RIM's Heins Deserves Props for Leadership

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I still remember the moment I heard that Thorsten Heins had been named CEO of Research In Motion ( RIMM) to replace Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. The one-year anniversary was last Sunday. I remember because it came in the middle of the NFC Championship between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants.

I recall thinking: How can this company announce this news in the middle of this football game? It was the perfect symbol of how tone deaf the company had been with their shareholder base.

I'd never heard of Thorsten Heins but I assumed he was a puppet for outgoing co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, because a.) he'd worked at RIM since 2007 and b.) I had heard he'd been hand picked by Lazaridis.

For about the next six months, each time Heins spoke publicly, it seemed like he put his foot in his mouth. It was incredible to me how poor a communicator he was. In one of his first interviews, he said that RIM was doing just fine and the media and investors immediately jumped down his throat.

When RIMM pushed back the BlackBerry 10 launch to January this past summer, anyone who hadn't already written off RIMM did. Heins displayed no sense of urgency.

In July, I remember calling him the "worst communicating CEO I'd ever seen."

However, what wasn't obvious to me then, but which I began to hear over the end of the summer and then into the Fall, was that Heins was a solid, execution-focused CEO. Most employees actually liked him, even though he announced in the summer that he'd cut one-third of the workforce to conserve cash.

But in the past seven months, it's really impossible to point to any mistakes that Heins has made as CEO to this point a week before the critical BB10 launch.

The cost cuts. The cash management to date. Previewing BB10 to carriers and critical "opinion leaders." Offering cash awards for developers to port apps over to the new OS. Ensuring almost all of the top 100 apps were there. Delivering a snappy phone. Making the BB10 very interesting for their heartbeat-core enterprise and government customers (with "Balance" between work and personal). Offering existing users and CIOs incentives to move to BB10. Getting carriers onboard to support the new phones. Not selling the company at the lows or doing some partnership with another company that wasn't beneficial for RIMM but to make it look like RIMM had a big brother behind it.

Of course, the RIMM bears will say none of that matters unless/until Heins delivers a phone that is a hit. After all, almost everyone agrees that BB10 is a make-or-break moment for the company. So none of these moves matter if the new phones are a flop.

However, I think Thorsten Heins deserves credit for his stewardship of the company to date in this first year.

As former co-CEO Jim Balsillie once said, RIMM has had to walk through the Valley of Death this year in transitioning from one platform to another. Most companies fail to make that transition. While the jury is still out on the final verdict for RIMM, only the biggest cynic couldn't acknowledge that Heins has done a solid job this year.

And the feelings within the company have obviously improved with the rising stock price and the approach of the new BB10 launch. The biggest impression I have of Heins as a leader is: practical, hard-working and results-focused.

In some ways, he's the German stereotype you'd ask for from central casting. But you can't argue with where it's brought the company to thus far.

It's also clear to me that the two former co-CEOs are no longer running the show. Balsillie left the board last March in a huff and, even though Mike Lazaridis is still Chairman and head of an Innovation Council at the company, I understand that his office is no longer in the same building as Thorsten. It's across town in an R&D Center.

Thorsten Heins is his own man. He truly has the reins of this company and the support of its board.

To use an American analogy from football, Heins is the quarterback who has led his team down the field during the two-minute drill to try and win the game and give the company a new lease on life. RIMM is now in the Red Zone and Heins must finish the job and get the ball in the endzone.

If he can, he'll be a hero. If he can't, no one will remember all the good stuff he's done to this point.

I think we could have another Joe Flacco on our hands.

At the time of publication, the author was long RIMM.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

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