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In 2011, shares of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) have fallen by -- please be seated, for your safety -- more than 75%. Yes, three-quarters of the market cap has evaporated in just 52 weeks. Counting back to all-time highs set in 2008, RIM is about one-tenth the market presence it once was.
As we head into 2012, RIM is facing some extreme challenges. If the Canadians can pull through, the bounce from today's depressed prices would be epic. Is that a realistic dream? Let's think about it together.
A quick fix, please!
Disgruntled investors are calling for deep changes to RIM's strategy, leadership, and corporate governance policies.
Activist investor firm Jaguar Financial is calling for co-CEOs and co-Chairmen Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis to loosen their iron grip on the company. Jaguar wants the two board members best versed in corporate governance to whip up some changes, and also suggests that RIM should find a buyer -- either for the whole business or for just the handset division.
These ideas are not new. Earlier this year, Northwest & Ethical Investments put the CEO/chairman split and independent chairman moves up for a shareholder vote. But that vote was withdrawn when RIM agreed to launch a committee to study the governance structure. The committee report is due by the end of January, and the full board will then "publicly respond to the recommendations" within 30 days.
So in the fast-moving, volatile mobile industry, RIM is spending eight months to come up with a recommendation that may not be adopted in the end. Way to take firm action, eh? Yeah, I'm being sarcastic.
How will RIM process the report?
That committee report will be a good read. If the committee did its homework, we should see firm recommendations to have just one CEO, one chairman (preferably independent), and no single person or dynamic duo with dictatorial powers. A governance report commissioned by the Ontario Securities Commission in 2009 came to these conclusions, and it's also just common sense.
The impassive board's reaction to that bitter medicine will tell you all you need to know about RIM:
- Take the hard-to-swallow pill like a good boy, and the company might make it after all. With more nimble and clear-eyed management and boardroom leadership in place, RIM would stop acting like a stubborn donkey. The company could then squeeze real value out of its BlackBerry brand and secure messaging services by forming partnerships and unloading dead wood like the handset division.
- Or, Lazaridis and Balsillie could rebut, ignore, or otherwise discredit the report and carry on as before. Remember those OSC guidelines that were issued in 2009? They suggested one independent chairperson, more checks and balances on the powers of the co-CEOs (but didn't call for a single-CEO structure), and much more. RIM flat-out ignored the chairman recommendation, and Lazaridis and Balsillie don't seem restrained at all. If the Canadian SEC can't force RIM's hand, why would an internal committee have any more power? And the descent into madness and obsolescence continues.
What's next? (Caution: not for the squeamish)
Very dark days lie ahead unless RIM makes very drastic leadership changes. The current captains party like it's 2005, when the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android platforms were mere glimmers in their inventors' eyes. Those days are gone, and RIM has been slow to adapt. The PlayBook tablet was a bomb of Palm-like proportions; corporate managers are starting to replace the old BlackBerry hegemony with employee-owned iPhones and Androids. The time to act was yesterday.
The last chance to save the business without making any drastic changes would be if the QNX-based BlackBerry 10 platform is a smash hit. But that launch has been pushed into the back half of 2012, and some RIM insiders say that the new software just isn't any good. Don't bet the farm on this supposed savior, folks.
If RIM stays the course in classic Lazaridis and Balsillie fashion, I might write the company's obituary before next December. Maybe Hewlett-Packard wants to buy another floundering phone designer? Perhaps Google could use those BlackBerry-stamped patents as a shield in the never-ending patent wars. Amazon.com has already kicked the tires a bit. So did Microsoft and Nokia, considering a joint bid. I'm sure the BlackBerry brand can find a good home somewhere, if only management and the board of directors would let it.
It's hard to look away from this slow-motion wreckage. Add RIM to your watchlist to see what happens next. There are plenty of fine investments elsewhere in the mobile industry, though. Here are three mobile ideas from our top analysts, just to get you started.