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Laughs aside, John Chen is making smart and critical moves to save his company

BlackBerry Ltd. (TSE:BB) new chief executive, John S. Chen, raised eyebrows in a recent interview with CNBC.

I. Missing the Sarcasm Tag

Asked about Facebook Inc.'s (FB) recent acquisition of WhatsApp for $19B USD and its effect on BlackBerry Messenger's (BBM)
valuation, he stated:

If somebody comes to me with $19 billion I would definitely sell it... I mean, I would recommend to the board to take it.

The headlines generated are both wince-worthy and punchline-ready: "BlackBerry CEO focuses on a turnaround, but says he'd sell BBM for $19 billion", "Blackberry CEO says he’d take $19 billion for BBM, makes us all laugh".
 
Is something in the water in Waterloo?  Has the Canadian tech veteran's new chief been trading trips on off hours with Toronto mayor Rob Ford?  Is BlackBerry in for another two years of denial, followed by insolvency?

John Chen
It's admirable that BlackBerry's new CEO John Chen can still crack a joke, even in the face of tough circumstances. [Image Source: NYSE Magazine]

The answer is fortunately that the comments appear to be a joke.  Perhaps he should have included the sarcasm tag, but clearly his comments were meant in jest and not as a serious valuation.
 
But they do serve to highlight one of several early successes Mr. Chen has realized.  While its too early to see whether these wins will turn around BlackBerry, it is clear that they are giving it a fighting chance.
 
II. The Sybase Story and What it Means to BlackBerry
 
In the early-to-mid 1990s Berkeley, Calif.-based database services company Sybase was on fire.  In 1992 in had revenue of $265M USD (~$442M USD in today's dollars); in 1993 it pulled in $427M USD ($691M USD in today's money); and by 1996 it made $1.01B USD in revenue ($1.5B USD in today's money).
 
Then things threatened to go to hell.  Revenue dipped to $871.6M USD ($1.3B USD in today’s dollars) in 1997 and the company's Japanese division was embroiled in an accounting scandal.  The company lost $93.1M USD ($136M USD in today’s dollars) that year.  The company fell to a mere 4 percent share of its primary market; shareholders were ready to sell.  Then John Chen came along.
 
The new CEO -- who had previously played a vital role as chief operating officer, limiting the damage of the Japanese unit debacle -- in just his first several months transformed the company, helping it to post a surprise profit for 1998.  Asked how turned around Sybase so soon, he told [PDF] NYSE Magazine, "I am not a patient man."

Sybase
Mr. Chen turned Sybase around, driving it to record profits and a SAP acquisition.

He recalls having to first beg shareholders not to sell prematurely, then beg customers not to give up on his firm.  He remarks:

I personally went out and talked to hundreds of customers in the first 12 months.  Most didn’t believe me. They thought I was talking in platitudes, but when they started seeing the results—that we were making a profit like I had promised—we started earning credibility.

Under his leadership Sybase wasn't the youthful picture of revenue growth it once was; it wasn't until 2007 that it returned to $1B USD (which adjusting for inflation was less than the initial peak).  But under his leadership shares soared from $4-5 USD/share in 1996 to $26 USD/share in 2006.  That dynamic growth came thanks to Mr. Chen's strong commitment to profitability.  By 2007, the company had annual net profits of over $170M USD and a cash pile of $700M USD.
 
That success prompted German information technology company SAP AG (ETR:SAP) to bid $5.8B USD for Sybase in 2010, valuing the company at $65 USD/share.  When he had taken over, the company had a market capitalization of only $362M USD.  The message was one any investor would love -- John Chen will fix your broken company and double your share value every year and a half.
 
III. BlackBerry Investors Wowed by Mr. Chen's Enthusiasm, Insight
 
Prem Watsa had a troubled company -- BlackBerry.
 
Formerly known as Research in Motion, by last year the company had a full year net loss of $5.4B USD on revenue of $8.6B USDBlackBerry 10 had flopped.  Fewer than half as many BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES) were in use as there were three years prior.  Market capitalization had fallen from $83B USD in mid-2008 to just $3B USD late last year.  BlackBerries represented less than 1 percent of global smartphone shipped in the final quarter of last year.
 
Yet Mr. Watsa was impressed that Mr. Chen was wild with enthusiasm.  He recalls:

John said, 'I don't need a job.' But…he [also] said, 'This is an icon in the business and it really needs to survive. It doesn’t need to die.'

And that's what intrigued him
.

So in November 2013 he became BlackBerry's third CEO in two years, following the hapless regime of co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis and the ever optimistic chief operating officer (COO) turned CEO, Thorsten Heins.
 
