RIM's new leader raises investor doubts

Last updated 16:31 24/01/2012

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The new leader at Research In Motion on Monday dismissed talk of drastic change at the BlackBerry maker, a declaration seized on by impatient investors who say Thorsten Heins has only 12 to 18 months to turn RIM around.

Takeover talk, swirling around RIM for months, picked up steam as Heins took the helm at a once-dominant smartphone company that now struggles to compete. But RIM's shares tumbled more than 8 per cent as investors wondered whether Heins could reverse RIM's decline.

"I don't think that there is some drastic change needed. We are evolving ... but this is not a seismic change," said Heins, who joined RIM in 2007 and previously served as a chief operating officer.

RIM's co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the men who engineered RIM's rise, resigned on Saturday after intense investor pressure. Their presence had been seen as a big obstacle to a possible sale of the company, although Heins insisted that was not an option he was considering.

Shareholders and analysts have grown impatient in recent months and calls for Lazaridis and Balsillie to step aside had reached a crescendo. RIM has lost market share and market value after being comprehensively outplayed by Silicon Valley tech giants Apple and Google.

"If Thorsten really believes that there are no changes to be made, he will be gone within 15 to 18 months. He will be a transitional CEO and this will be a transitional board," said Jaguar CEO Vic Alboini, who leads an informal group of 16 RIM shareholders calling for a radical restructuring. The group holds a little less than 10 percent of RIM's stock.

Lazaridis and Balsillie - two of RIM's three largest shareholders with more than 5 per cent each - will remain board members, while Lazaridis will also head a newly created innovation committee. Their new roles suggest continuity was a goal in the transition.

Critics have called for a new leader who can rejuvenate both the design and operational sides of the business, or prepare it for sale to one of a raft of rumored buyers.

Heins, a former Siemens AG executive, said during a conference call on Monday that he would hone rather than abandon current strategy at RIM, which after years of massive growth needed to start operating like a mature business, not a startup.

The new CEO, who scored his last major promotion as RIM was shedding some 2000 jobs last June, said no further job cuts were currently planned and that with RIM's US$1.5 billion ($1.9 billion)  in cash he had no qualms in spending on the right projects.

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"If I have a great strategic project or a good business case I can go to the board anytime and ask for approval for additional investment and the money's in the bank to do this," he said.

HOPES DASHED

The softspoken and bespectacled Heins had worked at Siemens for more than 20 years before joining the Canadian company.

Taking a look at his past at former employer, Heins is not one for transformation.

The Munich-born Heins, 54, started working at Siemens straight out of university in 1984, where he also met his wife Petra, a mathematician and physicist, and where he stayed until his move to RIM.

Described as easy to deal and work with, Heins steadily moved up the ranks and eventually was CTO of Siemens' communications unit.

However, while colleagues attest to his calm and collected manner, Heins did not fit Siemens' efforts to build a more dynamic image and an emotional brand.

The criticism back then was that his style and rhetoric would rather reinforce this to-be-shed engineering image rather than selling handsets as life-style products which was one of the strategic guidelines.

Someone who is deemed to be too boring even for Siemens may not be what activist investors had in mind when they called for a new, ''transformational'' leader to help RIM compete with Apple's hugely popular iPhone and iPad and the slew of large-screen and powerful devices from Samsung and others using Google's Android operating system.

Heins' former boss at Siemens, Thomas Ganswindt, expressed his faith in Hains' abilities and said that Heins was a ''very strong'' leader and someone ''able to recognise what is needed by an ailing business''.

But Heins will have a lot of convincing to do.

One analyst who has met Heins but asked not to be named said RIM's new CEO is ''definitely competent'' but not necessarily charismatic enough to lead a company.

''He doesn't strike me or a lot of people as being CEO material,'' said the analyst. ''You don't see him leading a group of people through the desert for 40 years.''

According to CCS Insight's Ben Wood, ''Thorsten is highly respected in terms of his knowledge of the industry and given that this appears to be a rather sudden turn of events, they needed someone who can quickly takeover the helm.''

Others questioned whether Heins brings the right set of skills to the job.

''In our view, a CEO with a strong consumer electronics and supply chain background would have been ideal,'' Shaw Wu, senior technology analyst at Sterne Agee, said, arguing that whether RIM likes it or not around 70 percent of its business is consumer driven.

