BlackBerry’s Former Co-CEO Jim Balsillie Sells Stake

Jim Balsillie, Research In Motion Ltd.’s co-chief executive officer until January of last year, cut his last formal ties to a company he helped found 20 years ago when he reported yesterday that he no longer holds a stake.

Balsillie disclosed owning zero shares in RIM as of Dec. 31 in a U.S. regulatory filing, down from 5.1 percent a year ago. Investors who hold a stake in a company of less than 5 percent aren’t required to report when they buy or sell the shares, according to Securities & Exchange Commission rules.

Balsillie had been the third-largest shareholder and helped lead the company during its heyday as a smartphone pioneer and market leader. He departed last year along with co-CEO Mike Lazaridis after fumbling product introductions and losing market share to Apple Inc.’s iPhone and to Android devices.

“It’s another tie severed,” said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners in New York. “When there’s so much turmoil in his effort to turn the company around, it’s not unreasonable for someone to sell his stake and move on.”

The company doesn’t comment on the holdings of individual shareholders, said Heidi Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Waterloo, Ontario-based business, which this year changed its name to just BlackBerry. Balsillie also declined to comment when approached through his assistant and the company.

Balsillie may have benefited from the stock’s fourth- quarter rally before selling it. Optimism about the company’s new BlackBerry 10 lineup of phones fueled a 58 percent stock rally in the period, rewarding investors after years of declines.

Slow Rollout

Since the Jan. 30 unveiling of the new phones, concerns about a slow rollout in the U.S., BlackBerry’s biggest single market, have weighed on the stock. While the new Z10 model is already available in the U.K., Canada and the United Arab Emirates, it won’t come to the U.S. until next month.

Donald Yacktman’s $21 billion mutual-fund firm, once the smartphone maker’s fifth-largest holder, sold almost half its holdings in the weeks before the BlackBerry 10 debut.

“The dilemma in a company like this is that there are vast differences in outcome potential,” Yacktman said in an interview last week. The stock had gotten more expensive with no guarantee the new phones would succeed in turning the company around, he said.

After Balsillie’s disclosure yesterday, BlackBerry shares tumbled as much as 7.5 percent. The stock later recovered and gained 7.7 percent to $15.07.

‘Two-Way Pager’

Lazaridis, a fellow co-founder who invented the BlackBerry device itself, held 29.9 million shares as of Dec. 31, according to a separate filing yesterday. That was an increase of about 200,000 shares from the end of the third quarter, and gives him a stake of 5.7 percent in the company.

Balsillie, who has an MBA from Harvard University, teamed up with Lazaridis in 1992. Together, they introduced the BlackBerry “two-way pager” in 1999. Balsillie made early trips to New York and Washington to sell bankers, lawyers and government agencies on the device, building a loyal BlackBerry following in the process.

He was also credited with building relationships with carriers so that more than 200 wireless operators offered BlackBerry devices at its peak. More recently, he was criticized by shareholders such as Vic Alboini, who said his side interests had become too much of a distraction from day-to-day management of the company.

Hockey Shutout

Balsillie tried and failed on three separate occasions to buy National Hockey League franchises -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes.

Since resigning , Balsillie has made few public appearances. Communitech, a startup incubator in Waterloo, posted a video interview with Balsillie in November in which he discussed his time at RIM and his plans for the future.

“I’ve had my fair share of cold sweats over the tricky commercial issues over the decades,” Balsillie said, calling the job of running RIM “very demanding.” He said he planned to take the advice of others to not rush into anything, otherwise revealing little about future business plans.

“I would expect he’ll be back in the landscape,” said Gillis. “Give it a year.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hugo Miller in Toronto at hugomiller@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nick Turner at nturner7@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.