As with Sybase, Mr. Chen has convinced shareholders -- at least for now -- not to sell.  He's similarly been pitching to customers to buy. 
 
All this leadership -- long a scarce commodity and the embattled Waterloo, Ontario firm has come at a cost.  BB has already given Mr. Chen $86M USD worth of stock, and they also spend a fair chunk of change flying him on a company jet back and forth between Ontario and his home in California.  But the investment appears to be yielding gains.
 
IV. Signs of Life
 
Internally he's been preaching a tough, disciplined brand of leadership.  At one meeting he reportedly told the workers:

Things are going to get worse before they get better.  Not all of you will be here [next year]

In a recent interview with Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail, Mr. Chen admits that BlackBerry was a mess when he joined up.  He recalls:

There are a lot of opinions in the company and they’re not necessarily lined up.  I can’t really say if the focus on the consumer is the right thing versus enterprise, or vice versa. But I know we need to pick somewhere to start.

While he hasn't totally given up on the consumer market, he's chosen to focus on enterprise -- the area that RIM did best back in its hey-days.  Business customers still account for 80 percent of revenue, but under Mr. Heins that revenue had dropped off disastrously after he agreed to cut service fees to appeal to consumers. 
 
Of course, Mr. Heins had to do something given customer defections, but there were other options, such as focusing on putting out good cross platform management software for BES.  Or even simply talking to customers and finding out about their needs would be a start.  Mr. Chen asserts:

[A majority of] enterprise customers who use us as the backbone have never heard from us.

By the sound of it BlackBerry's deepest problems weren't just its struggles in beating slick marketing machine foes in the consumer market, the key to its full collapse was its decision to ignore its customers in the enterprise market.  The neglected customers responded by increasingly ignoring BlackBerry.

Mr. Chen has changed that, making it clear that enterprise customers are his top priority. 

V. Beloved BlackBerry "Belt" is Making a Comeback

As for handsets, he comments:

I think devices are still one component of the solution.  The question is, Do we need to be in the device business? That remains to be seen.

The suggestion of killing the BlackBerry smartphones might yield cries of blasphemy from BlackBerry's dwindling legion of faithful users.  But Mr. Chen has found a way to please them, even, suggesting that this year his company will work with Chinese manufacturing partner Foxconn (a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision Industry Comp. Ltd.) to produce new BlackBerry 10 handsets, returning the iconic "belt" of five buttons -- "Call", "BlackBerry", center Trackpad,  "Back", and "Hang Up" -- which had been eliminated, even from keyboard BB10 devices.
 

The BlackBerry button "belt" is seen here on the BlackBerry Bold 9900

Mr. Heins seemed oblivious to this key cause of BB10 device returns.  Mr. Chen quickly picked up on it.  He's not interesting in making the next iPhone.  He wants to make the next BlackBerry, as long as enough buyers want one to make it a worthwhile business.
 
He's also looking to aggressively grow the successful automotive offerings of QNX, which currently is in roughly 50 percent of infotainment-equipped vehicles.  Mr. Chen reportedly has brokered a deal with America's second largest automaker -- Ford Motor Comp. (F) -- to replace Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows Embedded OS with QNX.  The move is expected to give a nice boost to Ford's at times embattled, but iconic infotainment systems, Sync and MyFord Touch.
 
VI. WhatsApp Acquisition Does Highlight the Value of BBM's Rapid Growth
 
In another recent interview Mr. Chen clarified his prior remarks on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), explaining:

The potential is going to be huge.  Until we get to the point that we can showcase that potential, it is a bit too early to think about getting our $19 billion.

The comment, at first seems somewhat delusional as it seems to imply that Mr. Chen wants $19B USD for BlackBerry Messenger.  Such a valuation, had he been serious, would certainly be delusional.
 
Facebook did pay almost that much for WhatsApp, with its bid working out to around $42 USD per user, thanks to WhatsApp's 450 million userbase.  Bloomberg points out that BBM has only 85 million users and would have to double its pace of 2.8 million user additions per month to catch up with WhatsApp by August 2019.  At its current size, assuming the same user value as WhatsApp, it would be worth roughly $3.5B USD.
 
But as Mr. Chen's comment illustrates upon closer inspection, BlackBerry has little interest in selling the profitable and fast growing unit.
 
