RIM fills long-vacant chief marketing job

TORONTO: Research In Motion Ltd (RIM) named a pair of wireless industry veterans to senior management roles as it prepares for the make-or-break launch of its next-generation BlackBerry 10 smartphones later this year.

Frank Boulben, most recently in charge of marketing and sales for US telecom start-up LightSquared, takes over as marketing chief, charged with the task of reinventing the tarnished BlackBerry brand as RIM prepares to introduce the new devices.

In its second appointment, RIM handed the job of chief operating officer to Kristian Tear, a former executive vice-president at Sony Mobile Communications. His role will centre on managing the logistics of the BlackBerry 10 launch.

Tear will oversee all operational functions for handhelds and services, including research and development, global sales, manufacturing and supply chain management.

In the year since the marketing position has been vacant, the BlackBerry has suffered deep market-share losses to Apple Inc’s devices and those run by Google Inc’s Android system.

RIM’s share price has tumbled more than 75% in the past 13 months, around the time the company launched the much-maligned PlayBook Tablet.

“Frankly, RIM’s marketing and messaging has been a disaster,” said Colin Gillis, a technology analyst with BGC Partners in New York. “The company has strengths, but they have not done a good job of bringing those out to the marketplace.”

RIM’s share of the global smartphone market slipped to 6.7% in the first quarter of this year from 13.6% a year earlier, according to research firm IDC, and it desperately needs a hit with the BlackBerry 10 devices.

Gillis expects Boulben to give a priority to creating a more cohesive identity for the line, while playing up the BlackBerry’s existing strengths, such as air-tight security and e-mail capabilities.

But the analyst warned that a transformation won’t happen overnight. “This is a multi-year turnaround effort.”

Consumer background

Boulben’s background in consumer companies may prove a plus for RIM, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Pierre Ferragu, as RIM looks to slow the flood of non-corporate customers who have flocked to flashier devices sold by its rivals.

“His experience at Orange and Vodafone can only do good to RIM,” he said, referring to prior roles at Vodafone Group Plc and France Telecom SA’s Orange wireless unit.

“That said, challenges are still there,” he added. “We’ll see if Frank can drive enough change to give the company a sustainable and independent future.”

RIM has been without a marketing chief since March of last year, when Keith Pardy left the company just ahead of the PlayBook launch. Former co-CEO Jim Balsillie had taken on responsibility for marketing before stepping down and leaving the company’s board earlier this year.

Supply chain issues

Tear, the new operating chief, inherits what RIM critics say are inefficiencies in its supply chain management that thwart timely delivery of finished products, an issue Heins has promised to address.

The new chief operating officer spent most of his career at Sony Corp, Ericsson, or their Sony Ericsson mobile phone joint venture.

The company at one point had three chief operating officers — one of them was Heins until his CEO appointment in late January. A second, Don Morrison, retired last year, and Jim Rowan stepped down in March.

“Both hires have significant experience,” said Alkesh Shah at Evercore Partners Research in New York, pointing to Boulben’s history with networks rather than devices. “If this is a sign that RIM may intend to open its network to other smartphone vendors, it could be a positive.”

Balsillie had planned a major strategy shift to open RIM’s proprietary network to rivals before he quit.

To be sure, with RIM facing a make-or-break product launch, some questioned the choice of Boulben, who headed strategy at LightSquared, which ran into regulatory hurdles after buying a spectrum it aimed to sell wholesale.

“I don’t think Boulben did a great job marketing LightSquared,” said Eric Jackson, a fund manager with Ironfire Capital. “They couldn’t do better?”

Boulben helped LightSquared forge deals with multiple potential wholesale customers, including a multibillion dollar deal with Sprint Nextel Corp.

But Sprint pulled out of the deal after the US telecoms regulator said it in February it wanted to revoke LightSquared’s permission to build a network. — Reuters

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