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BlackBerry results should reveal more of Chen’s vision

A BlackBerry logo is seen at the smartphone maker’s Waterloo campus on Sept. 23, 2013.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

BlackBerry Ltd. investors should get a clearer picture of the prospects for the once-mighty smartphone maker and what new executive chairman and interim CEO John Chen plans to do to rescue it.

So far we've heard little from Mr. Chen, the former CEO of database software firm Sybase, other than a handful of quotes last month when the company announced his hiring and an open letter to customers that suggested little change in course from predecessor Thorsten Heins. We'll get much more when the company releases third-quarter results on Friday.

Few expect a pretty picture: Analysts are calling, on average, for a loss of 41 cents (U.S.) per share for the quarter, compared to a 2-cent profit in the same period a year earlier. Revenue is expected to come in at $1.59-billion, down 42 per cent year over year.

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BlackBerry has fallen short of analyst expectations in five of the past eight quarters. "The quarter is going to be a disaster," Kris Thompson of National Bank Financial said recently.

That sentiment is reflected in a bleak report last week from Citi analyst Ehud Gelblum, who has a "sell" rating and $4 share price target on the stock. He sees the company challenged in every business in which it competes, and figures that just shutting down would cost the company more than its cash, even after a $1-billion convertible debenture refinancing completed last month. Its best option, he thinks, would be to sell the company in parts.

So there are three things to watch for. First, how badly is BlackBerry's business deteriorating, and how fast is it burning through its cash? The company had $2.6-billion as of the end of the last quarter but Mr. Chen has said cash will decline for the next few quarters. The financing was supposed to help, as will the $500-million-plus it will get from a tax refund in the new year, plus the proceeds from the planned sale of much of its real estate. Its services business continues to generate solid revenues, but it is in decline, as are smartphone sales.

Second, of course, is Mr. Chen's turnaround plan. He hasn't had much time to put one together but the market is expecting something concrete, realistic and positive. It will be hard to assess its prospects for months, but expect critics to have their arrows at the ready.

Part of that plan could be another executive shakeup. Citing people familiar with the matter, Dow Jones reported Sunday that two executives will soon be departing: Rick Costanzo, executive vice-president in charge of global sales, and Chris Wormald, who was in charge of mergers and acquisitions strategy.

Finally, as part of the financing, BlackBerry's largest shareholder Fairfax Financial Holdings, which abandoned a takeover bid in early November, got an option to buy an extra $250-million worth of debentures, doubling its initial investment.

Fairfax didn't take the option by the end of the 30-day deadline after closing, so BlackBerry extended it by one month to allow Fairfax to assess this Friday's news before making a final decision.

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Deciding to upsize its investment would clearly show that at least one investor is buying into Mr. Chen's plan – the shareholder who brought him to the company in the first place.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More


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