DAY ZERO: January 22
On a brisk Sunday afternoon in late January, Thorsten Heins towers over a long boardroom table in RIM 10, one of the many sprawling low-rise buildings in Waterloo, Ontario, featuring Research In Motion’s logo. The lanky, 6-foot-6 Bavarian physicist is about to officially replace two of Canada’s most famous businessmen. He fiddles with one of the company’s PlayBook tablets as he waits patiently for them to arrive. “I love this system,” he says.
Mike Lazaridis, the man who founded RIM in 1984, appears shortly after, his hair, as usual, combed into an immaculate silver wave above his distinctive heavy-set features. Long-time co-CEO Jim Balsillie, the driven, globe-trotting salesman, arrives last, removing his BlackBerry earbuds as he enters. Including PR reps and two Globe and Mail reporters (I’m one of them), there are seven of us in the room. Even other C-suite executives are said to have no idea that “Mike and Jim,” the men who built the country’s most valuable technology company—a firm that, in 2007, was worth more than the Royal Bank of Canada—are stepping out of the picture. Most will find out later today in an e-mail sent to senior executives. Some will say they are shocked; some won’t be around for much longer.
But everybody, in a broader sense, already knows what has happened up until this point: RIM, once a seemingly unstoppable industry leader, has slipped to pitiable laggard. The company has suffered one embarrassing strategic misstep after another, consistently releasing unsexy products, with glitches, behind schedule, to little or no acclaim. The share price has fallen by almost 90%, from an all-time high of $150 in 2008 to about $17 in January, erasing much of Balsillie’s and Lazaridis’s vast wealth in the process. The postures around the table are telling. Lazaridis, who will remain vice-chair after this shakeup, leans forward, as if anxious to explain himself. Balsillie, who will stay on the board as a director, at least for the time being, appears impatient, fidgety—though I’m told this is how he usually looks. Their long-time PR rep, Tenille Kennedy, sits quietly beside them, as Mike and Jim explain how they went to the board with their succession plan. On the other side of the table, Heins sits comfortably, hands clasped together, leaning back in his chair. Seated beside him is a new face, Michael Sitrick, founder of an American PR firm that specializes in, among other things, “crisis management,” “criminal indictments,” “environmental controversies” and “bet-your-company/bet-your-life situations.” A little hired help for a not-so-average day. Heins, a mild-mannered former Siemens executive from Munich with a stiff salt-and-pepper side part, insists that RIM is not broken, that it has the ingredients for success, and that he is the man to lead the company at this time. “I know how to do this,” he says. “I have the skills to do this.” He promises to hire a chief marketing officer. “There’s no need for me to shake this company up,” he says confidently. “Our product is great.” If anything, he adds, “we just need to talk about it more.”
In the next 100 days, Heins will have the toughest job in corporate Canada, if not the world. While it may be unfair to analyze the reign of a CEO based on a single fiscal quarter—after all, much of what Heins is shovelling through now is the managerial detritus of the previous administration—it’s also the case that RIM may not have much time. (Remember how quickly Palm disintegrated?) From Day One, Heins will be tasked with maintaining momentum in the company’s overseas strongholds—emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria—while working to stem market share losses in North America, where the handset maker’s failures are magnified by an unforgiving competitive landscape that includes Apple and Google. And, more importantly, he needs to release a flawless new BlackBerry 10 device, with a rich application and content portfolio, ideally before kids go back to school. If he doesn’t, well, RIM may never recover.
DAY ONE: January 23