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Meet John Chen, the new CEO tapped to save BlackBerry

Forgive us for thinking we’ve been here before.

When Thorsten Heins took the reins of BlackBerry, then called Research In Motion, in January 2012, he was supposed to be the man who would lead the embattled smartphone maker through the wilderness.

Less than two years later, after the first wave of devices based on the all-new BlackBerry 10 platform failed to ignite a consumer-led buying frenzy, Heins is out and his replacement in the corner office, John Chen, is in. While Chen, who also joins BlackBerry’s board as executive chair, is officially being called the company’s interim CEO, his background suggests he’s in it for the long haul – or at least a longer haul than Mr. Heins.

Expertise within – and beyond – the boardroom

The electrical engineer is a telecom and tech industry veteran, and became chief operating officer at Sybase in 1997 before being named CEO and president the next year. While helming Sybase, he became known as a pioneer in the then-radical concept of enterprise mobility. At the time, most organizations were hesitant to use wireless technologies due to security, reliability and cost fears. Chen built Sybase into a leading provider of mobile data as well as data management and analytics solutions before German software giant SAP AG bought it out for US$5.8 billion in 2010. Chen retired from the company last November, saying in a joint interview with SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott that the time was right.

“It’s time for me to relinquish the ownership of this franchise,” Chen said at the time. “I always thought about this like marrying off your daughter. You know it’s the right thing to do, you just want to hold on a little more – but it’s time to move on to other challenges.”

A good fit

In many respects, BlackBerry’s challenges align nicely with the skills Chen has brought to bear throughout his career. He managed to reverse Sybase’s fortunes – it had incurred net losses for four straight years when he took over in 1998 – and managed to convince a skeptical market that mobile technology wasn’t just viable, but it represented the future of business. He articulated the value proposition of then-embryonic technologies like real-time analytics and the cloud, and helped clients understand how investing in them could drive to the bottom line.

Chen, who was born in Hong Kong, gained deep exposure to the Chinese market in his earlier roles, which should give him additional insight as BlackBerry leans ever more heavily on emerging geographies. He appeared before the U.S. Congress to provide testimony on U.S.-China trade, and was chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) U.S.-China Policy Advisory Roundtable. Chen is a board member at Walt Disney Co. and Wells Fargo, and was also a member of former U.S President George Bush’s export council.

Chen may wear the interim CEO title as he moves into his new digs in Waterloo, Ont., but the combination of his background and the timing of his appointment suggest he may shed the interim moniker sooner rather than later. Which is exactly the stability and vision BlackBerry needs as it ends one chapter and begins another.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.