BlackBerry left high and dry, eyes the M2M market

Nov 5, 2013

Well, that didn’t exactly go to plan, did it? Not only was the Fairfax rescue bid revealed to be no more than hot air and wishful thinking, but last-minute alternative bidders failed to materialise. And so BlackBerry has no choice but to limp on alone. But that’s okay, as the board have decided to pin all the blame on ineffectual CEO Thorsten Heins and boot him out. He ought to turn the lights off when he leaves.

First, Fairfax. Having announced its $4.7bn acquisition bid in September, BlackBerry’s largest shareholder revealed that it didn’t actually have all the funding secured. All it and its team of partners could manage was an investment of $1bn to keep the firm in business for a little longer (Fairfax itself is nbelieved to have invested $250m). But when you consider that analysts will burn through that amount and more this year, with supplier bills of over $3bn to pay, then it doesn’t look like much of a lifeline (see yesterday’s story).

Second, Cerberus Capital Management. At the end of last week it was revealed that BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis was working with the private equity firm and Qualcomm to create an alternative offer. It transpires that the takeover bid was highly conditional; so much so that they failed to sell it and it fizzled out.

Third, it has emerged that Chinese computer maker Lenovo was also interested, but the Canadian government put a stop to that – see separate story.

As to why the Fairfax bid failed, CEO Prem Watsa said it started to unravel in the due diligence process, and that he was “a little more optimistic than he should have been about investment support”. He had apparently underestimated just how bad BlackBerry’s results were until his advisers looked more closely at the company’s books. There was just too much high-priced debt. He should have known though – he was a BlackBerry board director until August this year.

“They said there was a lot of assets, but a leveraged buyout with ... high-yield debt was not appropriate, and we agreed with it,” added Watsa, denying reports that the problem really was that he had difficulty finding financial backers.

We also say faewell to Thorsten Heins, who has been in the role of CEO since early 2012, and tried to restructure the company – pinning all his hopes on the success of the 10-series of smartphones. But, as we all said, it was too little too late. Delay after delay meant that Android, iOS and even Windows Phone had the chance to steal and secure the market it once dominated.

BlackBerry’s board appointed technology executive John Chen, formerly of software firm Sybase, as interim CEO and executive chairman. Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper believes that Chen’s appointment was a condition of the $1bn investment from the Fairfax team.

Now, before you all think ‘oh, how nice of Mr Chen to leave his Silicon Valley life and relocate to the wilds of Ontario, that must show some real commitment – perhaps he knows something about BlackBerry’s potential that we don’t?’, just wait. He’s not. The cash-strapped BlackBerry is apparently allowing Chen to continue to live in California and BlackBerry will let him use the company jet to commute. Nice to see they have their priorities right.

Oh, and Heins is being rewarded well for failure. The Globe and Mail have checked regulatory fillings that show he could be entitled to $16m in severance payments and shares. Not as much as the $55.6m he would have trousered if the company was sold and he was then dismissed. But hey, just how much can one man spend anyway?

“I appreciate that these are challenging times and I’m no stranger to uncertainty around the future of a company,” said Chen, before optimistically adding, “it’s natural for businesses to go through ups and downs, but with the right financing, management and strategy in place, it’s amazing what you can achieve.”

Amazing indeed if he can turn the company around. But just to be safe, we would suggest that he agrees a nice fat severance package like his predecessor. Mind you, Forbes say he earned $9m from Sybabse in 2009 alone, so he’s probably already got that clause covered.

So what kind of future does Chen envision for BlackBerry? Details are sketchy at the moment, but it appears that he will focus on the firm’s QNX software business and will look to apply it not to smartphones (they have got to be doomed now, surely?) but on M2M. Yet the QNX business currently generates just $100m of revenues per year.

“We have all the ingredients to become the leader in that embedded machine-to-machine space,” Chen told reporterd. “I figure with our focus and [by thinking] long term, [by doing] the right thing today, a step at a time, I think we’re going to build tremendous value for shareholders.”

The Fairfax bid valued the company at $9 per share. It’s actually trading at $6.5 on the Nasdaq, and analysts suggest its real value is around $3 per share.

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