John Chen has an enviable track record as a turnaround specialist for troubled tech companies. But the 58-year-old Hong Kong native knew he’d really have his work cut out for him when he assumed the role of CEO at BlackBerry, one of Canada’s most iconic tech companies. That was five short months ago.
BlackBerry was in desperate shape at the time, shedding customers and losing billions as more aggressive and nimble smartphone companies helped themselves to a market share that was at one time so solid, it seemed to be a BlackBerry birthright.
But how to engineer the turnaround? How even to stop the hemorrhaging?
In a wide-ranging and revealing interview with Amanda Lang, host of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Chen spelled out the rationale behind his customer-first repair strategy.
To that end, Chen did a lot of listening to his core customers – the long-neglected business market (what’s often referred to as the enterprise market). He tried to find out what they don’t like and what they do. “If the customer likes it, it’s the right thing to do,” he says — a phrase that amounts to Chen’s turnaround tagline. Discussions like that persuaded him to bring back some much-loved but abandoned features.
“I knew we’d have to stabilize the company and show some level of confidence,” Chen says. “And the only way to do that is to tell your customers that you’re here to stay; we’re very focused on delivering better products, better services, going forward.”
'If the customer likes it, it’s the right thing to do' - BlackBerry CEO John Chen
Chen knew his enterprise users were starting to worry. Not to worry, was Chen’s message back. “We’re here to stay and there’s a future plan of good technology and services.”
But the CEO says his company’s more than 60 million mobile subscribers aren’t being forgotten in the rush. “I don’t want anybody to think that BlackBerry is walking away from the mass market. But in order to repair the company, especially on the financial side of the equation, I need to focus on the enterprise customer first.”
No sale...at least, not yet
Some analysts have speculated that Chen’s cleanup, his aggressive cost-cutting, seems designed to pretty up BlackBerry’s balance sheet for a possible sale. Maybe down the road, in "a number of years... ages... decades...", he told Lang, but not now, he insists.
“I have no interest in selling the company,” Chen said. “Not at this point. I think the company has a lot of value. I’m interested in unlocking that value. I think the shareholder will not be as rewarded by selling at this point because our full value hasn’t been realized.“
Just watch us, seems to be Chen’s message to the shareholders, the customers, the competitors, and especially the doubters.
Is it working? Chen thinks the doubters are starting to come around. “People are [saying]...maybe there’s a chance it’ll come back. All I ask for is that, to give us the opportunity to execute.”