WATERLOO REGION — Randall Howard was shocked when the news broke that Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie were stepping down as co-chief executive officers of Research In Motion.
“I was not expecting it to happen quite this way,” said Howard, a general partner in Verdexus, a private boutique financial services company. “I know people are focused on this past year, which has been a rocky ride, but RIM is still arguably the best technology company this country has ever seen.”
Despite the sudden change in leadership, Howard sees hopeful signals coming from Thorsten Heins, the new chief executive officer of RIM.
“Every company has these stages it has to navigate through, and I am very hopeful and excited that Thorsten will be able to take the company through to the next level,” said Howard, who himself was involved in co-founding an early technology company, MKS Inc. in 1984.
RIM has been embattled, heavily criticized and punished by the market in the past year for slow development of new innovations in the much more globally competitive smartphone race.
But Howard sees hope for a new chapter at RIM. “Absolutely, for the benefit of this community, we all have to be cheerleaders for this happening,” he said.
It is also important to celebrate what Lazaridis and Balsillie have accomplished, because it was no small feat, Howard said. “People can sit on the sidelines and snipe, but what they have done is phenomenal.”
Gary Mousseau, who was RIM’s eighth employee in 1991, concurs with that.
At that time, RIM was just a small startup, in the niche of making custom software. Today, everybody knows the BlackBerry that put Waterloo on the map. The company now employs 17,500 at facilities all over the world, and is the largest private employer in this region with 8,000 to 9,000 workers here.
This didn’t happen just because the company got into the right market at the right time, added Mousseau, who went on to become co-inventor of the BlackBerry single mailbox integration patent and played key software and innovation roles at RIM until he left in 2007.
He said Lazaridis and Balsillie made tough decisions to actually drop early non-BlackBerry products in order to focus on the BlackBerry, long before there was even a smartphone in the world. “It is easy to see that now, but in 1998, it wasn’t so obvious. It took a lot of vision and insight to see what this could become,” Mousseau said.
Larry Smith, a University of Waterloo economics professor has known Lazaridis from the time he approached Smith for advice about starting a new company. He, too, said the vision and passion for science has been remarkable.
In the mid-1990s, “most of the players in Silicon Valley were doing whatever, but certainly not wireless,” Smith said. “This is not just a Canadian story or a North American story. The BlackBerry is used around the world.”
Lazaridis and Balsillie have also been instrumental in developing a considerable software talent pool, and many of those people have gone on to create their own ventures, or to work for other technology companies, Smith said.
Mousseau said considering everything they poured into the company, the decision to step down must have been tough. But Mousseau takes heart in the fact that Lazaridis will be chair of the new innovation committee on RIM’s board. In a way, Lazaridis is going back to his “core strength,” he said.
He also sees the future of RIM as being a potentially very good one. “I am pretty optimistic,” he said. Given the size of the BlackBerry customer base, “and the passion for what they do, I see them as being around for some time to come.”
Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran said as soon as Heins took over the job as chief executive officer, he emailed to reassure her that RIM intends to continue to be a big employer in the community.
“The community is behind RIM all the way,” Halloran said. “We are confident about their success.”
She, too, lauded Lazaridis and Balsillie for what they have built. “Their impact has been huge,” she said. “They created this incredible company that employs thousands of people and has transformed the social media future for the world.”
Other politicians and community leaders also joined in praising the RIM duo and expressing confidence in the new leadership.
“The vision and leadership of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis have put Waterloo on the map, building a globally successful company and creating a hi-tech environment where innovation thrives,” said MP Peter Braid in a statement.
Ian Mclean, president of the Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, described RIM as a “remarkable corporate success story,” and said the chamber is highly confident about future growth prospects for the company.
Carmi Levy, a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst, said “we have no reason to expect that they will pull up their tents.”
But Heins will need to do more to improve RIM’s marketing and communications, and get products into the pipeline faster, Levy added.
It is too early to say what the future will bring, but “any change in leadership offers the opportunity for a fresh start,” Levy said.
Halloran said it is important to remember that RIM it is still profitable, with 75 million subscribers and a diverse range of products.
“I do not believe at all that RIM is going down. I believe RIM is going through a reorganization that every major corporation goes through. We have to reflect on the amount of money they are still making every three months, the amount of services and hand-held devices they are still selling,” she said.
Iain Klugman, chief executive at the Communitech technology association, said Lazaridis and Balsillie not only built a company that employs thousands of people and contributes to the economic wealth of the region and the country, they also inspired many young people to start technology companies of their own.
There were a record 300 new startup technology companies in Waterloo Region last year. Many of the new companies that started in recent years are now growing, he added.
All of that will contribute to the ongoing success of the region, Klugman said, but he added that he also believes that RIM’s growth will continue
“This is the next chapter for RIM. It will be a different company, but I think it will be a very successful company. This is by no means a eulogy,” Klugman said.