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Reading the Tea Leaves in RIM Shake-Up

To hear Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion tell it, their departures as co-chairs and co-CEOs at RIM were well thought out and their own decisions.

They deny being pushed out by an anxious board or disgruntled shareholders.

Lazaridis co-founded RIM in 1985. Balsillie joined the company in 1992 and, with Lazaridis, built the Blackberry maker into a global leader in communication electronics.

In the official press release, Lazaridis said:

There comes a time in the growth of every successful company when the founders recognize the need to pass the baton to new leadership. Jim and I went to the Board and told them that we thought that time was now.

With BlackBerry 7 now out, PlayBook 2.0 shipping in February and BlackBerry 10 expected to ship later this year, the company is entering a new phase, and we felt it was time for a new leader to take it through that phase and beyond. Jim, the Board and I all agreed that leader should be Thorsten Heins.

Yet, it is curious that Heins is four years older than Lazaridis.

When founders retire, it’s usually because they’re too old, too young — think Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google — or too inexperienced (which is a nice way of saying “in over their head”).

Lazaridis was 50. That's clearly not too old in most people’s books.

If age was the reason, why pass the company over to a 54-year-old Siemens guy who’d only been at RIM since 2007? Lazaridis wasn’t too young and he wasn’t too inexperienced.

I think if you did an informal poll of most investors, media and analysts who follow the company, they’d say that he left because of the company’s challenges in the last few years when its U.S. market share dropped from 44 percent to less than 10 percent in two years and the stock dropped over 70 percent in 2011.

Maybe that qualifies as too inexperienced. But Lazaridis clearly says he wasn’t pushed. He, Jim, and the board all decided that it was time to “pass the baton” to Heins.

Jim Balsillie’s comments in the official press release were:

I agree this is the right time to pass the baton to new leadership, and I have complete confidence in Thorsten, the management team and the company....I remain a significant shareholder and a Director and, of course, they will have my full support.

Even for a corporately scrubbed press release, this sounds particularly neutered.

It’s not the typically flamboyant and pugnacious Balsillie — the kind of guy who goes into the corners hard to get a puck during a meaningless recreational hockey game.

The kind of guy who, according to one ex-RIM employee I know, walked into a Saturday morning meeting of the sales and marketing teams and complained there were too many BMWs in the parking lot and that all of the teams had gotten too soft over the years.

The press release continued with another quote from Lazaridis:

Thorsten has demonstrated throughout his tenure at RIM that he has the right mix of leadership, relevant industry experience and skills to take the company forward. We have been impressed with his operational skills at both RIM and Siemens. I am so confident in RIM’s future that I intend to purchase an additional $50 million of the company's shares, as permitted, in the open market.

So, even though they were formerly co-chairmen and co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis got two paragraphs in the signing-off press release compared to Balsillie’s one paragraph.

Not only that, Balsillie becomes merely a director in the new RIM.

Lazaridis becomes vice chairman of the board and the chair of a newly created “Innovation Committee.” These two new jobs for Lazaridis were mentioned in the second paragraph of the release.

It might sound odd for me to be parsing the meaning of a corporate press release, but I can assure you that nothing happens by accident in these kind of releases involving the departure of co-CEOs, especially when one is a co-founder.

What these subtle signs add up to for me is that: (1) these two guys didn’t previously submit this succession plan to the board, a plan they suddenly decided to implement in January; and (2) Lazaridis had much more of a say of how things went down in the new plan than Balsillie did.

In a much-derided interview with The Globe and Mail, director Roger Martin tells a slightly less sanitized version of what happened.

On when it became clear Heins was the guy: “It was only late last fall, he says, that a RIM executive, Thorsten Heins, clearly emerged as the next leader — and it was the co-CEOs who pulled the trigger on the internal transition.”

On why BlackBerry browsers have always been a weak feature: “He also says he was forever urging RIM to consider the importance of the browser experience on the BlackBerry, which was seen as less than stellar. Mr. Lazaridis in particular was obsessed with his devices being efficient in their use of wireless networks, while more powerful smartphones coming on the market gobbled up huge chunks of bandwidth.”

My translation: Don’t blame me, blame Lazaridis.

On why the two co-CEOs left now, if they weren’t pushed out and if they were still up to the job: “The product pipeline looked strong, a qualified successor was ready to take over, and the two builders were tired of the ‘brutal’ pace, he maintains. Mr. Balsillie told him the day after he resigned, he had his first good night’s sleep in about 20 years.”

My reading of the tea leaves from Martin’s comments is the board came to the decision in the late fall that a move was needed, and then asked Jim and Mike to think about how they wanted to leave over the holidays.

But I heard an additional comment last week that caught my interest.

This comes from a friend of mine who spoke directly with an analyst who currently covers RIM.

According to this analyst, the story he heard of how the leadership change at RIM happened was that Mike Lazaridis wasn’t happy with Jim Balsillie’s performance on the business side of RIM. He pushed to have Jim removed from running the company.

The board was concerned with how this would look if Balsillie was scapegoated.

The board convinced Lazaridis that he should step back but, as a bit of a consolation prize, offered for him to stay on as vice chair and head of this new committee which he insisted on creating.

I have no idea if it’s true, but I trust my friend and that’s the opinion of this one analyst. I have no idea how that analyst apparently heard of this.

For me, it seems plausible, given that — at the end of the day — Lazaridis founded this company and Balsillie didn’t, even though he arrived early on.

It would also seem to explain Lazaridis’ decision to put up with the ignominy of “passing the baton” to a guy four years older than him with far less experience at running a company the size of RIM.

We may never know what happened, but I’m convinced we sure haven’t heard the real story yet of Balsillie and Lazaridis exiting stage right.

Additional News: RIM Releases Playbook 2.0 Upgrade, but Is It Too Late?

Additional Views: Greenlight Made Right Move Buying RIM: Analyst

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