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Streetwise BlackBerry’s fast-moving CEO inspiring investors

Congratulations, BlackBerry Ltd. shareholders. You were promised $9 (U.S.) a share. You have $9 a share, and more.

It took a little patience, but not nearly as much as most anybody thought.

In trading in Toronto on Monday, the smartphone maker's shares soared 8.2 per cent to $10.80 (Canadian). U.S. markets were closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but when Nasdaq trading opens on Tuesday, the stock will surely be well on its way to $10 (U.S.) there too.

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It has been just two-and-a-half months since BlackBerry's conditional $9 takeover offer from Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. vanished, replaced by a $1-billion refinancing. It was a good deal under the circumstances, as Streetwise argued at the time, but one that underwhelmed investors set on a buyout.

Few shareholders seemed to buy the idea that the failed takeover simply meant they could participate in the revival of the company.

The stock fell to $5.44 on Dec. 10. Since then it has nearly doubled, with Monday's gain attributed to news that the U.S. Department of Defence will remain dependent on BlackBerry for a new network that will use almost exclusively BlackBerry devices.

Shareholders who stuck with the company are now better off than if Fairfax had bought the company outright.

There's plenty of optimism that the gains can continue. The options market has been busy, with activity in call options buzzing for the past couple of weeks. For example, call option contracts giving investors the right, but not the obligation, to purchase BlackBerry shares for $10 before March were very popular in the last session of trading.

Call option volume outweighed – by a ratio of about six to one – the action in put options, which give investors the ability to sell shares at preset prices. That's a bullish signal. BlackBerry is the best performing tech stock so far in 2014.

For those March 10 call contracts to be in the money, BlackBerry shares must top $10 on the Nasdaq in the next two months. And if that happens, Fairfax and its co-investors will be in the money on the convertible debentures they bought as part of the BlackBerry refinancing. The conversion price is set at $10.

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What's behind all the optimism?

Everything that's happening at BlackBerry is suddenly happening fast. Where former CEO Thorsten Heins got a reputation internally and externally as a ditherer in his time in the chief executive job, new boss John Chen is the anti-Heins.

A contract with Foxconn to build phones, said by one insider to be in the works but grinding along slowly under Mr. Heins, quickly got done under Mr. Chen. The executive team has been remade.

Not only does BlackBerry have more cash, but the expectation is it will last longer, thanks to moves such as the Foxconn deal. Royal Bank of Canada analyst Mark Sue expects the company will have $1.50 a share of cash in two years, up from the 50 cents a share he had previously forecast.

The convertible financing, which increased to $1.25-billion after Fairfax bought $250-million more of convertibles recently, is doing what it was designed to do: create time and space for Mr. Chen to work without putting undue strain on the company's balance sheet.

The big question that remains, and that the Foxconn deal does not fully address, is the future of the handset business. Mr. Chen has signalled his interest in keyboard phones, and in the consumer market in some countries, but has also said the focus is on the high-end "pro-sumer" and professional market. It's a mixed message. That's because Mr. Chen is said to have not made up his mind on how the handset business fits with the business of running secure communications networks for companies.

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In the meantime, the Foxconn deal takes risk off BlackBerry while the company grapples with that question.

BlackBerry and Mr. Chen are also said to be in contact with Google Inc. and the people behind the Android operating system. One option for BlackBerry is to work with Android to create a secure Android system that works with BlackBerry servers. Intel Corp. just announced that it would create chips that feature a so-called hardened Android that makes the open-source operating system more secure, increasing its appeal to businesses.

Look for the CEO to keep moving fast. Mr. Chen is said to be well aware that BlackBerry has a lead in security, but it's not a lead that will last forever.

Will it work? Even some close to the company admit it's far from a sure thing. Analysts still have a hate on. There are only three buys on the stock. There are 25 holds and 15 sells. The average target price in 12 months is $7.04, according to Bloomberg.

For the moment at least, the bears are very wrong. For a change, BlackBerry is confounding the pessimists.

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