It was just six weeks ago that BlackBerry and Fairfax Financial announced a preliminary deal to take the handset maker private. As the due diligence kicked into high gear, BlackBerry’s leadership realized that privatization was not the right decision for the company. They were losing customers faster than before, and a leveraged buy out was going to take too much time. So the “for sale” sign came down.
The new deal is smaller but still a substantial change for BlackBerry. Thorsten Heins is departing as CEO, replaced by former Sybase CEO and turnaround artist John S. Chen, and Fairfax’s Prem Watsa is taking the reigns of the board as lead director along with a billion dollar investment.
John delivered to us a clear message that BlackBerry is here to stay: "BlackBerry is an iconic company. I do not want it to be sold at an artificially low price. I want to keep it in Canada. Companies go through challenging times. With the right financial strategy, business strategy, management team and with the legion of fans that BlackBerry has around the world we can turn this around and build real value for shareholders."
It’s clear from our conversation that John brings a lot of experience to the table, along with tact and a sense of humor. And, importantly, that he understands the role of the CrackBerry community and will be watching your feedback - be it praise or criticism (as we all know, the CrackBerry community hasn’t ever been the type to hold back on either).
We peppered John with our questions, though being that he’s busy preparing for his new position in Waterloo he wasn’t able to answer all of them. So here are seven of our questions with some meaty John Chen answers. The new BlackBerry chief has a proven track record over the years of taking the helm of companies that have drifted off course, so maybe with a bit of luck and fair winds at his back he can guide the S.S. BlackBerry to port.
CrackBerry Q&A with BlackBerry CEO, John Chen
Kevin: Let's start with an easy one. Are you familiar with CrackBerry.com?
John: Yes! I was actually just on the site and browsed around - seeing my pictures on all your stuff! [laughter]. So yes, I’m a reader and know your background and I’ve spent time on CrackBerry. It’s a very nice looking site, by the way.
Kevin: The announcement yesterday of your appointment obviously took us by surprise. We’re wondering how long has has this move been in the making? Have you been a BlackBerry user for years, and how closely have you been following the BlackBerry story this whole time?
John: I’ve been a mobile device user for a zillion years, whenever it started. I don’t know how long that is now, but it was a long, long time ago. And I don’t know whether you read in my background, I’ve been a mobile technology guy since the very early days. When everybody was playing with dot com I was playing with mobile.
"I’ve been a BlackBerry user for a very, very long time"
Those were very early days of course. Most people found them not that interesting, but I found it extremely interesting. Those days about the only smart devices you could have was the old RIM device as you obviously know. So yes, I’ve been a BlackBerry user for a very, very long time.
I have used all kinds of devices because of the businesses I have been in. At Sybase we did a lot of software business across the BlackBerry/RIM devices, Android devices, iPhone devices, and even Linux. The only smartphone that I have never used to gain a lot of experience with is Palm, but every other device I used.
Kevin: What exactly does the term “interim” CEO mean in terms of timing? Is this a three month thing, or will I be seeing you at 2am in the hotel lobby bar at BlackBerry World in 2015? It's a bit of tradition for regular attendees...
John: The interim CEO title is because I need to take a look at the management team and try to figure out our business strategy.
One does not organize for success. You have your business strategy first, and then you go organize it. My job is really to figure and focus on all the strategic things that the company is facing immediately, today, and also in the longer term -- three, five years out. So that’s the kind of horizon I have and what will occupy most of my time.
"I’ll decide how interim is interim"
I also want to make sure that I connect with the customers, I connect with the strategic partners, the people we need to do business with, distribution, and think about our method of going to the market.
So on a day-to-day basis I eventually will really need a good, solid CEO. That’s why I said I’ll do it on an interim basis and who knows?
I’ll think through and listen to everybody else and what their advice is and then I’ll decide how interim is interim.
Kevin: And the hotel lobby bar?
John: [Laughter] You normally won’t find me at the lobby bar, cause I’m not a big drinker. I do drink wine from time to time, but I don’t really drink a lot.
Kevin: What will you look for in a CEO long term? And I just want to say, there have been a lot of hash tags out there in recent months suggesting #CrackBerryKevinforCEO, so I’d like to know if I’m A grade material for you or not.
