BlackBerry CEO John Chen has led tech turnaround before

Embattled BlackBerry's hiring of a caretaker CEO who has turned a sagging tech company around before could be a step in the right direction, Don Pittis writes.

Interim CEO headed tech company Sybase back from the brink, doubling the share price

John Chen has been named the interim CEO of BlackBerry. An SEC filing revealed a rich payout package. (Jonathan Drake/Bloomberg News)

When it comes to Fairfax's bid for Blackberry, it seems Prem Watsa's Tom Sawyer trick didn't work. Surely you know the story of Tom Sawyer and his fence-whitewashing. But in case not, here is the one-line summary with apologies to Mark Twain.

Tom has been stuck with the job of painting a fence and manages to make it so appealing that his dumber friends beg to do the work while he goes fishin' or nappin' or whatnot.

We've all tried it at one time or another. "Yummy yummy yummy" we say above the baby's mushed vegetables before trying to stuff it in her mouth. (I've never known the method to be especially effective, either at shucking off work or making babies eat things they don't like.)

But maybe I'm just not as wily as Tom Sawyer. My only consolation is that Prem Watsa isn't either. 

Stalking horse bid

In business, the strategy is sometimes called a stalking horse bid, but the same principles apply.

In this case Mr. Watsa's Fairfax Financial put an in an early bid for the company at $9 a share. If it had all gone as planned, some other company with deep pockets would have said "Wow, look at the great deal Watsa has. I can outbid that."

Instead, on the day that the Fairfax deal was supposed to go through and didn't, the shares are worth less than $7.

I fear that we are seeing a trend here: Tricks and talk instead of real strategies that will lead BlackBerry to success. But finally there is a sign that may have changed.

Last year's shakeup — where company old boys Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie stepped down, installing their hired hand Thorsten Heins — was more of the tricks and talk variety.

The new, new CEO John Chen is a horse of a different colour. For one thing, he is a complete outsider. For another, he has already accomplished one of the most difficult and most admired victories in business: Bringing a company back from near death. And that is more than a trick.

An interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2001, four years after he had assumed control of the software company Sybase and led the company back to profit, is revealing.

Turnaround track record

Sybase was a classic California software start-up from the 1980s. A bunch of computer nerds operating out of someone's basement were suddenly doing deals with Microsoft.

Ten years later, the company had fallen on hard times. That's when Chen stepped in.

According to that 12-year-old interview, Chen's strategy was twofold: to look ahead to what the economy needed next, but also to forget about shareholders who want an instant return and instead work to satisfy employees and customers.

"If the employees are worrying about their jobs every other day," Chen told the Journal, "there's no point how brilliant your plan is, they aren't going to stick around." Whereas when you cater to stock speculators, "You do something, the stock moves up, they sell it."

There is a certain irony in the fact that just before John Chen's arrival, BlackBerry announced it was cutting 40 per cent of its staff.  And with new $1 billion in investment capital raised with the help of Fairfax's Prem Wasta, Chen will have time to try out his new strategies. Chen himself is investing his reputation.

Short-term speculators in BlackBerry have been warned: Chen does not care about you. But for the buy and hold crowd, it is comforting to remember what Chen did at Sybase. 

Ten years after he assumed control, the company had its best year ever and shares were worth about $26 each. Three years later, Chen worked out a deal to sell Sybase to the European software giant SAP at $64 a share, or nearly $6 billion. That too, is more than just a trick.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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