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9/6/2011
10:07 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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RIM Investors Push For Sale, Breakup

Research In Motion should explore transformational changes, including the breakup or sale of the company, says the CEO of Jaguar Financial.

"It is time for transformational change," said Jaguar Financial CEO Vic Alboini in a statement Tuesday. Alboini thinks RIM needs to weigh its options, which he points out should be an outright sale of the company, or siphoning off the company's patents in order to bring in the maximum value for investors.

This isn't the first time this year we've heard such talk from RIM's investors.

One of the biggest gripes voiced by investors in recent months is the current makeup of RIM's leadership. As it stands, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie are co-CEOs and co-chairmen of the board. This means they have concentrated their power at the top. Many have called for the CEO and chairman roles to be split and for the board to add more independent members.

In response to this criticism Balsillie said, "We are currently approaching the tail-end of a significant transition in our business, that, frankly, few companies would have survived. But we have. And I believe that neither of us could have taken RIM this far alone."

But investors aren't having any of it.

"The team there has not executed for a prolonged period and that underscores the need for an independent chairman," said James Cole in July, an investor who owns $46 million in RIM stock at Portland Investment Counsel in Calgary, to BusinessWeek. "It's getting to the point where the executives have to be called to account and how are they going to call themselves to account? They won't do it."

RIM later succumbed to shareholder pressure and agreed to study the idea of splitting the roles of CEO and chairman of the board. A committee has been established to explore how the CEO and chairman roles might be best fulfilled, and will offer a recommendation based on its findings.

"There doesn't seem to be the urgency in addressing meaningful matters," noted Paul Taylor, chief investment officer of BMO Harris Private Banking, to BusinessWeek, also in July. "It seems like they committed to study the matter but have they committed to a change? Not really. It's a bit disappointing."

The worst bit of ire is being spilled by Mike Abramsky, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Toronto. In a July note to investors, he called for the Waterloo-based smartphone maker to split into two separate companies--a sentiment now shared by Alboini.

"The market is generally tired of what they say and is more interested in what they do," he said. "For 18 months, Balsillie has been saying 'Just you wait,' and we're still waiting. RIM's organization, like its handsets, needs modernization. By acting now, splitting RIM into network and handset businesses may target opportunities and unlock significant shareholder value."

The problem with all of this is that RIM recently launched a spate of new BlackBerry handsets with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. According to preliminary guesswork, this new wave of handsets is selling at a decent clip.

But they may be too little, too late. Android, iOS, and even Windows Phone 7 have all surpassed the BlackBerry platform in terms of modern operating systems. The new BlackBerry 7 devices are a band-aid at best, a short-term fix to stop the flowing wound that was torn open by Apple and Google. While these new smartphones are capable business devices, knowing that they will be superseded in mere months by next-generation QNX BlackBerrys could dampen interest in them.

Muted interest in its smartphones won't help RIM's long-term financial performance, which has already been downgraded twice this year.

While I think calling for the company to be sold or split is not warranted, change at the top probably is. The company needs to do something with Balsillie and Lazaridis and transform the leadership in such a way that these two men won't have such power. The chance of Balsillie and Lazaridis willingly giving up their current co-CEO status is slim to none, however.

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