After a year marked by market share losses, a plunging stock price, and embarrassing network outages, embattled Research in Motion co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis have stepped down from their operating roles at the company. Still, the BlackBerry maker's new CEO, recent Chief Operating Officer Thorsten Heins, is their handpicked successor; Balsillie and Lazaridis will remain actively involved in strategy at the board level.
RIM's board planned to announce the changes Monday morning, including the elevation of veteran board member Barbara Stymiest to chair, and the addition of Fairfax Financial Holdings CEO Prem Watsa to the board as its 11th member. Lazaridis will be vice chair, will head the new "Innovation Committee," and will continue to be a public face of the company.
It is the shuffling of Lazaridis and Balsillie, RIM's leaders for more than 20 years, into non-operating roles that's likely to command investor attention on Monday. In its release about the changes, RIM's board framed the move as an orderly succession that Balsillie and Lazaridis requested.
The move does seem somewhat abrupt, though, in light of Balsillie's statement on the earnings call five weeks ago that he and Lazaridis had just reduced their cash compensation to $1 per year, and that they were in the midst of a large-scale strategic review and "proposed transformation" that "could take some time."
Heins, the new CEO, told CNBC on Sunday night that he doesn't plan any sweeping strategic changes.
"This is not a turnaround company," he said after offering several figures showing that RIM revenues topped $5 billion last quarter, and it retains more than $1 billion in cash. "The company at the moment isn't valued as it should be, if you look at the financials."
In other words: He remains committed to the money-losing PlayBook tablet, which he sees as merely the first step in the rollout of RIM's BlackBerry 10 platform. He won't be embracing Android. He will continue to target both the consumer and enterprise markets. Phones with BlackBerry 10 will still arrive in late 2012. And he won't be selling off key assets like RIM's proprietary network.
"I truly believe — and the board is with me on this assessment — that we are very, very strongly positioned as an integrated, vertical player," Heins said. "There is no plan on my side or the board's side to sell any of these important, constituting elements of our future success."
What would he say to investors who have been clamoring for a significant change in RIM's strategy? Look at BlackBerry 10, due in handsets at the end of 2012.
"I would tell investors that this change already has happened on the product side, and might not be what the public was demanding. But you cannot just fall for public opinion because sometimes the Street is right, sometimes the Street is wrong. We have to do what is right for the company."
What's left, then, is how well RIM makes product deadlines and communicated to Wall Street. "This company has to move to flawless execution, and I think this is what I can bring to the table," Heins said. "A lot of frustration, frankly, is from giving dates to the market that are best intended dates and are aspirations."
Given the flurry of skeptical analyst reports that followed RIM's earnings release last month, Heins will face a tough crowd on the company's call at 8 a.m. ET Monday. Last quarter's revenue was down 6 percent year-over-year, and holiday quarter shipments were projected to be down sequentially.
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