Research In Motion: Right Move, Wrong CEO

 | Jan 23, 2012 | 11:30 AM EST  | Comments
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Research In Motion (RIMM) took a step in the right direction with the announcement that Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis have stepped down as co-CEOs. But the selection of COO Thorsten Heins to replace them is disastrous.

Perhaps Heins has many positives obvious only to the people who work with him that make him an effective manager and allow him to ensure BB10 (RIMM's new operating system due in the fall) will ship on time. But from his public statements so far, there are a number of negatives to consider.

  • In his first 12 hours as CEO, it's obvious Heins is a lousy communicator. RIMM's stock went from being up 5% before the introductory call with investors this morning to 2% down by the time the call wrapped up. The shares are down nearly 6% to $16 in midday trading.
  • Heins believes RIMM only needs incremental change, not radical change. He's repeated this several times in his first day on the job. That's not what investors want to here.
  • He seems extraordinarily naïve to say that RIMM's problems can be fixed just by spending more on "consumer marketing."
  • His introductory YouTube video to employees and investors was shockingly dull.

If there was ever a company that needed an outside CEO to shake the company to its core, it's RIMM. 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 RIMM? Was he responsible for PlayBook 1.0 shipping without email?

Can there really be change at the BlackBerry maker when the co-founders remain on the board, and Lazaridis says he will remain active and be vice chair of the new Innovation Committee? How does a relatively young CEO who's used to deferring to Balsillie and Lazaridis for five years suddenly become his own man and start calling the shots with them chipping in on every decision

Heins spent 20 years at Siemens (SI) -- not a company known for consumer marketing or success in the handset business.

Besides Heins' weaknesses, the major problems with the governance changes over the weekend are that nothing has really changed on the board of directors.

Barbara Stymiest -- former head of the Toronto Stock Exchange and a senior executive at the Royal Bank of Canada (RY) -- is now the chair. That would be like Apple (AAPL) naming someone like Sallie Krawcheck, whose background is in banking, as its chair. What does Stymiest know about handsets? Additionally, Stymiest has been on the board for five years. If she's going to be an agent of change like Heins, the question is, where has she been all this time?

The most positive news is that famed Canadian value investor Prem Watsa, who is a large RIMM shareholder, has joined the board. He has an excellent reputation. I understand why people like Watsa and noted value investor Lee Cooperman have taken positions in RIMM. 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.

I suspect that Heins' tenure as RIMM CEO could be as ill-fated and short as Leo Apotheker's term at the helm of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

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