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Meet the man behind BlackBerry’s rescue

Timothy Dattels was the head of the special committee of BlackBerry’s board that sought a partner for the struggling smartphone maker.

PAUL HILTON/NYT

Timothy Dattels has not lived in Canada for 30 years, having built a career climbing the highest rungs of investment banking and private equity in the U.S. and Asia.

But when one of Canada's most famous companies, BlackBerry Ltd., needed a saviour, he set some of those demands aside to take on what those who know the 56-year-old say was a job that roused his patriotism.

As head of the special committee of BlackBerry's board that sought a partner for the struggling smartphone maker, Mr. Dattels was one of the linchpins of the effort to save the company. In the final hours before BlackBerry unveiled its $1-billion (U.S.) investment from a group led by Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., it was Mr. Dattels who was steering many of the crucial tasks, from overseeing the final negotiations to handling the departure of BlackBerry chief executive officer Thorsten Heins.

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It's the most high-profile role in Canada for Mr. Dattels since he left the Toronto area, where he grew up, in 1982 to go to Harvard Business School. Yet for all his activity behind the scenes, Mr. Dattels' name rarely surfaced as BlackBerry carried out a strategic review, and better-known names such as Fairfax head Prem Watsa and BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis garnered most of the attention. For all his success, and his deep remaining links to his home country as a patron of sport and the arts, most Canadians have not heard of him.

"He's sort of unknown in Canada because he's been away so long," says Mark Wiseman, chief executive officer of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and a friend of Mr. Dattels. "He's a really passionate Canadian," Mr. Wiseman added. "He really wanted to help an iconic Canadian company. He's a great deal guy."

Still, Mr. Dattels and the board didn't get all that they really wanted. There is no strategic partner, and a Fairfax proposal to lead a $9-a-share buyout of BlackBerry never materialized. It's a disappointing outcome for many investors, with BlackBerry shares now trading around $6.

Mr. Dattels, who declined to comment for this profile, honed his skills as a top banker at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and in the buyout business. He is now a senior partner at TPG Capital, one of the world's largest private equity firms.

They were tools he would need in the BlackBerry talks, as he worked with other directors such as BlackBerry chairwoman Barbara Stymiest to finalize a deal in the tense early days of November.

"This BlackBerry situation was very delicate and very complicated," said Peter Weinberg, an old colleague of Mr. Dattels from Goldman, and co-founder of boutique investment bank Perella Weinberg Partners. The firm was one of the advisers to BlackBerry on its options.

A letter of intent for a takeover by Fairfax was set to expire on Monday, Nov. 4, and the market was expecting news. Yet, even as late as Saturday, Nov. 2, talks were still under way with potential strategic buyers as well as investors who could participate in the Fairfax transaction. The board and its advisers had two separate streams of work going on, examining both options.

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As that day wore on, it was becoming clear that the Fairfax investment, rather than a sale, was the likely outcome and the focus shifted to getting the Fairfax deal finalized. Fairfax wanted a new leader, John Chen, a veteran of technology turnarounds. That meant Mr. Heins would have to go, one of the final acts before the transaction could be announced Monday. As special committee chairman, Mr. Dattels had a leading role in it all, including the job of parting ways with Mr. Heins.

Though BlackBerry couldn't find a buyer, having the company remain independent with a cash infusion to help its attempted turnaround was also attractive, even though it's not clear that the Fairfax transaction alone is enough to give the company what it needs.

A strategic partner is still a possibility. One idea is to team with Google Inc. to create a more secure version of Android that could tie into BlackBerry's hard-to-hack servers. There is also a possibility that someone else, perhaps an Asian manufacturer such as Foxconn Technology Group or Lenovo Group Ltd., takes over the company's sagging handset business.

Mr. Dattels' contacts in Silicon Valley and Asia will be particularly key if such a transaction comes to fruition. Much of his career has been spent across the Pacific, and he is going back. For the moment, he and his wife Kristine live in San Francisco. TPG has just given him a new job as co-head of Asian operations, meaning a move to Hong Kong.

'Great national pride'

Hong Kong will mean a much longer flight to one of Mr. Dattels' favourite places, a home in Whistler where friends say he decamps for weeks at a time to work and ski. That's just one of the tight ties to Canada that he maintains, as a quiet supporter of the country's sports and culture, backing internationally known athletes and artists.