John: Well… [pause]... you know… you kind of need to apply. [Laughter] You know, if you’re serious, I’m going to get the HR people to contact you. [More Laughter]
"I’m looking for a software person"
On a more serious note, I think I’m looking for a software person. In my mind, somebody who understands the services side of the equation also. And I know you’d love to see us increase our marketing effort, so I’m looking for somebody who can help me with really reaching more people.
I have a tremendous respect for the technology people in the company. I don’t think I’m looking for a tech person, plus I came out as an engineer. I think I have certain sensitivity to whether these technologies are real or too good to be true. I have some sense on that so I think I could use some help on sales, marketing and services.
Kevin: Following up on the word “software”, one the of the questions that has been raised a lot in the past 24 hours is in regards to BlackBerry’s software of choice moving forward. Is BlackBerry 10 still the play, or could we see BlackBerry adopting something like Android going forward?
John: It’s way too early for me to make an informed statement on that. It would be very, very premature.
"What is BlackBerry without the device?"
Whatever is the right thing for the business, you need to preserve the reason why BlackBerry is around. I think just jumping to an Android without a thought through of why BlackBerry needs to be around and what makes us relevant and all that, before I answer that question, jumping to anything is inappropriate. You’ll find that I’m a little bit more thoughtful from a marketing perspective then to just go somewhere. I’m not that kind of person. I’ve only been on the clock now for almost 24 hours -- I think that if I made those statements right now conclusively, somebody should pull me out and shoot me.
[Laughter by Kevin]
And I’m being serious about that! People are asking me about handsets -- “are you going to get out of the handset business” -- and that’s really ridiculous of them to say that. I don’t even know what that means and on top of that, the majority of all our revenue and our customer interaction is with handsets, so I’m not quite sure why anybody would say that on account of a “big picture” thing. I know a lot of people like those sound bytes, but those sound bytes coming from somebody like me right now being reasonably new to the picture, it’s irresponsible.
Kevin: Well I’m glad I’m not going to ask you about handsets in my question next then… [ Laughter ]
John: I have to say this Kevin, and you know this very well... what is BlackBerry without the device? The question is, can we do more in that? It’s not about let’s not do this and do that. Sometimes it’s not business sensible to make those statements.
Kevin: I know our community would want to know this... are you on twitter or BBM? Do you frequent any social media networks?
John: Very occasionally. And the reason occasionally is because I want to keep myself plugged in, but I just really don’t have the time. You get on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn -- this list goes on -- you need to be a full time person doing this. Plus, there’s one other problem with this. A lot of times you put 140 characters out there and people take it out of context.
Right now I’m picking which new BlackBerry to use, and I’m chewing on whether I’m going to use a big screen versus a keyboard. I’m going to test drive both by the way, but if I say something on Twitter like “wow the Q10’s keyboard is great” then I will have about half of the population mad at me.
Kevin: I know we're down to our last question, so do you have any final message today for our CrackBerry community of longtime BlackBerry fans, customers and supporters?
John: I am -- look at my record -- a very loyal person. So your customers and employees who have attached their loyalties are really high on my list. So I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure I repay all their loyalty. I believe loyalty goes both ways.
Having said that, I still need to run a company. There’s always a tug-of-war sometimes between the two. I just want everybody to be patient and to be understanding but also understand that loyalty is high on my list.
An experienced captain at the helm
John Chen, ladies and gentlemen. If there’s anything that we’re taking away from this brief chat, it’s that John is bringing a ship full of experience to BlackBerry. He’s not the type to make reactionary decisions while at the helm, he takes the time to survey the seas before acting.
He has a grasp on what it is that makes BlackBerry the company it is from both a software and hardware perspective. He knows that the user community is more critical to the success of BlackBerry than ever before, and that there’s wisdom in listening to the crowd. And as an outsider he comes to BlackBerry without any of the baggage that his predecessors brought with them.
John’s bringing years of turnaround experience instead. He knows what it takes to right the course of a wayward ship, though BlackBerry certainly is a bigger challenge than most, and it’s had a few brushes with icebergs along the way.
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