January 23, 2012 6:18 pm

‘Safe choice’ set to tighten reins at RIM

Thorsten Heins jokes that as a German, he knows something about discipline.

That attribute is set to play a serious role in Mr Heins’ stewardship of Research In Motion following his appointment as the BlackBerry maker’s chief executive last weekend.

“Once I decide on building an idea, or on building a product or a service or a network, I do this very rigorously,” Mr Heins told the Financial Times. “Discipline in the development process, flawless execution, quality [and] accountability in the system.”

Ted Schadler, analyst at Forrester Research, said that RIM badly needed a sharper focus given its belated and scattergun approach to the explosion of consumer demand for smartphones and mobile applications. “They have essentially been in response mode”, he said.

The risk for RIM though is that an overemphasis on discipline could dull its creative juices. Ray Sharma, chairman of Toronto-based Xtreme Labs, one of the biggest developers of BlackBerry applications, said that “they have basically made the safe choice by choosing a person who is a known quantity and, from the developer’s perspective, a little more conservative”.

GMP Securities told clients on Monday that the new chief executive “may lack the vision, marketing, software and sales leadership skills required at RIM”.

Xtreme Lab’s Mr Sharma, a former securities analyst, added that the choice of Mr Heins as chief executive made RIM a more likely takeover target.

Since its creation two decades ago, the emphasis at RIM has been on innovation and entrepreneurship under its pioneering joint chief executives and chairmen, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.

While Mr Heins expressed a determination to preserve that culture, he also sees a need to tighten the reins.

“I think my leadership style matches RIM and its culture”, he said. “But I can also take it to different heights in terms of running a global portfolio (and to) get quality out.”

He has spearheaded numerous changes since he joined RIM at the end of 2007 after 23 years at Siemens, the German engineering group.

First as the head of RIM’s handheld business unit then one of two chief operating officers, he has rearranged many internal teams, shaken up the software organisation and introduced stricter project management systems.

His ability to carry out a more profound shake-up could be complicated by the two former chief executives’ continuing presence as RIM directors and shareholders. Mr Lazaridis, in particular, has indicated that he will remain actively involved in the company as head of a new board committee on innovation.

However, Mr Lazaridis and Mr Balsillie insist that they took the initiative in proposing Mr Heins as their successor and that he enjoys their full support. “He very quickly met all our expectations”, Mr Lazaridis said.

Besides discipline, RIM’s new chief sees his main strength as an ability to motivate creative employees, mostly through small teams.

“I think I can inspire them. I am able to pick up an idea that comes up, understand if it’s viable or not, and get it up and going,” says the 54 year-old Mr Heins, a keen outdoorsman who enjoys cycling, skiing and hiking.

“You cannot go to them and say, ‘please build this, and please build that’,” he adds. “Humans want to participate, they want to create something. So your leadership style has to make sure that they not just feel ownership but that they have ownership.”

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