Blogs & Comment

Why we had to declare BlackBerry our loser of the year: Duncan Hood

We didn’t want to do it

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

In our latest Winners & Losers issue, our annual scorecard of the business year that was, one of the more controversial features you’ll find inside is about BlackBerry, which we have declared to be our loser of the year. Some will accuse us of taking yet another cheap shot at a once great company that’s truly struggling. After all, millions of investors lost money on BlackBerry over the past year, and thousands of employees—few of whom deserved it—lost their jobs.

But we had to do it. BlackBerry’s string of mishaps was the biggest Canadian business story of 2013. And while there’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the company’s sad decline, almost all of it rests at the feet of the people at the top.

Last year, we used a comic strip format to look back at BlackBerry’s almost-as-tragic 2012. The reason? Because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry. We thought the company was fair game for an editorial cartoon criticizing what was clearly blatant mismanagement. But Research In Motion (as it was known then) didn’t agree. At the time, we had set up interviews with RIM for a piece on the development of the Z10 and Q10 smartphones. But when the comic came out, interviews with CEO Thorsten Heins, chief marketing officer Frank Boulben and chief operating officer Kristian Tear were promptly cancelled. I got an angry call from their VP of communications in New York. We were put on their blacklist and told we wouldn’t get any more interviews with senior executives.

Today, I have no regrets. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As Canada’s business magazine, we’re here to celebrate the country’s successes, but we’re also here to highlight the failures. Not because we enjoy kicking people when they’re down, but because the sooner those mistakes are recognized and corrected, the better off everyone will be.

Apparently Heins’s feelings were hurt by our comic. But he was a seasoned executive being paid millions to fix one of Canada’s greatest companies, and he was failing by any measure. By the time he left, the stock had plummeted by more than 50%, the firm was for sale and it didn’t look like anyone wanted to buy. Even though he was eventually fired, he was still given an exit package of $22 million.

That’s why this year the comic is back. In fact, we’ve expanded it to four pages. In it we chronicle the departure of Heins, Boulben and Tear from the company, as well as the introduction of John Chen, BlackBerry’s new CEO. Given Chen’s background as a turnaround artist at struggling enterprise technology company Sybase Inc., he seems much more likely to taste some success. His first move was to eliminate some of the executives charged with selling handsets to the public—a strong indication he intends to slim the company down and focus on enterprise solutions for large businesses. It may or may not work, but at least it looks like he has a strategy.

Certainly we at Canadian Business wish him well. BlackBerry may be our loser of the year right now, but I truly wish it weren’t. In fact, there’s nothing I’d like to do more than celebrate BlackBerry as Canada’s winner of the year in 2014.