By the end of a mid-2011 restructuring, Heins was one of two chief operating officers at RIM, responsible for sales and for both hardware and software product engineering.

RIM marked Heins's ascent to the top role with a seven-minute YouTube video in which the CEO gave his vision for success with a noticeable German accent.

''He is not very well known outside of the company. He has been working in both Balsillie's and Lazaridis' shadow,'' said Alexandre Peterc, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.

''He does strike me as someone who knows the industry very well given his background at Siemens. On the plus side he is a veteran of the industry and he knows his stuff, but that said, his background is very much tech and process orientated as opposed to strategic vision orientated.''

RIM has been at pains to underline the orderly nature of the handover.

However, another analyst who requested anonymity  because of his relationship with the group, said it was astounding that the COO at a company of this size should have been so invisible to the market and investor community.

He said he had heard previously from executives within RIM that Heins was very highly regarded and that he was very much on top of his brief. ''His name came up repeatedly, with regards to people at RIM who really rate him.''

Nevertheless, the move was reminiscent of Hewlett-Packard's  rush to find a replacement after it ousted CEO Mark Hurd. It decided on former SAP AG CEO Leo Apotheker but reversed the much-criticized step four months ago by hiring former eBay Inc CEO Meg Whitman to replace Apotheker.

As takeover talk swirled and the financial world pondered whether Heins had been appointed to lead a turnaround or prepare RIM for sale, he clearly now is going to have to communicate quickly, get to know investors and raise his public profile.

That will likely leave Heins little time to follow the games of his favorite basketball team the Miami Heat or ride his motorcycle, which true to his German roots is a BMW model.

LOOKING AHEAD

Heins' immediate concerns are to generate sales of RIM's current lineup of BlackBerry 7 touchscreen devices, deliver on a promised software upgrade for its PlayBook tablet computer by February, and rally RIM's troops to launch the next-generation BlackBerry 10 phones later this year.

But even if he had a credible overall plan to foster change, some analysts question whether RIM had fallen too far behind its competitors to catch up.

Its existing product lineup has struggled to compete with Apple's iPhone and iPad and the slew of devices from Samsung and others using Google's Android operating system. In North America particularly, RIM has hemorrhaged market share during a year marked by product delays and a botched launch of the PlayBook.

"If RIM's going to grow in the US ... they have to have products better than the iPhone or Android," said Pacific Crest analyst James Faucette. As of now, "they don't have products that are competitive with those, let alone better."

But RIM has also shown a renewed seriousness about getting its message delivered, hiring crisis management firm Sitrick and Company as strategic counsel.

Sitrick helps companies in crisis and celebrities navigating scandal. Clients have included Paris Hilton as she faced jail time and Michael Vick, an NFL quarterback involved in a dog-fighting ring. The firm also helped Roy Disney remove Michael Eisner as chairman of Walt Disney.

SEEKING A PLAN

Analysts circled their calendars for an analyst day in early May as the first opportunity for the new leader to lay out a detailed plan for reversing the decline.

The event "will now become the focal point to the unveiling of Thorsten's vision," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood told Reuters. "The speed with which you make strategic changes and implement them is absolutely critical because the mobile phone business will not stand still."

"If there are no meaningful signs of an imminent turnaround, then I think the spotlight will turn back on to the assets that RIM holds and who they might be attractive to."

Investors have seized on any rumor of a deal involving RIM as a reason to celebrate, whether talk is of a pact with Amazon as reported by Reuters in December, or with Samsung last week.

Analysts have said logical buyers for RIM also include fellow-struggler Nokia, perhaps with support from Microsoft, and Facebook which is increasingly pushing its content to users via their mobile phones.

If there is no obvious buyer, Heins has more immediate options to add value to the business.

RIM could license its software or integrate its email package, a strategy that many analysts and investors have thought the company might pursue. Heins said it would be wrong to focus on that option but he is still open to discussions.

"RIM have had big challenges in the past and they succeeded in moving from a corporate product to be also a consumer product, to get a foot in the consumer market and very few people expected them to do that," consultant John Strand said.

"Now they have to reinvent themselves again."

RIM's US-listed shares closed 8.5 per cent lower at US$15.56, for a market capitalisation of little more than US$8b. In the company's heyday, just three and a half years ago, it had a market capitalisation around US$80b.

- Reuters

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