Farewell, then, Lazaridis and Balsillie

RIM's co-CEOs are taking a big step away from the spotlight

It’s actually closer to say Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the co-CEOs of Research in Motion, are taking a big step away from the spotlight as they hand over CEO duties to a German guy named Thorsten Heins. Balsillie, the slim guy who (theoretically) took care of the business side, will remain a director of the company. Lazaridis, the silver-haired tech and ideas guy, will lead a new “innovation committee” of the board. But yeah, basically they’re no longer in control of the company’s direction.

(As it happens, the current issue of Canadian Business has a definitive account, by Joe Castaldo, of the turmoil inside RIM.)

This turn of events has one clear benefit for the company: it buys time, time RIM cannot fill with new products. Phones featuring the Waterloo company’s fancy new operating system won’t be available until the second half of 2012, and Lazaridis and Balsillie had already decided to bet the farm on those products’ ability to, in Balsillie’s words, “leapfrog the industry.”

Whether Heins can do much after that is up to Heins. For encouragement, he can look to the story of another global comms company that fell on hard times and seems, in the early going, to have been smartly turned around by an import CEO: Nokia, under the Canadian Stephen Elop.

Whatever happens next, Lazaridis and Balsillie have had an amazing run. As recently as two years ago they were still ahead of the market. They’ve built a formidable global brand. None of the bad press ahead can take that achievement away.

One asset I’ll be keeping an eye on is Perimeter Institute, the theoretical physics think tank Lazaridis launched in Waterloo using, eventually, more than $100 million of his own money. At first glance Perimeter, and the affiliated Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, seem safe: Lazaridis paid the seed money up front, precisely so they could thrive no matter what happened to his fortune. Governments have nearly matched his donations. Corporations unaffiliated with RIM have begun putting their own money into Perimeter’s work. (Balsillie has put many millions of his own money into a foreign-affairs think tank across the street, the Centre for International Governance Innovation; CIGI has made less of a mark in its field but is still a laudable initiative.)

UPDATE: The new guy sits for a video interview. Good news: “We always think ahead.” Room for improvement: “We need to execute better.”

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