BlackBerry bombshell: Fairfax walks away, Heins out as CEO

BlackBerry’s future took a decidedly radical turn Monday amid reports that Fairfax Financial would not proceed with plans to take the company private and Thorsten Heins was out as CEO.

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported Heins, who took over from co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie in January 2012 and was the face of the company’s efforts to re-engage buyers with its BlackBerry 10 platform, will depart as the company halts its campaign to find a buyer and pursues this option instead.

"Today's announcement represents a significant vote of confidence in BlackBerry and its future by this group of preeminent, long-term investors," Barbara Stymiest, chair of BlackBerry's board, said in a statement.

Despite the surprise move, Fairfax isn’t completely out of the picture. While it will not move forward with outright purchase plans, it will spearhead an effort to raise additional capital by selling convertible bonds.

In a statement, BlackBerry says Fairfax and other institutional investors will make the $US1 billion strategic investment, with Fairfax agreeing to directly acquire $250 million of the debentures. To sweeten the deal, which will be complete within two weeks, the bonds will convert at $10, well above the market value of BlackBerry shares, which sank more than 18 per cent on the Nasdaq in pre-market trade after the news broke.

Fairfax had tendered a letter of intent on Sept. 23rd that outlined a US$4.7 billion – or $9 per share – bid for the Waterloo, Ont., based smartphone maker. The terms of the tentative offer included a six-week due diligence period that, in addition to giving Fairfax enough time to examine the books, also allowed BlackBerry to seek additional offers. That six-week period ended Monday, with intense speculation building in recent days over who else might step forward.

The tentative offer hinged on the Toronto investment company’s ability to pull together a consortium of investors to help fund the deal. Fairfax owns 10 per cent of BlackBerry’s outstanding stock, and its chairman and CEO, Prem Watsa, had sat on the company’s board until August before stepping down.

Watsa now rejoins the board as lead director. In addition to stepping down as CEO, Heins, who had been set to receive a $56 million payout if the company was sold and he was terminated, will resign from the board, as will David Kerr. As the company was not sold, Heins’s payout will come in far below that amount.

Ex-Sybase chairman, CEO and president John Chen will step in as interim BlackBerry CEO, as well as executive chair of BlackBerry’s board. Yankee Group vice president of research Carl Howe told Yahoo Canada Finance that Chen is the right person in the right place at the right time.

"He embraced mobility before a lot of other people did,” said Howe. “He came up with the idea of the unwired enterprise, so he got pretty good credibility in the mobile workplace.”

Howe said Fairfax’s move to lead the investment effort is hardly surprising given how much it already has at stake. The investment plan also provides insight into why Heins is out and Chen is in.

“It’s a gesture,” said Howe. “I think Fairfax basically said if we’re going to raise money for you, we’ll want a little control and we’ll want a say as to who’s running the ship. I don’t think this is a disaster.”

In a statement, BlackBerry said it “does not anticipate that this announcement will result in significant additional changes to BlackBerry’s operations beyond those outlined in our previously announced restructuring plans – it expects to maintain a significant corporate presence in Waterloo, Ontario.”

While today’s rapid-fire moves put a sudden end to over 18 months of BlackBerry looking for a suitor, Howe says it’s hardly the final chapter in the company’s history.

“I don’t think it’s a conclusion,” said Howe. “I think it’s a continuation of what’s been happening. They’ve bought some more runway.”

CBC analyst reacts to recent news about BlackBerry