Timothy Dattels has not lived in Canada for 30 years, having built a career climbing the highest rungs of investment banking and private equity in the U.S. and Asia.
But when one of Canada’s most famous companies, BlackBerry Ltd., needed a saviour, he set some of those demands aside to take on what those who know the 56-year-old say was a job that roused his patriotism.
As head of the special committee of BlackBerry’s board that sought a partner for the struggling smartphone maker, Mr. Dattels was one of the linchpins of the effort to save the company. In the final hours before BlackBerry unveiled its $1-billion (U.S.) investment from a group led by Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., it was Mr. Dattels who was steering many of the crucial tasks, from overseeing the final negotiations to handling the departure of BlackBerry chief executive officer Thorsten Heins.
It’s the most high-profile role in Canada for Mr. Dattels since he left the Toronto area, where he grew up, in 1982 to go to Harvard Business School. Yet for all his activity behind the scenes, Mr. Dattels’ name rarely surfaced as BlackBerry carried out a strategic review, and better-known names such as Fairfax head Prem Watsa and BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis garnered most of the attention. For all his success, and his deep remaining links to his home country as a patron of sport and the arts, most Canadians have not heard of him.
“He’s sort of unknown in Canada because he’s been away so long,” says Mark Wiseman, chief executive officer of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and a friend of Mr. Dattels. “He’s a really passionate Canadian,” Mr. Wiseman added. “He really wanted to help an iconic Canadian company. He’s a great deal guy.”
Still, Mr. Dattels and the board didn’t get all that they really wanted. There is no strategic partner, and a Fairfax proposal to lead a $9-a-share buyout of BlackBerry never materialized. It’s a disappointing outcome for many investors, with BlackBerry shares now trading around $6.
Mr. Dattels, who declined to comment for this profile, honed his skills as a top banker at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and in the buyout business. He is now a senior partner at TPG Capital, one of the world’s largest private equity firms.
They were tools he would need in the BlackBerry talks, as he worked with other directors such as BlackBerry chairwoman Barbara Stymiest to finalize a deal in the tense early days of November.
“This BlackBerry situation was very delicate and very complicated,” said Peter Weinberg, an old colleague of Mr. Dattels from Goldman, and co-founder of boutique investment bank Perella Weinberg Partners. The firm was one of the advisers to BlackBerry on its options.
A letter of intent for a takeover by Fairfax was set to expire on Monday, Nov. 4, and the market was expecting news. Yet, even as late as Saturday, Nov. 2, talks were still under way with potential strategic buyers as well as investors who could participate in the Fairfax transaction. The board and its advisers had two separate streams of work going on, examining both options.
As that day wore on, it was becoming clear that the Fairfax investment, rather than a sale, was the likely outcome and the focus shifted to getting the Fairfax deal finalized. Fairfax wanted a new leader, John Chen, a veteran of technology turnarounds. That meant Mr. Heins would have to go, one of the final acts before the transaction could be announced Monday. As special committee chairman, Mr. Dattels had a leading role in it all, including the job of parting ways with Mr. Heins.
Though BlackBerry couldn’t find a buyer, having the company remain independent with a cash infusion to help its attempted turnaround was also attractive, even though it’s not clear that the Fairfax transaction alone is enough to give the company what it needs.