BlackBerry Ltd. is hoping John Chen can work his turnaround magic again.
In taking the helm of the struggling smartphone company, Mr. Chen will draw from his experience at Sybase Inc., where he turned years of red ink into a success story by betting big on emerging technology ahead of the competition.
Mr. Chen became chief executive officer of the database and business services company in the late 1990s, in the midst of its fourth straight year of losses. He aggressively moved the company into the then-nascent field of mobile information, which at the time seemed too early.
It proved a wise move. Mobile eventually generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the company, which returned to profitability and was sold to SAP AG for $5.8-billion (U.S.).
In an interview with The New York Times in August, 2006, Mr. Chen said: “A few years back, once I stabilized the company, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could exploit what we know and then skip a generation and go ahead of our competitors and become more relevant. People were laughing at us for getting into mobility so early and they were saying there’s no money there, wireless is just a dream and everyone’s losing so much money. We are now the largest enterprise software provider in wireless technology.”
At BlackBerry, where he has been named executive chairman and interim CEO, Mr. Chen’s task is taller. Suffering plunging sales and market share, the formerly dominant smartphone maker is slashing jobs and costs in order to slow its rapid cash burn. But BlackBerry has some solid core operations, Mr. Chen says.
In a brief interview, Mr. Chen said BlackBerry has “different buckets of good assets,” including its business serving corporate and government customers, its secure network, its patent portfolio, and its BlackBerry Messenger instant messaging service.
And Mr. Chen again has his eye on the future. He notes that BlackBerry also has software developed by its QNX division that enables machines to communicate with each other wirelessly, such as systems in automobiles that can interact with dealerships.
“We have all the ingredients to become the leader in that embedded machine-to-machine space,” Mr. Chen said. “I figure with our focus and [by thinking] long term, [by doing] the right thing today, a step at a time, I think we’re going to build tremendous value for shareholders.”
From modest beginnings, Mr. Chen worked his way up to become a director of major Fortune 500 boards with powerful connections in Washington – and he commands a deep knowledge of China.
Mr. Chen grew up with his family in a one-bedroom apartment in Hong Kong. His parents had left Shanghai for a better life.
He moved to the United States in 1973 to study, attending the elite Northfield Mount Hermon School, and then graduated from Ivy League school Brown University in 1978 with a degree in electrical engineering followed by a masters degree a year later from the prestigious California Institute of Technology.
He joined Unisys as a design engineer, rising to vice-president, and served in senior roles at Pyramid Technology Corp. and at Siemens Nixdorf before joining Sybase as chief operating officer in 1997, moving up to the job of CEO and president in late 1998.
A former mid-level executive who worked under Mr. Chen at Sybase described him as “a very quick thinker who holds people accountable” – and expects loyalty from employees. The source, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Chen decided not to accept a higher-level position within SAP after the takeover of Sybase “because he didn’t want to make a long-term commitment.”
Mr. Chen’s success at Sybase earned him appointments to the boards of Wells Fargo & Co. and Walt Disney Co., as well as board positions with the New York Stock Exchange and several tech startups. He was also appointed by then-U.S. president George W. Bush to serve on the President’s Export Council. and was made co-chair of the government’s secure borders and open doors advisory committee.
He is a trustee of the San Francisco Symphony, the Brookings Institution and CalTech. He has long played a senior role in building relations between the United States and China, serving as a member of the “Committee of 100” – a group of high-level Chinese-Americans. – and winning accolades and awards for his work, including making Forbes magazine’s list of the Top 25 Notable Chinese-Americans in Business.
Mr. Chen retired from Sybase early this year. He took a role as a senior adviser to global private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, no doubt waiting to take on a challenge like the one that BlackBerry now presents for him.
“John Chen knows how to manage a mobile company, and perhaps more importantly, can make things happen in the industry,” technology analyst Jack Gold wrote. “In fact, he had been rumoured to be in line to run SAP, but that didn’t happen.”
But as an interim CEO at BlackBerry, Mr. Chen’s time at the Waterloo, Ont., headquarters will be limited. According to sources, Mr. Chen will continue to live in California while he heads the company, and plans to stay there as executive chairman after a CEO successor is found.
With files from reporters Jacquie McNish and Tara Perkins in Toronto.