Malcolm Gladwell remembers playing backgammon with Jim Balsillie when the two were floormates at the University of Toronto. But he can't remember winning.
Mr. Gladwell, now a best-selling author, witnessed the focus and determination that Mr. Balsillie used to help make the BlackBerry wireless device one of the most iconic products of the information age.
"I just couldn't wrap my mind around a particular set of strategies and risk-taking you need to win that game," Mr. Gladwell said. "But he certainly could."
While much of the attention has been focused on BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis, Mr. Balsillie's determination has pushed Research In Motion Ltd. into the dominant position it enjoys today.
But this competitiveness is among the main reasons the company's future will hang in the balance in a U.S. courtroom this week.
On Friday, a federal judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on whether to impose an injunction on RIM in its largest market, the United States. The five-year-old lawsuit has become the most watched patent infringement case in North America, with RIM pitted against Virginia-based NTP Inc.
Under the leadership of Mr. Balsillie and co-CEO Mr. Lazaridis, RIM has refused to settle on NTP's terms, even after losing the case in the courts. The Waterloo, Ont.-based company is banking on patent authorities tossing out the contested claims shortly and on new wireless software that it says will work around NTP's technology.
If the duo can keep their U.S. business running, without acquiescing to the demands of a patent-holding firm without a product, they will have pulled off perhaps the biggest victory in patent history. If not, as much as 70 per cent of RIM's business could be shut down. It's the kind of high-stakes standoff that Mr. Balsillie has been preparing for his whole life.
Mr. Balsillie has repeatedly turned down interview requests from The Globe and Mail, including for this article. Friends and family, however, give a vivid picture of the executive's character.
His mother still remembers when her son first showed his business prowess around the age of 10.
"There used to be companies where you could buy Christmas cards at wholesale and he'd go around with some few samples and knock on people's doors and take orders," Laurel Balsillie says. "A cute little boy came to the door. How could you say no?"
Mr. Balsillie has always lived by that optimism, which took him from a small-town, middle-class childhood, to the University of Toronto's respected Trinity College and then Harvard Business School.
He was born on Feb. 3, 1961, in Seaforth, north of London, Ont. His father, Raymond, was an electronics technician who worked on nuclear reactors at the Darlington power station while his mother stayed home to raise two boys and a girl. The family moved to Peterborough when Mr. Balsillie, the middle child, was five.
By his mother's account, Mr. Balsillie was a rambunctious child. He played hockey, basketball, badminton and track and field. During summers as a teenager he set a torrid pace, running a Big Brothers camp, managing a student painting operation and working as a maintenance man at a trailer park. In winter, he would race home from school to do his homework before rushing out to work a shift at a ski hill in nearby Bethany. And throughout his school years, he held as many as five paper routes.
"He just never let any opportunity pass up where he could learn or investigate something," his mother says.
Mr. Balsillie was different from most students at university. During exam time at U of T's Trinity College, where he studied commerce, he would budget himself breaks from studying to watch the hockey playoffs on television. No matter what was happening in the game, he returned to his books after precisely 15 minutes.
Mr. Gladwell, who lived across the hall, says Mr. Balsillie took open delight in everything he did. "He was the opposite and that's probably the fact that has been most important in his success."
After graduating in 1984, Mr. Balsillie became a chartered accountant and joined the firm of Clarkson Gordon. By the time he enrolled at Harvard three years later, his sister, Carol, introduced him to a woman she worked with named Heidi. The two fell in love and headed off to Boston together. To help make ends meet, Heidi found a full-time job, while Mr. Balsillie picked up odd jobs on campus, including editing the student handbook.
Dave Sikora, who ran Texas-based Internet company Question Technologies Inc., still remembers the first time he met Mr. Balsillie at Harvard while standing in line at the financial aid office. "We bonded because we both had similar backgrounds," Mr. Sikora says. "There were a lot of kind of well-to-do families and here's a couple of working guys, you know, just trying to figure out a way to pay for that monster tuition."
The two became best friends, revelling in their outsider status and racing off after class to play darts late into the night at a bar called Drumlins.