Microsoft and Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V) already revealed that its Android-equipped Nokia X faux Windows Phones would come with BBM preinstalled.  Nokia is selling roughly 50 to 60 million units a quarter of its Asha line of feature phones with smartphone-like technologies.  The freshly minted trio of Nokia X devices represents the upper half of that lineup and could presumably see 20 million sales per quarter, if properly marketed by Microsoft.  Assuming those customers also use the preloaded BBM, that'd take BlackBerry close to that doubled rate of adds Bloomberg is referring to.
 
But what about that 2019 bit?  Well Mr. Chen is clearly talking about the future; he's not saying that BlackBerry Messenger is worth $19B USD now.
 
Assuming he keeps BBM on a fast track growth-wise, it might not need 450 million customers to be valued at $19B USD.  James Cordwell, a London-based analyst at Atlantic Equities LLP, comments:

There are benefits of scale in this area, so you’d probably pay a lot less for Blackberry’s BBM subscribers than you would, say, a WhatsApp.  [The] biggest question would be, can they hold onto those users or are those users going to migrate over to a larger service?

Of course if BBM was to become relatively large -- say with a userbase akin to Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s 272 million users -- it would have less questions about defections and suddenly its enterprise-oriented focus might yield a higher perceived value per user.
 
Given the steady stream of delusional comments frothing forth from the mouth of Thorsten Heins, BB's last CEO, it's understandable that Mr. Chen's comments would be microanalyzed.
 
John Chen may be in Rob Ford's home state of Ontario, but he solely focused on smoking the competition in the enterprise space.  His comment seems far from what headlines made it out to be -- another painfully delusional BB statement.  In context it was more of quip from a man looking to publicly embody reserved optimism, but privately scrambling desperately and admirably at the Herculean task of saving a company that his predecessors had almost destroyed.

Sources: CNBC, The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg



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Finally, someone that makes sense
By DukeN on 2/26/2014 1:28:35 PM , Rating: 3
This is the type of market BB can survive in - specialized/niche markets that they have expertise in.

Stock price reflects market confidence, but the real test will be in the cashflow numbers next couple of quarters.




RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By retrospooty on 2/26/2014 3:47:04 PM , Rating: 4
"This is the type of market BB can survive in - specialized/niche markets that they have expertise in"

You mean the fantasy market, where you offer a product like BBM that costs money that does the same thing that other companies have been giving away for free already for the past 15 years? Ya, great plan. This is the exact thinking that has BB on the verge of extinction.


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By Arkive on 2/26/2014 5:12:40 PM , Rating: 3

Do you even know what you're talking about or do you just hate BB? Name someone who for 15 years had a product that tied into your mail server and wirelessly syncronized your data with your handheld (BB was the first) and also incorporated S/MIME support (again, they were the first) and lastly supported an administrative infrastructure so handhelds could be hardened and protected from data loss or user tampering (seeing a pattern?).


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By retrospooty on 2/26/2014 5:42:09 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, I am well aware of BB and their business model. 15 years ago it was revolutionary, and they were at the top of the market for good reason. They then stopped innovating. When the iPhone came out in 2007 and everyone else upped their games, RIMM sat on their hands and did nothing. They said "our customers dont want fancy touchscreens, they want qwerty kb's" and they didn't act. 3 years later they finally acted and partnered up with QNX for the next gen OS. It then took them 3 years to finally release a phone running QNX (renamed to BB OS10). During this peiod, thier stock went from its all time high of about $150 to less than $7 , that is less than 1/20th its preious value... Too slow to decide and too slow to act once a decision is made. They just cant compete. Yes, that is the same company I am referring to. BBM is another solid example of a losing effort for a service that others give away free.


By AntDX316 on 2/27/2014 2:31:47 AM , Rating: 1
**************

it kind of sucks that blackberry is unwanted now because there are so many of their datacode logo thing all over the place that you put the camera to for information

but still the blackberry foundation isn't as good as apple and androids style of potential like myspace and facebook and kodak and every company making digital imaging ie canon sony nikon etc


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By tayb on 2/26/2014 5:23:41 PM , Rating: 2
Except BB is not on the verge of extinction. They posted $94 million in their fiscal year 2013 quarter 4 earnings report. They have 76 million subscribers and sold 6 million devices in that quarter alone.

The only reason BB and RIM seem to be in such dire straits is because of our perception of the smartphone market. They didn't expand while the market was exponentially increasing in size and so they now appear to be a fraction of the size they used to be. They aren't. Smaller, sure, but they aren't a fraction of what they used to be. Our perception changed.

