Another Strange Flip-Flop for BlackBerry


Monday was "D-Day" for BlackBerry's strategic review. In late September, top shareholder Fairfax Financial signed a letter of intent to take BlackBerry private for $9/share, and it was supposed to make a firm offer by Monday. Meanwhile, other bidders were given until Monday to submit their own counter-proposals.

Neither of these things happened. Instead, BlackBerry announced that the board was ending its strategic review, selling $1 billion of convertible debt to a consortium of investors led by Fairfax, ousting CEO Thorsten Heins, and appointing John Chen as the new Executive Chairman and interim CEO of BlackBerry .

This is yet another strange flip-flop for a company that has been unable to adapt to the changing trends of the mobile revolution. BlackBerry's decision to remain public is unfortunate (although it may have had no choice), because it will lead to nonstop speculation about the company's viability. That said, while BlackBerry is flailing, it's not dead yet -- and John Chen seems like a great choice to take on the task of reviving it.

Betting on revival
For the past few weeks, it seemed like the main alternative to BlackBerry going private was to split the company up through asset sales. Qualcomm was reportedly interested in teaming up with Cerberus Capital to bid for BlackBerry. Qualcomm's interest probably stemmed from BlackBerry's mobile security patents. Some investment bankers have valued BlackBerry's patent portfolio at as much as $3 billion.

Instead, BlackBerry's announcement made it clear that the company is not considering breaking up or selling off patents. The company already tried a "Hail Mary" pass this year by betting that its new BB10 line of smartphones would revive sales. With that plan in tatters, BlackBerry is gearing up for another Hail Mary pass in 2014. This time, the focus will not be smartphones so much as software and services.

New mentality
BlackBerry's decision to appoint John Chen as Chairman and interim CEO demonstrates that the company is finally moving away from its smartphone-centric strategy. Chen was formerly CEO of the software company Sybase. At Sybase, he inherited a loss-making company, and engineered a dramatic turnaround by moving quickly into the mobile IT field. SAP eventually bought Sybase for $5.8 billion.

In media interviews on Monday, Chen stated that he does not plan for BlackBerry to stop selling phones. However, he asserted that the company's focus should be on software and services. The phone business might just be one way to monetize BlackBerry's software and service offerings. Chen plans to look for a permanent CEO with experience in software and services to expedite this strategy shift.

Chen has estimated that it will take 6 quarters to implement a turnaround at BlackBerry . His first job will be stemming BlackBerry's recent losses, to buy time for a turnaround. His second job will be laying out a strategy that can reenergize the company's remaining employees. His third job will be communicating that strategy to customers and investors, and convincing them that BlackBerry is not about to disappear.

Chen was able to do all of those things at Sybase, which makes him a great choice to lead BlackBerry right now. However, BlackBerry is a much higher-profile company because it is still just a few years removed from a leadership position in the smartphone industry. As a result, Chen will have to deal with more media speculation, and more investor hand-wringing.

Foolish bottom line
BlackBerry shareholders certainly shouldn't be happy about the company's most recent 180. Going private or selling to a stronger competitor would have been better alternatives than remaining in the public eye.

However, the hiring of John Chen is a big win for the company as it brings turnaround expertise. Moreover, due to the low sales of the BB10 smartphones, Chen should not have much trouble convincing people that software and services is a better area for BlackBerry to focus on. BlackBerry has many assets in mobile security and messaging that could ultimately underpin a successful and profitable company. Unfortunately, the path to getting there is as uncertain as ever.

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Fool contributor Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of BlackBerry and is long January 2014 $13 calls on BlackBerry. The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Originally published