John Chen isn’t a Waterloo Region local. For the man tasked with turning BlackBerry around, that may be a good thing. He comes to the problem (What do you do with a company like BlackBerry?) with an outsider’s perspective.
At a Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce lunch on Tuesday (May 5), he talked about his strategy for BlackBerry since he came on board as CEO 18 months ago.
Chen was frank and funny on stage. He poked jokes at chamber President and CEO Ian McLean, who asked Chen tough and not-so-tough questions.
While Chen was candid in his answers about BlackBerry’s future, pointing out where the company made mistakes and offering lessons learned, he struggled with putting his finger on Waterloo Region’s secret sauce.
Chen, who is based out of San Jose, Calif., couldn’t really talk about the value of institutions like Communitech or the Accelerator Centre, and he didn’t seem to know about the startup community here beyond the companies started by past BlackBerry employees.
It’s not really Chen’s job to know all of this. Maybe as a community, we need to be better at being a little less Canadian, and more inclined to boast about our incredible successes with investors, business builders and innovators like Chen. He is the type of person we want singing our praises.
Since Chen took over, BlackBerry has gone from losing $1.1 billion in a quarter to making $78 million.
It’s been an upward climb for the company that once seemed to own the smartphone market.
“Why are we in trouble?” Chen said. “Because we are working on something the customer says, ‘We don’t want.’ ”
Today, the wireless-communications company is less focused on smartphones, although they still have four devices coming this fiscal year, and more on the development of their software.
Chen knows the future is in connected cars, hospitals, shopping malls and homes. And those customers, whether they are iPhone, BlackBerry or Android users, will want security. He sees the Internet of Things and security as two software-based areas that BlackBerry can own.
Chen wants customers to have the convenience of using any phone, but still be protected as they live their lives online. To do so, BlackBerry is buying companies and working on R&D that secures file sharing, and voice and text applications.
“We will stay the number-one leader in the world in mobile security and privacy,” Chen said. “And that’s what we’re spending a lot of money on.”
While he feels that he’s on the right path in restructuring the company, Chen and the BlackBerry team still struggles to rebuild the BlackBerry reputation, both in Waterloo Region and the world.
“We are now out of trouble, in terms of financial, but we haven’t established [customer] growth,” he said. “And we’re trying to establish that growth. Until that happens, no one will willingly go buy our products. More and more are doing it, but more are sitting on the sidelines.
It’s no secret that the changes in BlackBerry have also changed the Waterloo Region landscape. Chen’s team has moved the management team out of the region. Displaced BlackBerry staff have started their own startups, many in Kitchener-Waterloo. Others have left the region to seek out opportunities elsewhere.
And yet, BlackBerry still has a presence here, in people who live and work in the region, and give back to the community.
The BlackBerry team is also looking to the future, talent-wise. Chen sees the talent here in Waterloo, and wants to maintain a strong relationship with the University of Waterloo, whose co-op program impresses Chen.
He sees that startups are still lifeblood of the Waterloo Region tech scene.
What still surprises Chen, though, is the number of colleagues he runs into when he visits Waterloo.
“Most of my friends and competitors have set up shop in Waterloo,” he said. “Square is here, Google’s here — a lot of major companies are here. I was surprised sometimes. My CEO friends would email me and say, ‘Let’s meet at Waterloo.’ I said, ‘Really? Who else intentionally goes to Waterloo other than me?’”
There’s more to be written in the BlackBerry and Waterloo Region story. Chen is a welcome visitor. As the cold Canadian winter ends, I certainly hope we see more of him around town. We have a lot to learn from him.
One thing is for certain: Chen and the Communitech team share the same vision when it comes to what drives innovation.
“At the end of the day, innovation is about talent,” Chen said. “There’s nothing else more important.”
Feeling inspired to write your own Waterloo Region success story? There are some great upcoming events that can help you. I see and hear that . . . Brainstation is holding an Intro to Web Development workshop at Communitech, 151 Charles St. W., Kitchener. The monthly free workshop is intended for beginners looking to learn how to code websites from scratch. Register today for the Thursday, May 7 event, running 6 p.m.– 8 p.m. . . . Join the Canadian Tech Triangle (CTT) at 11:30 a.m., Monday, May 11, at the Waterloo Inn, 475 King St. N., Waterloo, for a lunch with Sir Terry Matthews. Matthews is founder and chairman of Wesley Clover International. Part of CTT’s Thought Leadership Series, Matthews’ talk will at how successful companies build successful cities. Tickets are still available for the lunch . . . Hackernest’s monthly tech social is at Magnet Forensics, 156 Columbia St. W., Unit 2 in Waterloo, on Monday, May 11. Starting at 8 p.m., the by-donation event is a networking-free night of drinks, camaraderie and socializing.