BlackBerry CEO: ‘We’ve done good but must now grow our business’

  • BlackBerry growth to be powered by augmenting channels in SEA
  • Future tech comes from within as well as acquisitions which makes sense


BlackBerry CEO: ‘We’ve done good but must now grow our business’


THE industry loves a good corporate turnaround story. The most famous and oft-cited one is how Apple Inc’s Steve Jobs got fired from the company he co-founded only to engineer a comeback, retake the top job, and in the process, save Apple from crumbling to ashes.

Or how it took a complete corporate outsider, Lou Gerstner, who had no knowledge of technology and IT, to prevent the behemoth IBM Corp from meeting death in the 1990s, when it came back from the brink of an US$8 billion (RM33.8 billion) loss in 1993, to grow its market capitalisation to US$168 billion by 2003. (US$1 = RM4.22)

Fairytale comeback stories such as these are few and far between. But perhaps another story one could begin to consider as a comeback story is the recent return of Canadian technology company BlackBerry Ltd.

The Waterloo, Ontario-based firm seems to have recovered, coming back from a nadir of having lost nearly a billion dollars in 2013.  The company's revenue also almost halved, to US$1.6 billion, while its cash pile fell by US$500 million to US$2.57 billion, according to Forbes.

Its recent Q2 2018 earnings report seems encouraging. While not exactly out of the woods yet, BlackBerry did turn a negative operating margin of US$352 million in August of 2017 into a positive US$19 million for Q2 this year. The company also reported a cash flow of US$2.5 billion.

The jury’s still out on whether current chief executive officer and executive chairman John Chen of the once unassailable push email pioneer and smartphone maker can completely turn things around or not. Or whether or not he can spur growth for the company after having stemmed the loss-making tide.

READ ALSO: Comeback kid BlackBerry aims high but will it succeed?

What’s clear for now is that BlackBerry seems to have turned a corner, and that Chen is recognised as being the prime mover for having done so.

The British-Hong Kong native has a corporate reputation of having reversed the fortunes of another tech company before he arrived at BlackBerry. In 1998, the struggling database software maker Sybase was sidelined by the world’s largest player, Oracle Corp.

After helming Sybase for 12 years, he made it attractive enough for German apps giant SAP SE to buy the company for US$5.8 billion.

Chen may seem affable and even at times jovial in his interviews on TV and in person, very often quipping about everything from his leadership style to his competitors.

But industry colleagues who know him say he is anything but. In fact, they describe the 62-year-old Chen as a “tough-as-nails” executive, who is very focused on what he wants to accomplish at BlackBerry.

When he left Sybase, he was reported to have said “After 15 years of leading Sybase, I want to take on a new challenge.”

This drive and desire was plain to see at last month’s BlackBerry Security Summit in London, where Chen told a select group of journalists that the journey for BlackBerry, “is just the beginning and we don’t think that we’re at the endpoint [as yet].”

In a 45-minute group interview session, Chen fielded tough questions on the state of his company, his strategy to pivot from being purely a hardware handset maker into a software, cyber-security and IoT company, and why he refused to change the brand name ‘BlackBerry.’

He also shared about BlackBerry in Indonesia, how he viewed competition, his plans for BlackBerry in 2018, and his view of the future of the company including keeping research and development (R&D) within the firm.

Below are excerpts of the interviews. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. How do you see the security market given its highly competitive nature? How do you compete with some companies while at the same time cooperate with others such as Microsoft Corp and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd?

Chen: I’m a believer in this thinking; if the market is not big enough, you won’t have competition. This is the reason why some companies compete with us while others also collaborate with us.

This is the nature of the security business because as the market is so big, it forces us to compete and cooperate with others. For example, we cooperate with Microsoft Corp on its Office 365 product because our customers need to use these applications. On the other hand, we have the secure container technology which Microsoft doesn’t have, which will provide the security around the mobile accessibility of the Office 365.

Competition is a given when the market is big, especially when it comes to security. But I’m not worried about the competition. BlackBerry has a unique proposition. We have the best mobile security solution, and this has been validated by analysts, customers and partners. We have a lot of background and knowhow in security and we have enough to compete.

Next page: What happens in 2018 and beyond?


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