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RIM's Lazaridis: ‘We transformed the way people communicate’

RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When Mike Lazaridis started Research In Motion Ltd. in a tiny, three-room office above a bagel shop at 55 Erb Street East in Waterloo, Ont., he and co-founder Doug Fregin didn't have enough money for proper desks, so they bought scratched surplus doors from Canadian Tire, painted them and mounted them on folding metal legs.

The two men kept their pop chilled in an air duct and considered it "splurging" to eat a meal of spaghetti and plain tomato sauce. And that's when they remembered to eat at all, sometimes forgetting to have dinner as they worked until 3 a.m. in their cramped office and then roaming the barren streets of Waterloo searching for something to eat – occasionally ending up at Morty's, a local pub, having a pizza.

The hard work, of course, led to the invention of the BlackBerry, and Mr. Lazaridis spent the next three decades building Research In Motion into a global smartphone giant.

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On Thursday, Mr. Lazaridis announced he is stepping down from the board of RIM and severing all ties with the company – ending an era in Canadian business.

Mr. Lazaridis had already resigned as co-CEO in January, 2012, but remained vice-chair of the board.

In leaving, he noted that the company released positive earnings and a gave a glimpse of sales of its new BlackBerry 10 handsets, saying the company was under the capable control of CEO Thorsten Heins – whom Mr. Lazaridis hand-picked as a successor to himself and co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

But such was his impact on the Waterloo-based smartphone giant that, he says, the company's board of directors wanted him to stay on.

"I was asked by the board to reconsider my decision," Mr. Lazaridis said in an interview on Thursday. "They wanted me to stay on and help."

Mr. Lazaridis says he declined. With the company's new BlackBerry 10 software platform rolling out on the sleek touchscreen Z10 device in markets around the world, he thought it was time to walk away and concentrate on another venture he is pursuing with Mr. Fregin, a childhood friend: a venture capital fund called Quantum Valley Investments that focuses on companies working in the quantum computing field. That returns him to the wonkish, experimental laboratory environments in which he first invented the BlackBerry. But as he steps away from the corporate limelight and into the shadowy world of venture capital, Mr. Lazaridis reflected on a legacy that looms large over the Canadian business landscape.

"We transformed the way people communicate," Mr. Lazaridis says matter of factly. "Jim and I had an opportunity to build something unbelievable in this country. ... Building an iconic brand, building an iconic service and product and I hope setting an example that this can be done in Canada, by Canadians, and if you give back to the community, you create this virtuous cycle that has incredible long-term potential."

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As they made their millions, once billions when RIM shares traded far higher than today, Messrs. Lazaridis and Balsillie showered their adopted community of Kitchener-Waterloo with a generous amount of cash – turning a university town into a hub for advanced theoretical physics and a home for think tanks and institutions that likely never would have appeared there without their effort.

Mr. Lazaridis says he and Mr. Balsillie were "not blind" as the plaudits for their success changed into withering criticisms as RIM's enormous success began to crumble. They were accused of missing industry trends, overly confident that the BlackBerry would remain at the top. After essentially inventing the smartphone industry, RIM's dominant market share positions shrunk to feeble single-digit toeholds, particularly in the U.S.; profits turned to deep losses; product after product, from weak touchscreen BlackBerrys to the poorly-received PlayBook tablet, came out with fanfare only to gather dust as they awaited discounting; and then layoffs began chipping away at the sprawling empire that "Mike and Jim" had built up from nothing.

"It was never about Jim and me, it was always about the company, it was always about the product," Mr. Lazaridis said. "We were not blind to this, we realized we had to take drastic action. ... It's really hard to express and put into words how all-consuming and how difficult it is to sustain the growth that we had over such a long period of time – and to work in a world of giants that were incredibly competitive and to build a product and a brand that became a household word and was considered an addiction. … Certainly, we made some missteps, but it was always for the long-term success and growth of the company."

Rather than his more recent stumbles at RIM, Mr. Lazaridis is likely to be remembered for his entrepreneurial zeal and his impact on Kitchener-Waterloo – as well as his love of physics, which could set his eyes alight with wonder even as he mystified those listening to him explain quantum computing.

"Mike Lazaridis was responsible for building Canada's most successful technology company, with a brand name that is recognized worldwide," said Prem Watsa, founder of Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings and a major RIM investor. "He built it from nothing, against all odds, with competition from the best in the world. I have no doubt that Mike will always be a supporter of BlackBerry and that he will be successful building Quantum Valley in Canada's Waterloo."

With files from reporters Tara Perkins and Omar El Akkad

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