FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Insider Thorsten Heins, the new chief executive at BlackBerry maker RIM, is a surprise choice for those looking for a “transformational” leader from outside to turn around the Canadian group’s fortunes.
Tall, soft-spoken and bespectacled, the Munich-born Heins, 54, spent most of his working life at German engineering giant Siemens, where he oversaw a mobile telephone business which faced fierce pricing pressure and quality issues.
An avid fan of NBA basketball team the Miami Heat after having lived in Florida for four years, Heins rides a BMW motorbike when he is not road cycling or embarking on long-distance charity rides.
“We will take this to new heights,” said Heins after taking over at Research in Motion from co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, who finally bowed to investor pressure and resigned. “Innovation is endless, we will have a lot of fun.”
Heins spent more than 20 years at Siemens, having joined straight from university in 1984 where he met his wife Petra, a mathematician and physicist. The couple have a 21-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter.
Heins’ German roots were evident when he was asked about his choice of motorcycle. “Of course it’s a BMW, I’m German.”
By the mid-2000s, he had worked his way up to the helm of Siemens’s mobile phone business, so he was no stranger to mobiles when he joined RIM.
The business was sold to Taiwan’s BenQ in 2005, after Heins was promoted to the management board of the new Communications business, which was dismantled a year later.
“Unfortunately, it was too late to turn mobile devices because this division was already in a difficult situation, and therefore missed its opportunity to accelerate and improve itself,” said Thomas Ganswindt, who was Heins’s boss on the Communications board.
Heins was a “very strong” leader and someone “able to recognize what is needed by an ailing business,” he said.
In his career at Siemens, Heins worked in R&D, customer service, sales and product management, ending as chief technology officer. He joined RIM in December 2007.
By the end of a mid-2011 restructuring, Heins was one of two chief operating officers, responsible for sales and for both hardware and software product engineering. “He played key roles in the creation of RIM’s product portfolio,” the company said.
Activist investors have clamored in recent months for a new, “transformational” leader to compete with Apple’s iPhone and iPad and the slew of large-screen and powerful devices from Samsung and others using Google’s Android operating system.
RIM marked Heins’s ascent to the top role with a seven-minute YouTube video in which the 6 foot 6 inches CEO gave his vision for success with a noticeable German accent.
“He is not very well known outside of the company. He has been working in both Balsillie’s and Lazaridis’ shadow,” said Alexandre Peterc, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.
“He does strike me as someone who knows the industry very well given his background at Siemens. On the plus side he is a veteran of the industry and he knows his stuff, but that said, his background is very much tech and process orientated as opposed to strategic vision orientated.
“You don’t say ‘this is the next Steve Jobs’ because a Steve Jobs is hard to come by,” Peterc said.
“In our view, a CEO with a strong consumer electronics and supply chain background would have been ideal,” Saw Wu, Senior Technology Analyst at Sterne Agee, said.
Most who knew him paid tribute to his leadership skills.
“It is not a job that many people would have taken,” said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.
“Thorsten is highly respected in terms of his knowledge of the industry and given that this appears to be a rather sudden turn of events, they needed someone who can quickly takeover the helm,” said CCS Insight’s Ben Wood.
RIM has been at pains to underline the orderly nature of the handover.
However, one analyst, who asked not to be named because of his relationship with the group, said it was astounding that the COO at a company of this size should have been so invisible to the market and investor community.
He said he had heard previously from executives within RIM that Heins was very highly regarded and that he was very much on top of his brief. “His name came up repeatedly, with regards to people at RIM who really rate him.”
As takeover talk swirled and the financial world pondered whether Heins had been appointed to lead a turnaround or prepare RIM for sale, he clearly now is going to have to communicate quickly, get to know investors and raise his public profile.
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Additional reporting by Marilyn Gerlach, Nicola Leske, Kate Holton and Paul Sandle)
This story corrects eighth paragraph to show Heins joined the communications business's management board before the mobile phone business was sold to BenQ, not after.