BlackBerry CEO Says He'd Sell BBM for $19B --- But He's Not Crazy
February 26, 2014 12:06 PM
(Source: Getty Images)
Laughs aside, John Chen is making smart and critical moves to save his company
BlackBerry Ltd. (
new chief executive, John S. Chen
, raised eyebrows in
a recent interview
I. Missing the Sarcasm Tag
Asked about Facebook Inc.'s (
acquisition of WhatsApp for $19B USD
effect on BlackBerry Messenger's (BBM)
, 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?
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
, "I am not a patient man."
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 (
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
had a troubled company
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 USD
BlackBerry 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
ever optimistic chief operating officer
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. (
to replace Microsoft
) 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.
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. (
) already revealed that
its Android-equipped Nokia X faux Windows Phones
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
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
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
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.
The Globe and Mail
"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." -- Robert Heinlein
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