Thorsten Heins

Today is Thorsten Heins' first anniversary as the CEO of Research In Motion, and it only seems fitting to recap the huge changes that we've seen since he took the job. Long story short - he's made a lot of incredibly important changes inside of the company.

So with it being the middle of January in Toronto, the very epicenter of CrackBerry Nation where the temperature is minus freakin' infinity, grab a warm beverage, sit back, and enjoy our look at the last 365 days of Thorsten's leadership.

It all started with a quiet Sunday night for CrackBerry Kevin, who halfway through a bottle of wine with Miss CrackBerry as they watched TV. There had been rumours of the RIM board of directors replacing Jim and Mike with a new CEO, but that's all they were until RIM officially press released the appointment of Thorsten Heins as CEO.

Little did we know at the time of the press release, but this marked the beginning of a new, and very media friendly BlackBerry era. In the past, Team CrackBerry had never been granted an interview with either of the co-CEOs. But Thorsten - his first call on that Sunday night was to Kevin.

We were optimistic about Thorsten's appointment to the corner office. The market wanted fresh blood and, as Chris Umiastowski wrote at the time, "Not only is Thorsten the youngest looking 54 year old I've ever met, but he's still pretty darn close to being fresh blood in my books. Personally, I'm excited to see this much-needed change happen. Of all the internal candidates to choose from, Thorsten is the best guy for the job."

Unfortunately, Wall Street didn't agree. In the first two days of trading following his CEO appointment, RIM dropped almost 13%. So what was Wall Street's problem? Analysts wanted to see bigger change. They wanted an outsider appointed to the top job. They saw Thorsten as one of the guys responsible for the downfall of RIM since he was the COO in charge of product engineering. We saw him as fresh blood with the added perspective of having seen RIM's internal problems for 4 years. He was hardly part of the old boys club.

Thorsten Heins
In Thor We Trust

But Thorsten Heins was off to a rough start. He was thrown into a series of media interviews. RIM's PR department sensibly wanted to introduce the new leader to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, his message did not resonate with enough people. We understood what he intended to say ... that RIM needed to buckle down, work hard, and get its new platform out to the market. But the media and the market only heard what sounded like denial. Thorsten was saying no change in strategy was necessary, and most of the world took that to mean "Hey - we're fine! We don't have any problems. Why are you all so worried?"

Kevin had a chance to do a more detailed interview with Thorsten later that same week, and he did good job of clarifying the distorted message that Wall Street seemed so intent on believing.

In February, at DevCon Europe, Thorsten made his first keynote presentation as the new CEO. Kevin was on site, and described it this way:

"As for Heins' presentation and presentation style itself, I thought he did a solid job for his first go as the BlackBerry Chief. No, he's not an over the top personality like Microsoft's Steve Ballmer nor a straight up smooth talking exec like Nokia's Stephen Elop. And that's ok. Heins comes across as very direct, honest and real. He's likable and personable, and as I noted in a tweet, he makes you feel very comfortable being in the audience (which I hate to say it, is a welcome contrast to RIM's previous Co-CEOs.). You can tell in addition to being smart, Heins is a calm, cool and collected kind of guy. Even during a slight demo malfunction, Heins took it in stride and never missed a beat. He definitely came across as confident over his duties of being the new leader of Research In Motion."

A few months later, Thorsten returned to the stage for BlackBerry World in Orlando. His keynote presentation was exciting for CrackBerry Nation because he introduced the BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboard and the time-shift camera. But there was something we liked even more, and that was the messaging around what it means to be a BlackBerry user. This keynote is where RIM started using the phrase, "BlackBerry is all about success".

Thorsten Heins at BlackBerry World

As strong as the keynote was, it wasn't until the next morning that we really got to see him shine. Thorsten Heins invited everyone in the media to a special presentation and Q&A session. The room was packed, and Heins hit the ball out of the park. He impressed everyone with his straight forward ability to answer most of the questions on people's minds before they were even asked. He was calm, cool, and very matter of fact in addressing the media. And it was something that Jim and Mike had never done. It was metaphorical. Not only was BlackBerry 10 shaping up to be a more open platform. RIM was becoming a much more open company, let by the communication strategy of its CEO.

Heins drove many executive changes within RIM. Upon his appointment as CEO he promised to hire a singlular Chief Operating Officer and a new Chief Marketing Officer. The waiting caused many pundits to wonder if and when he'd really pull the trigger on these C-suite hires. And then on May 9th, it happened. Kristian Tear and Frank Boulben were respectively appointed to these positions. Even now, it's too early to judge whether or not Thorsten hired the right guys. BlackBerry 10 hasn't launched yet so there is no way to measure the operating or marketing success that these gentlemen would have been involved with.


