"I don't know anything about BlackBerry other than that I'm a user," says Charles Davis, the CEO of Stone Point Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Greenwich Ct. and New York. "I'm a simple financial services guy."
But he has plenty to say about Fairfax Financial Corp. CEO Prem Watsa, who is BlackBerry's potential white knight.
"Prem's view is 'when I agree to something, I honour it,'" says Mr. Davis, who spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs, where he became a senior executive, prior to joining Stone Point in the late 1990s.
Mr. Davis is now one of a number of Mr. Watsa's business associates that says they will vouch for his integrity, as Mr. Watsa seeks to assure the market that he is going to follow through on his preliminary $9-per-share (U.S.) bid to take the company private.
"Over 28 years we've had all sorts of skepticism," Mr. Watsa said in a recent interview, as he stressed that he wouldn't have made the preliminary offer if he didn't think he could pull it off.
Mr. Davis first met Mr. Watsa more than a decade ago, when Fairfax bought Seneca Insurance Company Inc. from Stone Point.
"That was an insurance company with lots of regulatory issues and approval processes and several months of being in the twilight zone, and after we shook hands on that deal and he agreed to what he agreed to, a lot changed over the several months after that, and he said 'I will not back away and I will not retrade this, and you have my word,' and he honoured that," Mr. Davis says.
Then about five years ago, Stone Point struck a deal to buy a majority interest in the Cunningham Lindsey Group Ltd., an insurance-claim adjuster that Fairfax had taken public in 1987 (Fairfax then bought the publicly-held shares; CVC Capital Partners has since bought the majority of Cunningham Lindsey).
"There are always dozens of ways and excuses to retrade a deal along the way," Mr. Davis says. "And a lot of people look for those opportunities as excuses to retrade. And in both cases nothing super material came up that caused either of us to feel like the deal had really changed, but there were plenty of little nooks and crannies and nuances that a lot of people would have taken to change the structure or the terms or the price of the deal. And again Prem's view is 'when I agree to something, I honour it.' That doesn't mean he agrees to do something no matter what happens in the world, but he's just very focused on 'my word is my bond, my handshake is as good as a contract, and when I say I'm going to do something, I do everything I can to make it happen.'"
Rick Doman, CEO of Montreal-based EACOM Timber Corp., which was recently bought by private equity firm Kelso & Co., says that Mr. Watsa gave his company the opportunity to turnaround in the midst of a very challenging time by leading a secured debenture financing in the spring of 2012.
"We were very upfront about the fact that we were going through challenging times," Mr. Doman says. "Fairfax never took advantage of that, they looked at the deal, they looked at our vision for the future of the company. They stuck by everything they said they were going to do on day one, they didn't try to change anything, they came through as we first discussed."
"All I can go by is what I read in the newspapers, but I feel personally that BlackBerry is in a bit of a similar situation to us, where all the fundamentals are there, the company can be turned around, but it needs a little stability," Mr. Doman says. "And I believe Fairfax will deliver on that."
Bill Gregson, who was CEO of The Brick Ltd. when Fairfax was resuscitating it, has since advised Fairfax on a number of deals in the retail space.
"I was involved with them on the purchase of Sporting Life, and the way they work is they agree on a price and as long as everything is as it should be, that's the price," says Mr. Gregson. "They're not going to go in to use that price just to get a look to negotiate. They believe strongly that their word and their reputation is incredibly important, they don't want to denigrate that. But they're also very private in terms of not letting everybody know what their plans are or who their partners are."
Fairfax bought 75 per cent of Sporting Life Inc. in late 2011, with the founders holding onto the remaining stake.
In that instance, Mr. Gregson says Fairfax set a price up front and then embarked on its due diligence. During that time, before the deal was done, an exceptionally warm winter bit into Sporting Life's sales.
"Sometimes if things aren't exactly as they seemed, the people will go back to renegotiate," Mr. Gregson says. "They just looked at it and said 'different results than we thought, but you've got a 30-year track record, we're not buying it based on what's happened in the last two months.'"
"They don't just throw out letters randomly, because they're very old-fashioned in that they believe that if they put their name to something, or their letterhead on something, what's in there should be their actual intent as opposed to a fishing expedition," he adds.
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