Mike and Jim's excellent adventure isn't ending. It's just shifting from one chapter to another. And as the now-former-CEOs of Research In Motion plot their next career move, it's clear that nothing they do can, at least in the near term, match the meteoric roller coaster ride of their time at RIM.
Still, it isn't quite over for either of these uniquely skilled overachievers. Far from it: being freed from the weight of day-to-day accountability for a global player doing business in some of the most brutal geographies and markets on the planet should provide plenty of opportunity for these two to plant some new seeds elsewhere and see what grows.
The transition process was well underway long before Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie stepped down from RIM earlier this week, with both men laying down some deep philanthropic roots in the Waterloo community over much of the last decade.
They were founding donors of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics — though Mr. Lazaridis's $100 million contributions outpace those from Mr. Balsillie and RIM co-founder Douglas Fregin, who each kicked in $10 million. Their shared penchant for major institutional giving led to major founding investments in the University of Waterloo's Centre for International Governance Innovation, launched in 2001. Mr. Lazaridis was also a major driver behind the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.
Of the two, Mr. Lazaridis probably has the more predictable of the two post-RIM career and life trajectories. Like Mr. Balsillie, he remains on the board of directors. Unlike Mr. Balsillie, his role there is significantly more involved, as he is vice chair and also leads an innovation committee. His involvement in the university-linked institutes also extends beyond initial contributions, with ongoing consultation and speaking engagements. Despite being the face of the company during a run of controversies that included the NTP patent case in 2006 and the aftermath of last October's global service outage, Mr. Lazaridis will be, of the two, more likely to fade, if at least slightly, from the spotlight. He'll still be visible, only on a smaller scale.
Mr. Balsillie's interests extended into the sporting world, as well, with repeated, high-profile attempts to buy an NHL team and bring it to Hamilton. Despite his dogged pursuit, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes remain in their respective cities, with the NHL unlikely to consider additional efforts as long as commissioner Gary Bettman, with whom Mr. Balsillie has had a testy relationship, is in office.
Mr. Balsillie single remaining connection — board member — to the company he helped turn into a global wireless powerhouse won't be anywhere near enough to keep his dance card full. The company's share price meltdown has reduced his own net worth to the point that self-funding another NHL bid just isn't feasible. While there are other leagues with lower costs of entry for a team, they lack the prestige value of a top-tier NHL franchise. He could fill his time contributing to various other boards — he chairs the Canadian International Council, and sits on the Ontario Manufacturing Council — or working within the community, where he has been actively involved in a wide range of organizations, including the Grand River Hospital, the YMCA and the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum. Ultimately, though, his innate competitiveness could very well lead him back to the corner office somewhere in the tech market before long.
Walking away from the leadership of a company like RIM is hardly as simple as filling a storage box with personal effects and quietly locking the door. Both of these men have lived in an intense bubble of publicity for so long that it's hard to imagine either of them fading into obscurity. Indeed, the traits — namely entrepreneurship, innovation and a healthy dose of competitiveness — that helped them create a once-in-a-generation company that dominated local and global markets and challenged some of the biggest names in wireless technology will likely keep them coming back for more. There is no quiet second act for either of them.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org