When he graduated in 1989, Mr. Balsillie made a huge gamble that friends still marvel at. He accepted a job offer at a small technology company in Kitchener, Ont. Sutherland Schultz Inc. sold, among other things, a pioneering product that linked computers.
"I'm sure he would have made twice as much on Wall Street," says Rick Brock, an owner of Sutherland Schultz who hired the young graduate.
The two met over cocktails at Harvard, where Mr. Brock was visiting as a member of the Young Presidents' Organization. Mr. Brock says there was immediate chemistry between himself and Mr. Balsillie. He was ambitious, smart and honest and he wanted to learn the ins and outs of running a company, so Mr. Brock offered him a salary of about $70,000, a company loan to buy a house and the title vice-president of finance.
Mr. Balsillie accepted, moved back to Canada and married Heidi. They now have two children. His decision to join Sutherland Schultz proved fortuitous. One of the projects he became intimately involved in was a patent suit against Rockwell International Corp. At the height of the suit, Mr. Brock says his firm's legal bills were running $100,000 a month. "I could quickly see that I could win the battle and lose the war, so I settled." He says the decision never felt good, but the company didn't have the resources to keep up the fight.
Mr. Brock eventually sold his 25-per-cent stake when majority shareholder Derlan Industries Ltd. sold its share to Amsterdam's Stork NV, putting Mr. Balsillie out of a job three years after joining. But the Harvard grad walked away with a severance package, new experience and a critical new business contact.
Mike Lazaridis, who had co-founded RIM several years earlier, was doing some contract work for Sutherland Schultz.
"I thought they would be a perfect fit," Mr. Brock recalls. "Mike was so technically clever and Jim had the business acumen that Mike didn't have."
Mr. Lazaridis was working on a wild scheme to link the technology of pagers with computers to create wireless e-mails. The pair teamed up in 1992. These were lean days at RIM and Mr. Balsillie mortgaged his home, took out a small-business development loan and invested about $250,000 in the firm when he joined.
"He was leveraged to the hilt," Mr. Brock says. "He put everything he had into RIM."
In the late 1990s, Mr. Balsillie saw an opportunity to boost RIM's profile on a Team Canada mission to South Korea. The company was signing a deal with a local phone company, and Mr. Balsillie wanted then-prime minister Jean Chrétien on hand, so he approached the MP for Kitchener, John English, who happened to live at the end of his street, where he frequently walked his dog.
"He bothered me to death about getting a meeting with the Prime Minister on one of the Canada missions to South Korea," Mr. English recalls. "I talked to the PMO and I think it happened."
The two neighbours hit it off well after that. A few years later, Mr. Balsillie founded the Centre for International Governance Innovation, investing $20-million of his own money to help launch the international affairs think tank based in Waterloo. Mr. English, who is a professor of history and political science at the University of Waterloo, now serves as executive-director of the centre.
He describes Mr. Balsillie as a "Waterloo-nationalist" with a vision for putting Canada more at the centre of international events. "He makes his decisions quickly," Mr. English says. (Mr. Balsillie hired him in one day.) "He gives you a lot of freedom to go ahead. Let's you know when you are wrong. We disagree sometimes, but never hold it against one another personally."
As RIM was growing, Mr. Balsillie kept up his passion for other forms of competition. He still plays pickup hockey, coaches his son's basketball team and, at his 15th Harvard reunion, held a grudge tennis match against former classmates.
Last summer, Mr. Balsillie's father died suddenly at home. The elder Mr. Balsillie had retired 13 years ago and briefly ran a trailer park in Peterborough. His death shook the family and Laurel has moved to Kitchener to be closer to her two boys, Jim and David.
"I know [his father's death]was a tough thing for him," said Jim Bradbeer, another Harvard classmate and president of fashion distributor Sugartown Worldwide Inc. "Jim is very proud of his father, and proud of what he was able to accomplish as the son of his father."
No matter what happens this week in Virginia, Mr. Balsillie can count on his mother for support. "I'm proud of all my children," she says. "They've all done well in all of their vocations and with all their families. So, what more can you ask for?"
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