New RIM CEO Thorsten Heins Is A Patsy Set Up To Fail

A patsy is a person that is easily taken advantage of, the guy that gets set up to take the fall so the big wigs in power can extricate themselves from a situation free from blame. As you may have heard, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has named a new CEO today, Thorsten Heins. He takes over for co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis who are both moving to non-operational seats on RIM’s board of directors. Poor Heins. This is a big break for a guy that started his career as an engineer. Yet, Balsillie and Lazaridis are setting Heins up to fail. RIM has a new patsy.

When a new CEO takes over the seat of an ailing major technology question, the first thing to look for is talk that the old ways, the ways that got a company in trouble in the first place, are going out the window. It was refreshing to hear new Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson say, “we’ll be back to innovation.” It gave people the sense that Yahoo might actually be OK in the future with a CEO that understands the data driven landscape of technological evolution these days.

On the other hand, there is Heins. Here is what he said in his introductory video upon taking up his new role this morning.

  • “I don’t think there is some drastic change needed. We are evolving, but this is not a seismic change.”
  • “We are a great innovative company, but sometimes we innovate too much while we’re building a product.”
  • “What we need to get a bit better at here is to have a little bit more of an ear toward the consumer. I want to strengthen this by bringing really good marketing expertise in.”

Wait, wait … stop me if you heard this before. “RIM is fine. We are innovating all the time. All we need is good marketing.” Most of these statements were made in the video released by RIM last night introducing Heins.

What company releases a pre-scripted video of their new CEO? I am sure it happens from time to time but it seems like RIM wanted to control the message before it hit the streets this morning.

I will lay even money that Balsillie and Lazaridis teamed up with RIM’s media relations department to put out that video, knowing full well what their new puppet was going to say. It would not surprise me if they were standing behind the camera, nodding along as Heins hit the bullet points.

Ever seen The Hudsucker Proxy? If you have not, go stream it on Netflix. The basic premise is that a clueless kid from the mailroom gets promoted to be the president of a large company so the board can ruin the stock and buy it all up themselves. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, the “proxy,” a clueless guy out of business school in backwater Muncie, Indiana. Barnes is the patsy to the board, the guy taking the fall.

While Heins is not some foolish backwater kid out of the mailroom (he is an accomplished engineer who has been with RIM for four years and was the COO before his promotion), but the same principle exists. Balsillie and Lazaridis are still likely to be pulling the strings. There are distinct differences like the fact that Balsillie and Lazaridis already own most of RIM’s stock and the stock is lower than ever.

At Hudsucker, Barnes surprises the board. He comes out with a new product (the Hula Hoop) that is immensely popular and profitable. Does Heins have a Hula Hoop in him? He better hope so. Otherwise, he is going to get more than his fair share of blame for the eventual collapse of RIM. Balsillie and Lazaridis can point to Heins and say to the board, “you wanted us out but look what happened when we handed the company to this guy.”

You have to feel sorry for Heins. His job is not going to be easy. It is going to take more than marketing, more than “flawless execution.” He is right in the video, BlackBerry 10 absolutely needs to ship on time. Whenever that time is supposed to be, we do not know.

RIM is not in danger of bankruptcy … yet. The company probably has several years before it burns through its profitable operating margins and reserved piles of cash. Heins has a chance. Part of that will be thinking outside the box. The big question will if Balsillie and Lazaridis will let him.

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