CEO Thorsten Heins and CMO Frank Boulben

Other executives left. David Yach, the company's former SVP of Software is believed to have been nudged into retirement. People we've spoken to have suggested that Yach, despite being a fantastic engineer, was too nice. He couldn't kick people in the ass when needed. This might explain why the RIM web browser was lacking for so many years.

RIM's chief legal officer, Karima Bawa, also left the company. It's no secret that the RIM legal department has been viewed as the guys responsible for slowing down progress on deals, and forcing us all to scroll through terms and conditions the size of Wikipedia's database just to install an upgraded version of App World.

Most recently, RIM CIO Robin Bienfaut left the company. She was ultimately in charge of the RIM network infrastructure, which suffered a massive outage in 2012, so her departure has some folks asking, "What took so long?"

These executive departures were part of a much broader restructuring of Research In Motion. The company had to face the reality of shrinking sales. BlackBerry 7 was build on an aging OS, and even the latest devices such as the Bold 9900 were no match for the slick hardware now running Android and iOS. BlackBerry subscribers were jumping ship in the US market, and analysts worried that this would be a virus that spread to other geographies.

The summer of 2012 proved to be the most difficult time in RIM's history. In conjunction with the release of its quarterly results for fiscal Q1, Heins was faced with the necessary decision to announce another painful delay of BlackBerry 10. Up until this point, the new CEO was working off a timeline promised by the former co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis. It became quite clear to us that Thorsten was not willing to launch a product that wasn't ready. After all, we've all seen how that one plays out. Playbook, anyone?

This was a crushing blow to the stock, and many industry pundits claimed that this was the death blow for RIM. People said they'd never be able to recover from this, and that the delay would make BlackBerry 10 irrelevant by the time it launched in the newly promised calendar Q1 period.

As it turns out, this was one area where Thorsten Heins and his team could have done a much better job in messaging. They should have explained the delay with more details, and the executive team, including CFO Brian Bidulka, should have been better prepared to answer the questions that anybody in his position could easily have anticipated. In short, the company's Q1 results led, at the time, to a loss of confidence in management. It should never have happened.

As the market reacted negatively to these events, RIM reacted too. They spent the better part of the following week clarifying their external communications. They wanted the world to know that the BlackBerry 10 delay wasn't 6 months, but in fact only about 8 or 9 weeks. This delay, however, pushed the nearest potential launch too far into the busy holiday season. There would be no point (and no good carrier support) in launching BlackBerry 10 in December. But a January launch seemed possible, and RIM started communicating the likelihood of an early Q1 launch rather than being later in the quarter.

They communicated all of this as part of a media blitz that arguably shouldn't have been required in the first place. This media blitz even included a guest article in Canada's largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail, penned by none other than Thorsten Heins.

Thankfully, after this, things started to improve. Thorsten wrote a followup article for the Globe in order to answer the most commonly-asked reader questions. He did a fantastic job, of providing straight forward, honest and meaningful answers. In our view, this messaging was a home run hit.

In August, speculation started to get pretty thick around the possibility of RIM exiting the hardware business. After all, Thorsten had always been very open about his willingness to consider any and all options to strengthen the company's position. Again, this simply made no sense to anyone who had been paying attention to Thorsten's plan. The company needed to prove the worth of BlackBerry 10 by launching it first. Then, and only then, would it make sense to do any sort of licensing, business divestiture, or other deal involving BlackBerry 10 hardware or software.

Behind the scenes, things were improving. BlackBerry 10 was becoming more polished, and RIM was out talking to the media a lot about the BlackBerry Hub and BlackBerry Flow experience they were so carefully crafting. But you wouldn't know it based on the stock market's reaction. During September and October, investors showed RIM just how little hope they held for the company's future. The stock declined to record lows approaching $6. In retrospect, this marked the bottom, and smart investors made themselves a lot of money. If you're in that camp, well done.

In late October, Thorsten Heins continued his media interviews and did something that went over really well. He did a complete interview with BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones. This was in stark contrast to the horrible April 2011 interview Lazaridis gave, which ended in him walking out of the room. Thorsten, unlike Lazaridis, came across well composed, confident, and cool despite Cellan-Jones asking some pretty uncomfortable questions.

The media blitz continued in November. There was no time for Thorsten Heins to rest, and he wasn't about to complain about it either. During this media blitz RIM formally announced January 30th as the official launch date for BlackBerry 10. Back then it seemed so far away. Now it's a matter of one week.

Thorsten Heins

Thorsten's first year as CEO wrapped up nicely. He won the Cantech Letter Executive of the Year award earlier this month. Then, on the eve of his one year anniversary on the job, RIM stock rallied 11%. Finally, the CrackBerry team toasted his accomplishments with a shot of Jägermeister. It seemed fitting.

Here's to hoping that year #2 is just as exciting, if not more.