RIM CEOs resign; new CEO says no seismic changes needed

Takeover talk swirled around Research In Motion on Monday as investors and analysts pondered whether new Chief Executive Thorsten Heins had been appointed to lead a turnaround of the struggling smartphone maker or prepare it for sale.

Takeover talk swirled around Research In Motion on Monday as investors and analysts pondered whether new Chief Executive Thorsten Heins had been appointed to lead a turnaround of the struggling smartphone maker or prepare it for sale.

Heins, who joined the company in 2007 and took over the top job on Saturday when co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie resigned, said he wants to do a better job in rolling out innovative new products to get ahead of the competition. But he argued the company doesn’t need seismic change.

Still, key shareholders and analysts alike signaled they are impatient for drastic improvement at a company that has lost market share and market value after being comprehensively outplayed by the likes of Apple (Cupertino, Calif., USA) and Google (Mountain View, Calif., USA).

“If Thorsten really believes that there are no changes to be made, he will be gone within 15 to 18 months. He will be a transitional CEO and this will be a transitional board,” says Jaguar CEO Vic Alboini, who leads an informal group of 16 RIM shareholders holding just under 10% of the company’s shares.

Alboini criticized the retention of Balsillie and Lazaridis on RIM’s (Ontario, Canada) board and called for several other board members to step down before the company’s mid-year annual meeting.

“If we’re wrong, prove us wrong,” Alboini said in an interview, referring to the group of shareholders who support his view. “This group is not going anywhere. This is just putting RIM in a position where it might be able to get back into the game. It’s early days.”

RIM’s U.S.-listed shares climbed 4.1% to $17.69 in premarket trade on Monday. RIM looks badly in need of a leader that can rejuvenate both the design and operational sides of the business or prepare it for sale to one of a raft of rumored buyers, its critics said.

“If there are no meaningful signs of an imminent turnaround then I think the spotlight will turn back on to the assets that RIM holds and who they might be attractive to,” says CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood. “The annual analyst event in May will now become the focal point to the unveiling of Thorsten’s vision. We know the speed with which you make strategic changes and implement them is absolutely critical because the mobile phone business will not stand still.”

On the surface, the former Siemens AG executive appeared to suggest he would stick to the current strategy, but analysts expect that to change in the coming months. RIM’s existing product lineup has struggled to compete with Apple’s iPhone and iPad and the slew of large-screen and powerful devices from Samsung and other manufacturers using Google’s Android operating system.

First on the agenda will be a need to improve execution, with a particular focus in North America where RIM has hemorrhaged market share after a year marked by product delays and a botched launch of its PlayBook tablet.

“It takes nine months for a product to get to market once you have thought about what you want to do,” says Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. “They are looking at least a year from a transitional perspective.

“Picking Thorsten is a sign that they haven’t quite decided that (a sale is what) they want to do, so they might give it yet another shot at looking at the business and trying to come back”.

As the window for a turnaround closes, the clamor from shareholders for the company to license its technology to third parties or even sell the business has got louder.

“RIM’s Achilles heel is its hardware focus,” says Victor Basta, managing director at Magister Advisors. “IBM is a very rare exception to the rule, but it took them a decade to transition from a hardware to a software focus. RIM does not have the luxury of a decade.”

Investors have seized on any rumor of a deal, whether with Amazon as reported by Reuters in December or with Samsung last week, as reason to celebrate.

Analysts have said that logical buyers for RIM also include fellow-struggler Nokia, perhaps with support from Microsoft, and Facebook which is increasingly pushing its content to users via their mobile phones.

If there is no obvious buyer, Heins does have more immediate options to add value to the business. Heins says his most immediate concern was to sell RIM’s current lineup of BlackBerry 7 touchscreen devices, deliver on a promised software upgrade for its PlayBook tablet computer by February, and rally RIM’s troops to launch the next-generation BlackBerry 10 phones later this year.

Longer term, RIM could license its software or integrate its email package, a strategy that many analysts and investors have thought the company might pursue. Heins, formerly one of RIM’s chief operating officers, said it would be wrong to focus on that option but he is still open to discussions.

The two men who Heins replaces together built Lazaridis’ 1985 start-up into a global business. Both men, also two of RIM’s three largest shareholders with more than 5% each, will remain board members while Lazaridis will stay on as the head of a newly created innovation committee.

“RIM has had big challenges in the past and they succeeded in moving from a corporate product to be also a consumer product, to get a foot in the consumer market and very few people expected them to do that,” says consultant John Strand. “Now they have to reinvent themselves again.”

(Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Andrew Callus and Frank McGurty)