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4 tough challenges for RIM's new team

Can a leadership change save BlackBerry maker?

By , Network World
January 23, 2012 04:32 PM ET
New RIM CEO Thorsten Heins

Network World - For the first time since its founding, Research in Motion has changed its top leadership, with a new president/CEO, a new board chairwoman and a new major investor who specializes in turnarounds. But can they save RIM?

Will RIM survive?

The next 12 to 18 months are likely to be critical for RIM's future, as it makes its first major leadership change since its start nearly 30 years ago.

1. Leadership matters: Who are the new leaders?

All three are relatively new to RIM, compared to the original founders, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, who famously held the positions of co-CEO and co-chairman. Both remain as members of the board. They told the board that it was now time to move forward with the previously created succession plan. This past weekend, the board agreed, and acted.

TIMELINE: RIM's very bad year in 2011

The new chief executive is Thorsten Heins (pictured above), with RIM since December 2007, about six months after Apple began shipping the original iPhone and disrupted the smartphone market. Formerly with Siemens Communications Group, Heins started at RIM as senior vice president for hardware engineering, and rose rapidly to become chief operating officer for product and sales in August 2011. Lazaridis and Balsillie have been grooming Heins as their successor for some time, according to reports.

The new chairwoman, Barbara Stymiest, 55, became a RIM board member that same year, after top positions with the Royal Bank of Canada and before that the Toronto Stock Exchange, where she was the first female president of a North American stock exchange. When she took over, the exchange was wracked by technology problems. Under her leadership, five years later TSE was the first North American exchange to be publicly traded. Royal Bank hired her in 2004 as COO in a management overhaul to stem falling profits. She was responsible for "strategic development," with all corporate areas reporting to her, including finance and risk management, according to Bloomberg News.

One of the key figures who influenced the sudden leadership change, according to some news reports, is the newest board member, now one of RIM's biggest investors, Prem Watsa, the Indian-born, publicity-shy CEO of Fairfax Financial, a Toronto financial holding company, specializing in insurance, re-insurance and other markets. "Tackling troubled companies is Mr. Watsa's bread and butter," according to The Globe and Mail. "His commitment to RIM reflects his long-held strategy of buying companies on the cheap and then unlocking their true value." And his track record shows it: Fairfax's share price has gone from $5 in 1985 to $415 last week.

The combination of large-company administrative skills strategic thinking, and investment savvy could prove to be a potent blend, energizing RIM at all levels.

Still missing: top-level marketing skills. Heins said in a conference call this week that finding a chief marketing officer who can breathe new life into RIM's marketing efforts is a top priority.

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