Smartphone pioneers Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis are stepping down this week from their chief executive roles at struggling BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion Ltd. in a dramatic shake-up that will see Thorsten Heins take the leadership reins as CEO.
But despite a more than two-thirds decline in RIM’s share price over the past year, Heins signalled that he will largely stay the course set by Balsillie and Lazaridis.
In a statement, Lazaridis said: “There comes a time in the growth of every successful company when the founders recognize the need to pass the baton to new leadership. Jim and I went to the board and told them that we thought that time was now.”
Both Lazaridis and Balsillie – two of RIM’s three largest shareholders with more than five percent each – will remain board members, with Lazaridis keeping the role as vice-chair and head of a newly created innovation committee. Lazaridis said he plans to buy an additional $50 million of RIM shares on the open market.
Balsillie, 50, and Lazaridis, 50, have headed Waterloo, Ontario based RIM together for the past two decades but investors lost patience with the pair in 2011. RIM’s shareholders have demanded changes at the top for months, blaming Balsillie and Lazaridis for several years of poor performance that have resulted in a precipitous drop in the company’s stock market value – shares in RIM were once so highly priced it was briefly Canada’s most valuable company, worth more than $70 billion. It’s market capitalization is now around $9 billion.
Lazaridis is of Greek background, born in Istanbul on March 14, 1961. He was five when his family moved to Canada. He studied electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Waterloo. Lazaridis responded to a request for proposal from General Motors to develop a network computer control display system in 1984. General Motors awarded him a $600,000 contract.
The same year he decided to drop out of university. It was just two months before he was scheduled to graduate. The money from General Motors, a small government grant, and a $15,000 loan from his parents enabled him, Mike Barnstijn, and Douglas Fregin to launch Research In Motion. One of the company’s first achievements was the development of barcode technology for film. RIM plowed the profits from that into wireless data transmission research, eventually leading to the introduction of the BlackBerry wireless mobile device in 1999, and its more well-known version in 2002.
Later in 2003, Lazaridis received an honorary engineering doctorate from the University of Waterloo. In 2006, Lazaridis was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario. He has donated $170 million to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, which focuses on cutting-edge research in foundational physics, as well as nearly $100 million to the Institute for Quantum Computing, also in Waterloo, to advance research in quantum information. His basic annual salary was about $1.17 million in 2011.
In March 2011, he was reported to be worth $1.9 billion. Some reports say they’re still billionaires, while others say they’re each worth roughly $800 million each because of their charitable donations and plummeting RIM share prices. In December 2011, Lazaridis and Balsillie both asked to have their salaries changed to $1 per year, a gesture many observers saw as an acknowledgement of the financial issues facing RIM.