Research In Motion Ltd. has a new chief executive officer. The next step is proving there’s really new leadership.
The company finally buckled to a year of pressure to replace Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the two men who were for decades the face of the company, and who ran the company in a co-CEO system that investors had long ago declared untenable.
But just who RIM picked – Thorsten Heins – is going to be a surprise to investors.
There was a view that RIM, if it were to replace the co-CEOs, should take some of its vast cash hoard and use it to hire a rock-star chief executive who would be a must-see at conferences, a draw for developers and a beacon for investors. In other words, RIM should find someone who would have the magnetism of the late Steve Jobs of Apple or Google Inc.’s Android guru, Andy Rubin.
But rather than reach outside the company for a star, the board and new chairwoman Barbara Stymiest instead chose an insider in Mr. Heins. He’s a compromise between new blood and experience, being relatively new to RIM, having joined in 2007, but still around long enough to have a deep knowledge of the company.
Mr. Heins is not a well-known quantity outside the company and those who follow it most closely. RIM has done little to showcase him, keeping most interactions with shareholders the Jim and Mike show. He’s unlikely to be the hottest ticket at the next big electronics gathering.
Among investors, RIM must also dispel any suspicion that despite the new man in the leading role, it’s Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis who are still writing the script. The official line is they stepped aside. It’s not clear, though, what lay behind their decision and how much power they will retain in their continuing roles at the company. Mr. Heins’ and RIM’s credibility will depend on proving that the new boss has full control and the ability to execute where the former CEOs could not. If he’s not a star, he had better be able to deliver steady results and flub-free product launches.
There’s more than just leadership in the executive suite that’s at stake. The company has to reassert itself as a credible leader in the market. That means no more misses, and no more delays in bringing out new products. It also requires market leading vision. If the company can do that, then developers and retailers will take to RIM no matter who is standing on the stage introducing the products.
For Mr. Heins, this is as clean a slate as a new leader of RIM is going to get. There’s a new chairwoman, new blood on the board, and a new version of the PlayBook software due next month that is finally set to fix some of the most fatal flaws of the rushed-to-market first version of the tablet, such as a lack of its own e-mail and calendar functions. What's more, in the pipeline are new smartphones running RIM's new operating system, designed to take on Android and Apple phones.
However, Mr. Heins also faces much bigger challenges than he might have had he taken the job a year ago.
Last year was the year that it all changed for RIM. Profit and revenue charts that had climbed parabolically for years peaked and began to trend lower.
For the last two quarters, RIM has reported outright revenue declines. Its cash pile, while still substantial, is shrinking.
The number of devices that RIM sold in the most recent quarter was unchanged at 14.2 million from the previous year. Revenue was down 6 per cent.
Its share of the global smartphone business by operating system plunged, and as of the end of September sat at 11 per cent, down from closer to 19 per cent in mid-2010, according to research firm Gartner.
The company’s performance in the U.S. is particularly grim. In the last full fiscal year, revenue from the U.S. dropped to $7.8-billion from $8.6-billion. Revenue from the U.S. disappointed yet again in the most recent quarter.
When potential buyers such as Microsoft Corp. and private-equity firms looked at RIM in the past they were spooked by the incredibly steep drop-off in its U.S. business.
The inflection point for earnings and the stock was about eight months ago – at the same time Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis were pushing back against calls for change in the CEO suite, arguing they were the best equipped to manage what the company has long called its “transition.”
Mr. Lazaridis stressed at the time that “strong, consistent leadership is critical.”
By choosing Mr. Heins as Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis move aside, the technology giant gets a measure of consistency.
It’s the strong part that’s still in question.