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Reading the Tea Leaves in RIM Shake-Up

Stocks in this article: RIMM

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- To hear Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion (RIMM) tell it, their departures as co-chairs and co-CEOs at RIM were well thought out and their own decisions. They deny being pushed out by an anxious board or disgruntled shareholders.

Lazaridis co-founded RIM in 1985. Balsillie joined the company in 1992 and with Lazaridis, built the Blackberry maker into a global leader in communication electronics.

Mike Lazaridis

In the official press release, 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. With BlackBerry 7 now out, PlayBook 2.0 shipping in February and BlackBerry 10 expected to ship later this year, the company is entering a new phase, and we felt it was time for a new leader to take it through that phase and beyond. Jim, the Board and I all agreed that leader should be Thorsten Heins.

Yet, it is curious that Heins is four years older than Lazaridis. When founders retire, it's usually because they're too old, too young (think Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google (GOOG)), or too inexperienced (which is a nice way of saying "in over their head").

Lazaridis was 50. That's clearly not too old in most people's books. If it was too old, why pass it over to a 54-year-old Siemens guy who'd only been at Research in Motion since 2007? Lazaridis wasn't too young and he wasn't too inexperienced.

I think if you did an informal poll of most investors, media and analysts who follow the company, they'd say that he left because of the company's challenges in the last few years when its U.S. market share dropped from 44% to less than 10% in two years and the stock dropped over 70% in 2011. Maybe that qualifies as too inexperienced. But Lazaridis clearly says he wasn't pushed. He, Jim, and the board all decided that it was time to "pass the baton" to Heins.

Jim Balsillie's comments in the official press release were:

I agree this is the right time to pass the baton to new leadership, and I have complete confidence in Thorsten, the management team and the company.... I remain a significant shareholder and a Director and, of course, they will have my full support.

Even for a corporately scrubbed press release, this sounds particularly neutered. It's not the typically flamboyant and pugnacious Balsillie -- the kind of guy who goes into the corners hard to get a puck during a meaningless recreational hockey game. The kind of guy who - according to one ex-RIM employee I know - walked into a Saturday morning meeting of the sales and marketing teams and complained that there were too many BMWs in the parking lot and that all of them had gotten too soft over the years.

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