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It was at Whistler, after the 2010 Olympics, that he met top national team skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis. Mr. Osborne-Paradis now wears the Dattels name on his shoulder, among corporate logos, after Mr. Dattels and his family became an individual sponsor.

Mr. Dattels is also a patron of Canadian photographic artist Edward Burtynsky, having come across his works years ago in a Paris gallery. Today, he is an executive producer of Mr. Burtynsky's new film WaterMark.

So when BlackBerry ran into trouble, Mr. Dattels was distressed at the prospect of watching the downfall of one of the few Canadian companies that competes globally. In 2012, he joined the board, brought on by Ms. Stymiest and director Roger Martin, who heads an Ontario task force on competitiveness where Mr. Dattels also serves. Earlier this year, when BlackBerry struck a special committee to look at alternatives, including a sale, Mr. Dattels was chosen to run it.

"When this whole BlackBerry thing came about, what he told me is this is a great Canadian company, and if I can help, this is what I need to do," said Mr. Osborne-Paradis, who speaks regularly with Mr. Dattels and often stays at his homes in Whistler and San Francisco. "He's definitely got great national pride."

The job of running the special committee made an already demanding lifestyle, in which Mr. Dattels travels much of the year, that much more straining. Yet Mr. Dattels is said to have waived the extra directors fees that usually go with the added work.

"How crazy his life has turned in the last couple weeks has been quite shocking," Mr. Osborne-Paradis said. "I didn't think his life could actually get any busier."

Mr. Dattels is described by those who know him as always on, with a mind that skips from topic to topic. No matter where he is, a call to one of his multiple cellphones (BlackBerry included of course) is always answered, friends say. Time zones are no barrier.

Since leaving Canada, Mr. Dattels has spent most of his life straddling the Pacific. After finishing at Harvard, he set out in his car for California. Silicon Valley was hot and he had worked on some tech deals in a short stint working at Canadian brokerage firm Wood Gundy prior to attending Harvard.

He found a job at Sun Microsystems but liked making deals, so switched to investment banking. His first job was at tech-focused firm First Boston, and from there he moved to Goldman Sachs.

For a time he ran all of Goldman Sachs's investment banking in Asia, excluding Japan. He worked directly for Hank Paulson, who headed Goldman before becoming U.S. Treasury secretary. Mr. Dattels also helped start the firm's Menlo Park office in Silicon Valley. After that, he joined TPG, where he has quarterbacked some profitable Asian deals, including TPG's investment in an Indonesian bank. There, he would have seen how dominant BlackBerry remains in some parts of Asia.

His network in Asia is very deep. He is close to the Kuok family, and sits on the board of their Shangri-La hotel empire. He has also worked through the years with the Li family.

"He knows everyone in Asia," Mr. Wiseman says. "He is one of the most well-known Canadians in business circles."

'The world's best salesman'

Brent Belzberg, who runs Toronto private equity firm TorQuest Partners and who counts Mr. Dattels as a friend, calls him "brilliantly smart and the world's best salesman."

Mr. Weinberg calls him a "people magnet. People like him, and trust him, and respect him. And when people have that, they can get a lot done."

Some of Mr. Dattels' success may be genetic. His father was a successful investment dealer, the first in Canada to sell Japanese bonds. His brother, Steve, was a senior executive early on at Barrick Gold Corp. and a founder of other mining companies. For all his success in business, Tim may be only the second-richest Dattels. Steve Dattels flies in his own private jet and has a home in London's 1 Hyde Park building, alongside sheiks, pop stars and oligarchs.

Another brother, Peter, is a senior official at the International Monetary Fund. Two other siblings are also very successful in business.

Mr. Dattels still returns regularly to the Toronto region to visit his 91-year-old mother, who lives northwest of the city.

Mr. Belzberg says he can't see Mr. Dattels ever moving back.

"He's too big for Toronto now but he never forgets his friends," says Mr. Belzberg, adding: "I can hardly wait until he comes to town. He is so much fun – go to galleries, go to eat."

Mr. Dattels is known to muse about slowing down, telling Mr. Osborne-Paradis that one day he would like to be a ski bum.

Mr. Belzberg can't see it.

"I don't think he'll ever not do something," he said. "One day without being able to call every shooter in Asia and run around with the guys from TPG and he's bored."

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