Top in sales 2005: Don Morrison, Research In Motion

The Boss report: 2006 | 2005

Intro | Top CEO | Top CFO | Top in sales | CEOs to watch | Top COO | Top in technology | Most innovative CEO

Don Morrison
Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX: RIM)

Date of birth: January 9, 1953
Years at company: 5
Last position: Senior VP of Government and External Affairs, AT&T Canada
Education: MBA, University of Toronto

Whenever Research In Motion's Cinderella story comes up, the focus inevitably turns to its co-CEOs, Michael Lazaridis and James Balsillie. Rightly so. Even with the taint of patent infringement (RIM settled a lawsuit with NTP Inc. in March), the Waterloo, Ont.-based company's BlackBerry wireless e-mail pager is one of Canada's great commercial innovations. Time magazine recently named brainy Lazaridis and savvy biz whiz Balsillie two of the most influential people in the world. Not Canada. The world. The co-CEOs are so entrenched in the public mind that rarely is anyone else from RIM in the spotlight. Yet giving all the credit to the duo is an oversimplification, at best.

Take Don Morrison. You won't find his name plastered on press releases or given top billing at technology speaking engagements. But Morrison, as much as anyone, is responsible for RIM's worldwide expansion. He has met and signed carriers to push BlackBerry, helped them figure out how to sell it, and ensured the service is always on. Those agreements are the primary driver behind the rapid globalization of the device. “He's worked with the carriers on channel and sales efficiency and growing the operational aspects of that channel,” says Balsillie. “That's key, that's our revenue.”

It took five years for RIM to sign up one million subscribers, and less than 10 months in 2004 to sign up its next million. Today, RIM has 80-plus carrier partners in more than 40 countries. Morrison, who joined RIM in late 2000, with the formal title of chief operating officer, is the point man behind it all. “I've got a major effort underway to globalize the business,” he says. “A lot of my time is spent talking with carriers who want to sign up with BlackBerry, and then working with the team here to accelerate that.”

Morrison knows time is of the essence. While RIM may have pioneered the use of wireless e-mail pagers, a host of potential competitors, including Nokia and Rogers Wireless (which is owned by the same company as Canadian Business), are eager to get into the market. That's partly why Morrison spends almost half his time on the road. In the last eight weeks of 2004 alone, he travelled to Europe and India six times. To accelerate adoption of the BlackBerry, Morrison has standardized the process of getting a wireless carrier up and running with the device, cutting the time it takes to 45 days, from 180. Last year, RIM inked deals with 25 carriers–but 100 were left waiting at the altar. That, promises Morrison, is changing, and RIM will be even more aggressive in new territories.

Fortunately, RIM's rapid expansion fits perfectly with the skills Morrison picked up during three decades of working at the likes of AT&T and Bell Canada. A deeply religious man who once considered the priesthood, Morrison has found a kind of spiritual satisfaction in using technology to break down communication barriers between cultures, and his career has given him the chance to participate in some of the last century's most momentous events. As AT&T's regional vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for four years starting in 1990, Morrison was in Kuwait City when AT&T re-established communications after the Gulf War in 1991. Later that year, he helped put in place the initial earth-station connections to all 15 of the breakaway Soviet republics after the fall of communism. Events like those are what inspire Morrison to keep pushing the envelope. He says he gets the same kick planting the BlackBerry throughout the world.

But while Morrison is proud of the accomplishments, he's quick to defer credit for RIM's success to others, including his team of vice-presidents, business development and project management employees, and fellow COO Larry Conlee, who handles manufacturing and technology development. That modesty is typical of Morrison, who is happy to work in the shadows and let RIM's co-CEOs be in the limelight. But that's just one more reason he deserves some praise of his own. A.H.