Modest billionaire Jim Balsillie at home in the boardroom or locker-room

Jim Balsillie is seen as a modest billionaire, a man devoted to his family who loves hockey. He's also brilliant, competitive and not someone you want to cross.

Jim Balsillie is seen as a modest billionaire, a man devoted to his family who loves hockey. He's also brilliant, competitive and not someone you want to cross.

The co-CEO of Research In Motion, who is taking on the NHL in a bid to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to southern Ontario, is most often the public face of the BlackBerry, usually holding up the smartphone with a big grin when being photographed.

Described as determined, passionate, competitive, brilliant, Balsillie casts a big shadow in the tech world.

"He's probably the most competitive guy I have ever met in my life," says good friend Ron Foxcroft, who first met Balsillie playing golf and won $20 from him on a double-or-nothing bet after the 15th hole.

Despite the high-tech image, Foxcroft said the 48-year-old Balsillie is a regular guy who lives in a modest home and doesn't flaunt his wealth, but can spew colourful language.

"He's most at home with his family, in a boardroom and in a locker-room - trash-talking," Foxcroft said from Stoney Creek, Ont.

He recalled going to see Toronto Raptors basketball games where Balsillie would be "barking" at the referees and Foxcroft would use his BlackBerry to message the RIM chief to cut it out.

"He'd trash-talk me," said Foxcroft, a professional basketball referee who developed the Fox 40 Pealess Whistle used at many sporting events.

Balsillie still regularly hits the ice, playing right wing as often as he can on his local team.

But as the co-CEO of the top smartphone company in North America, Balsillie travels globally and rubs shoulders with celebrity. Balsillie refers to rapper/actor Will.I.Am, who wrote the song "Yes We Can" in support of Barack Obama's election campaign, as "my good friend."

Balsillie also favours U2, calling the Irish group the "greatest band in the world." Waterloo, Ont.,-based RIM is sponsoring their world tour.

Tech analyst Duncan Stewart said while Balsillie is being pegged as a rebel who's trying to get around the NHL's rules for buying franchises, the RIM boss is anything but.

"I would say Jim's style is all about co-operation, partnership and sharing," he said, noting that RIM has good relationships with its wireless carriers and is financially generous with developers making software applications for the BlackBerry.

Balsillie himself is personable and friendly and can get so excited about a topic that it's hard for the listener to keep up. When he appears to be disinterested, he tends to talk over what's going on. When bored, he admits to playing card games on his BlackBerry to pass time.

Stewart said Balsillie could help make NHL hockey a regular viewing habit on the BlackBerry and give the NHL's image a makeover.

"If you take a look at the NHL, of the four major league sports, it has very little hip or cool kind of quotient, whereas the BlackBerry, I think, is the No. 10 iconic brand on the planet," said Stewart, who is president of DSAM Consulting in Toronto.

Balsillie is using technology to get fan support to move the ailing Coyotes. He launched www.MakeItSeven.ca and says nearly 100,000 people have registered on the website.

Foxcroft said Balsillie is 10 years ahead of his time with the NHL.

The NHL moves at a slower pace than Balsillie does and his aggressive style probably didn't help, Foxcroft said.

"Remember, it's still a club. He might have failed the initiation test."

A smartphone industry observer notes that while those in the business community were somewhat reluctant in the past to criticize RIM, they have started to "slap a sell" on its stock and question its business strategy.

Balsillie isn't an old-school player, he said, asking not to be named.

"It's just ironic that sports leagues are an old boy's club where modern business is not," he said.

Foxcroft, who clearly admires Balsillie, says his friend may have rubbed the NHL the wrong way.

"Well he's aggressive. They do business a lot slower."

Asked if it's a good idea to cross Balsillie, his answer is direct: "I wouldn't."

 
 
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