RIM’s New CEO More Of The Same

This morning RIM announced that their co-CEO’s Balsillie and Lazaridis were stepping down, to be replaced by Thorsten Heins, currently COO of Product Engineering. Balsillie will remain as a board member, and Lazaridis will be vice chairman plus head some kind of Innovation Committee. Apparently Heins is also a member of RIM’s board of directors.

The move sounds a lot like “more of the same”, and an attempt further position the company for sale. Consider what happened: the RIM board picked a senior executive with deep knowledge about the company’s only asset of value, the technology. Yes, all of the right noises are being made. There will be change, they want to licence QNX, they will fill the vacant Chief Marketing Officer role and rebuild the brand. It is all safe and reasonably vague. All of it will require a long time to complete, which means that any sale will likely happen before any of it comes to fruition. It avoids any complications that could be involved with unwinding strategic agreements, and sidesteps the need to backtrack on any radical changes.

Also consider a statement by Mike Lazaridis.

“There comes a time in the growth of every successful company when the founders recognize the need to pass the baton to new leadership. Jim and I went to the Board and told them that we thought that time was now.”

This is an interesting thing to say, given that this is a nearly 180-degree change in position. It sounds more like dissembling and prevarication. I suspect the reality was very different. My guess is that one or two board members, with closer ties to the pair, approached them and told them their days were numbered. It gave them a choice: fight back, and make the sale of the company difficult; or step aside and make things less messy while they looked for a buyer. Given the market’s generally negative opinion of the two, I suspect that prospective buyers (who have likely already been approached) voiced resistance to any sale while the co-CEO arrangement continued, and while both had any active executive role. I also suspect that of the two, Balsillie was the more detrimental. Consider that Balsillie only continues on as a member of the board. Lazaridis will be Vice-Chairman as well as head of a new Innovation Committee. Basically, it keeps Lazaridis in position where he could return to some kind of active role in running the company if a new owner so desired, but moves Balsillie aside completely. It also puts the more technical person (and one, again, with deep knowledge about the most valuable assets) in a visible role, and one that would be active in any sale discussions.

So, despite the “we’re looking to the future” statements, this move is about “more of the same” from what I can see. A company looking for a new vision and new direction wouldn’t put the guy in charge of the current state of their products into the driver’s seat. They wouldn’t be looking for a CMO to “rebuild the brand” as if they are simply applying a new coat of paint, and assume that will be sufficient. They wouldn’t be thinking “let’s try to licence yet another marginal mobile OS with limited content, no apps and  minimal developer interest into an already crowded market”. A serious attempt at rebuilding would have brought in an outsider, one with a strong manufacturing and retail product background, and one with experience at building brands and building consumer excitement.

This move is safe, it’s simple and puts the person with the deepest knowledge of their core assets in charge of day-to-day activities. That should make any sort of transition to a new owner simpler and cleaner. There may be a new captain at the tiller, but the boat is still sailing in more-or-less the same direction.