Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie named Business Newsmaker of the Year

TORONTO - Jim Balsillie may have failed to land the Phoenix Coyotes last year, but his tenacious pursuit of the team gained the Waterloo, Ont., billionaire businessman both notoriety and the admiration of many a Canadian eager to see another professional hockey franchise land in Canada.

TORONTO - Jim Balsillie may have failed to land the Phoenix Coyotes last year, but his tenacious pursuit of the team gained the Waterloo, Ont., billionaire businessman both notoriety and the admiration of many a Canadian eager to see another professional hockey franchise land in Canada.

Balsillie's relentless battle with U.S. courts and the National Hockey League took on the air of a struggle for nothing less than national pride, painting him as a Canadian hero pushing to repatriate a piece of the national game from American soil.

Off the ice, the co-CEO of Canada's most successful technology company, Research In Motion (TSX:RIM), proved that he could recover from repeated stumbles, both in his pursuit of a hockey team and at the highly successful BlackBerry maker.

Balsillie's struggles have earned him the title of Canada's 2009 Business Newsmaker of the Year, as chosen in an annual survey of editors and broadcasters by The Canadian Press.

He captured 44 of 122 votes cast in the business newsmaker survey, nearly double the votes logged for the Canadian consumer, at second place with 24, and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, with 20.

RIM, one of this country's most valuable corporations, had ups and downs during the year. The company added 15 million new subscribers as it grew into the consumer smartphone market and expanded into China. But at the same time, it suffered two network crashes and came under intensifying competition from rivals such as Apple Inc., Google and Palm.

While headlines in 2009 were gloomy with job losses and a crumbling economy, the executive became a poster boy for resilience as he faced off against his opponents in the highest ranks of the NHL, and stuck to his guns even as his dream to bring the Coyotes to Hamilton drifted away.

It was Balsillie's third failed attempt to land an NHL team. Earlier, he had tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins from former player Mario Lemieux and his partners, and the Nashville Predators franchise.

Balsillie, who had a net worth of about $2.7 billion in 2009, is a highly driven person in business as well as in his personal life. The business school graduate and Harvard University MBA is a noted athlete and passionate fitness advocate who plays hockey and golf competitively and regularly enters triathlons.

"He tends to go for everything in what he does," said Jim Estill, a longtime board member at RIM.

"He doesn't like to lose, and will not lose, basically."

As far as the NHL is concerned, the goose is cooked for the 48-year-old executive and his bid for a hockey team, but this isn't the first time Balsillie has been down, and those who know him say that he shouldn't be considered out of the game.

"He's just like a punching bag that comes right back when he gets hit, and whacks you right in the stomach," said friend and fellow entrepreneur Ron Foxcroft in an interview last summer, shortly after Balsillie lost the Coyote's bid.

"These little obstacles are just like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It just makes him more determined and more motivated."

Balsillie also took a few punches in the boardroom last year, facing penalties from the Ontario Securities Commission in February as part of a stock option backdating settlement with other RIM executives worth about $77 million in fines and restitution.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based company was also slammed by customers and industry analysts after its networks crashed twice in less than a week near the end of the year, leaving BlackBerry addicts stranded without email or Internet for hours.

Some said the timing couldn't have been worse, because RIM faces heightened competition this year from other smart phone devices like the iPhone and Google Wave.

Not all of the news was bad, however, as RIM managed to grow BlackBerry subscribers by 70 per cent to 36 million at the end of the third quarter last year, compared to a year earlier. The company's quarterly results also outshone the skepticism of many analysts who believed the company's growth would stall in the economic downturn.

Throughout it all, Balsillie has brushed himself off and trudged ahead. He hasn't publicly spoken about his NHL bid since earlier this year and declined interview requests.

Last year wasn't the first time Balsillie's hockey pursuit had been called offside: it followed well-publicized and unsuccessful bids to buy both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. In 2009, he returned to the NHL with a force, offering as much as US$242.5 million for the Coyotes, and pushing his bid with a level of passion and determination that hadn't been seen before.

His proposal included massive renovations to Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, the potential home of the hockey team, and a website that encouraged Canadians to ramp up their support for another local hockey team. He also used his clout to convince some corporate sponsors to sign on before the specifics were even etched out.

The approach seemed to irk high-ranking officials at the NHL, who had already told him they weren't interested in moving the Phoenix team to Canada. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly chastised Balsillie's attempt to rally the hockey fans in Canada, and put pressure on the NHL to accept his bid.

"Mr. Balsillie is acting, again, in total disregard of any rules, or any structure," Daly said last summer.

Ruffling the feathers of the NHL executives appeared to hinder Balsillie's bid, and some suggest that he should've stuck to the traits which helped make him a billionaire in business.

"When you look at Jim's style in the smart phone world, he is in fact a paragon of partnering," said Duncan Stewart, director of research and analysis at DSam Consulting.

"He works very closely with the (mobile phone) carriers, and he is a highly skilled diplomat. So the whole thing with the NHL is extremely uncharacteristic."

Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger, who was in touch with Balsillie as he duked it out with the heads of the NHL, suggested that a less pushy tactic might yield better success in the future.

"The previous attempts have all been very aggressive, not necessarily working with the board of governors and the NHL," Eisenberger said.

"I think he may have to rethink his engagement strategy in that process if he wants to acquire a team."

While Balsillie hasn't said whether he plans to take another run at an NHL team, he has always made it clear that this was part of a childhood dream, which, in Balsillie-speak, means he won't surrender.

"There's a certain grace about him that he didn't whine about it," said Alastair Sweeny, author of "BlackBerry Planet."

"He'll be back and I think he'll get his NHL team sooner or later."

His persistence with the hockey bid has caused concern among some analysts who say Balsillie could become distracted from the daily activities of growing RIM.

"He keeps the two separate," said Estill, who has been a board member at RIM since before it became a public company in 1998.

However, he noted that Balsillie is "passionate about everything he does, so obviously things bubble to the surface whatever he's doing."

Despite criticism, RIM's quarterly performance has still managed to outshine market expectations. The company is in the midst of rolling out its products in China, a country that hasn't yet bought into the smartphone movement like many parts of the world.

"Over and over we have heard the wheels are about to fall off the bus and they're going to be obliterated by somebody else... but the opposite has occurred," Stewart said.

"There is an element of the populist, if you will, in Jim. He actually finds value in going out and trying to convince other people."

 
 
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