Men in motion

Rich 100 profile: Michael Lazaridis and James Balsillie.

Research In Motion Ltd.'s stock split in May, but the price hasn't. That more than anything explains the meteoric rise up the Rich 100 list by company founder Michael Lazaridis (left) and chairman James Balsillie, who are now worth $1.51 billion and $1.46 billion, respectively. The fortunes of the wireless e-mail paging company's co-CEOs are almost all tied up in RIM stock (TSX: RIM)–Lazaridis owns 12.8 million shares, Balsillie (the veteran bean-counter who came aboard in 1992) owns 11.8 million shares–which shows few signs of slumping. The stock is once again trading at more than $100 as the Waterloo, Ont.-based company expects to see revenues double to US$1.3 billion for fiscal 2005.

But while the financial figures are impressive, the most important number inside RIM is two million. That's how many subscribers the company now has, up from half that number just six months ago. In the next few years, RIM is aiming for five million, maybe even 10 million subscribers as it goes after the Asian and European markets. “There are lots of new networks and lots of new products, and it translates into really strong subscriber growth,” CFO Dennis Kavelman said before RIM entered its fiscal Q3 quiet period.

For innovation-starved Canadians, the story of how RIM became one of the country's most promising and richest technology companies is destined to become business folklore. Lazaridis, the brains behind RIM's innovations, was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and came to Canada with his family in 1966. He picked up an interest in technology during high school, went to the University of Waterloo to pursue an electrical engineering degree, but quit in 1984 when General Motors of Canada Ltd. awarded him an industrial automation contract even though he didn't have a company. From those humble beginnings, Lazaridis and RIM came up with one product after another, none particularly noteworthy save a bar-code reader for the film industry that won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement in 1999. That same year, RIM finished exploring the sweet spot between the Internet and wireless technologies and came up with the BlackBerry e-mail pager. Today, the BlackBerry is virtually synonymous with e-mail pagers, the way Kleenex is with tissues, and some of its later versions have telephone capabilities, as well.

The only dark cloud on RIM's horizon is a potentially lethal copyright-infringement lawsuit launched by NTP Inc., an American patent holder for various technologies. But appeals will likely go on for many years, giving billionaires Lazaridis and Balsillie plenty of time to bask in the limelight.