BBM is a secure messaging system. WhatsApp is free but until August 2012 didn't bother with even basic encryption. I cannot think of a less secure messaging platform than WhatsApp. I would absolutely pay a premium to have direct, encrypted, communication with my co-workers that doesn't go through sniffing servers. Many millions of people would which is why Blackberry still sells millions of handsets and has millions of BBM users.

Is BBM worth anywhere near $19 billion? Hell no, but this number was said to mock the amount of money facebook paid for WhatsApp which also happened to be $19 billion... or $9 billion higher than the next closest bidder.


By retrospooty on 2/26/2014 5:52:48 PM , Rating: 2
"they posted $94 million in their fiscal year 2013 quarter 4 earnings report"

uh... That was over a year ago, "Fiscal quarter" is not calendar quarter. In Dec 2013 they reported thier Q3 2014 #'s

"BlackBerry reported a massive $4.4 billion loss for its third quarter of fiscal year 2014."

They lost the previous 2 quarters as well. They are not in good shape and sales decrease every quarter, as does profit margin on each sale.


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By Reclaimer77 on 2/26/2014 5:26:52 PM , Rating: 2
This is why we don't drive cars from Canadian companies. Use computers made by Canadian companies. Or even watch good porn made by Canadians.

Canadians don't know how to do anything really in any significant number, they're kind of retarded. Certainly not enough to stay alive in the smartphone race. It was over for RIM as soon as it began.

Their biggest problem? Too many Canadians, not enough Asians/Americans.

*this has been a Reclaimer77 Cultural Spotlight*


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By retrospooty on 2/26/2014 6:53:45 PM , Rating: 2
LOL... OK, but alot of good sci fi series come from Canada.


By Reclaimer77 on 2/26/2014 7:29:26 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah but where have all the BEST come from?

AMERICA!!! FUK YEAAAAHH.


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By iamkyle on 2/26/2014 9:38:51 PM , Rating: 3
Honestly dude, kill yourself. Do us all a favor.


By Reclaimer77 on 2/26/2014 11:13:17 PM , Rating: 1
An American, a Scot and a Canadian were in a terrible car accident. They were all brought to the same emergency room, but all three of them died before they arrived. Just as they were about to put the toe tag on the American, he stirred and opened his eyes. Astonished, the doctors and nurses present asked him what happened.
"Well," said the American, "I remember the crash, and then there was a beautiful light, and then the Canadian and the Scot and I were standing at the gates of heaven. St.Peter approached us and said that we were all too young to die, and said that for a donation of $50, we could return to earth. So of course I pulled out my wallet and gave him the $50, and the next thing I knew I was back here." "That's amazing!" said the one of the doctors, "But what happened to the
other two?"
"Last I saw them," replied the American, "the Scot was haggling over the price and the Canadian was waiting for the government to pay his."


OOOOOHHHHHHH!!!!
Thank you, thank you, you've been great folks. I'll be here all week!


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By flyingpants1 on 2/26/2014 10:37:34 PM , Rating: 2
Joke's on you, in Toronto we have almost nothing but Asians.


By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 10:12:01 AM , Rating: 2
Ha, Everyone knows our Asians are better than your Asians. ;) USA all the way!


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By Samus on 2/26/2014 9:41:54 PM , Rating: 2
BBM was the first widely-used mobile chat platform. The problem is how difficult it was to setup. Up until 2008 (BBOS6) you needed to know somebody's PIN to add their contact to BBM. This, and being proprietary until recently, gave the market to WhatsApp.

All products since (iMessage, WhatsApp, BBM OS10, etc) use the phone number to locate the device, not the devices PIN.


By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 10:17:37 AM , Rating: 1
So... The horse and carriage was the first widely-used goods transportation mechanism, but tech evolved that went beyond it.

The fact that BB once had great stuff and then it sat still as the world passed it by isn't in question. It's the problem, not the question.


RE: Finally, someone that makes sense
By DukeN on 2/27/2014 11:51:43 AM , Rating: 2
No, the specialized markets such as enterprise focused products. They also have other IP that can be licensed/leveraged.
They actually have value outside of the hardware (BBM is not a big part of it IMO).


By retrospooty on 2/27/2014 12:09:11 PM , Rating: 1
I know they do have some decent business oriented stuff, but they are losing money hand over fist. You can keep losing 250 million to over a billion each quarter and maintain for too long. What they have isnt offsetting how badly the phones are losing $. Not even close.


By Reclaimer77 on 2/27/2014 3:55:31 PM , Rating: 2
Can we stop pretending there's a large market for RIM's "enterprise focused" nonsense? Just stop.

Enterprise is moving to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Partly because NOBODY wants to use a Blackberry anymore.


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