech companies looking for patents to protect themselves against intellectual property lawsuits.
BlackBerry still has a lot to offer besides its patents, such as its valuable enterprise services business. The security of its data network is unrivalled. Its BBM messenger service is still popular. But make no mistake: The company would be broken up.
Unlike Nortel, which filed for bankruptcy protection, this would not be the end of BlackBerry’s world. But it would be the end of the world as RIM knew it.