Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the founders and co-CEOs of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (NasdaqGS: RIMM), finally gave in to investor pressure and stepped down on Monday.
In a surprise move, the Canadian company’s board of directors replaced the pair with Thorsten Heins, RIM’s former chief operating officer. Balsillie and Lazaridis will remain on the Research in Motion board of directors, with Lazaridis heading up the board’s new Innovation Committee.
New Research in Motion CEO’s Stay-the-Course Strategy Fails to Inspire
As many analysts pointed out yesterday, a struggling company’s share price will often rise after a change at the top. But, as usual, Research in Motion, was the exception. Instead, the stock dove 8.5% on the day, closing at $15.56.
Investors quickly concluded that an insider like Heins is not well-positioned to bring about big changes at the company (including a possible sale of Research in Motion—more on that below). Heins himself seemed to reinforce that view in the company’s official press release:
“BlackBerry 7 has been well received. We are very excited about PlayBook 2.0 [due out this month] and BlackBerry 10 [the company’s new operating system, due out later this year]. The reception of our products at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was encouraging.”
Reaction from the business media was swift, as well. In an article entitled “RIMM: Right Idea, Disastrous CEO Pick,” Eric Jackson of TheStreet.com wrote:
“If there was ever a company that needed an outside CEO to shake the company to its core, it’s RIM. Instead, they’ve picked a tweaker, someone who loves ‘process improvement.’ If Heins is so great at process improvement and internal operations, what has he been doing for the last five years as COO of RIM? Was he responsible for PlayBook 1.0 shipping without email?”
Rene Schuster, CEO of Telefonica SA’s German unit, agreed that a Heins-led Research in Motion faces a steep climb. Quoted in an article on Benzinga.com, he said:
“They’re going to have to run fast. They have a good brand. The question is: are they now able to bring new innovation to the market so that when a consumer looks at the choice they’re going to pick RIM? It’s going to be a challenge for them.”
Move Makes a Sale of Research in Motion Less Likely
Lurking in the background are ongoing rumors that the company could be taken over by a big software maker, like Microsoft (NasdaqGS: MSFT), or another handset maker, such as Samsung (OTC: SSNLF). Such rumours have pushed the stock to big one-day gains in recent months.
However, analysts on both sides of the border agreed that Heins’s stay-the-course approach would likely put the brakes on that, especially at the current share price. In a research note quoted on the website of Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Stuart Jeffrey of Nomura Securities said:
“A strategic buyer might feel that they can keep RIM’s business viable long term and thus pay a premium. However, we don’t see a high likelihood of a strategic buyer bidding for RIM, given that it is unclear if RIM’s applications can run on third-party platforms or whether BB10 can emerge as a strong platform with broad application support.”
Enter “Canada’s Warren Buffett”
Nearly eclipsed by the CEO shuffle was the news that prominent Canadian investor Prem Watsa, the chairman of Fairfax Financial (Toronto: FFH), also joined the company’s board yesterday.
The low-profile Watsa has been called Canada’s Warren Buffett, thanks to his investment success and his value-oriented approach. Watsa is now the company’s fourth-largest shareholder, with a 2.3% interest. But even his involvement didn’t sway TheStreet.com’s Jackson:
“I understand why people like Watsa … have taken positions in RIM. But there’s much more risk for this kind of value play (because of the technology cycle) compared to some typical value investments in other industries. And Watsa is just one voice on the board.”