James Laurence Balsillie
February 3, 1961
|Alma mater||Trinity College, Toronto (BComm)|
Harvard University (MBA)
James Laurence Balsillie (born February 3, 1961) is a Canadian businessman and philanthropist. He was the former chair and co-chief executive officer of the Canadian technology company Research In Motion (BlackBerry), which at its prime made over $20 billion in sales annually.
Since leaving Blackberry in 2012, Balsillie has taken up a number of roles in Canadian business and society. He is the founder of the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) think tank, and serves as chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators.
Early life and education
Balsillie was born in Seaforth, Ontario to Raymond Balsillie, an electronics technician at Ontario Hydro, and Laurel Balsillie. The family moved to Peterborough when Jim was five years old. He received a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 1984, where he was also a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1989.
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Balsillie was an executive vice-president and chief financial officer of technology for Cambridge, Ontario-based design and construction services company Sutherland-Schultz. He left that position in 1992 when Sutherland-Schultz was sold to the Vollmer Group.
Research In Motion
In 1992, after initially making overtures to buy the company, Balsillie invested $125,000 in Research In Motion (RIM) and joined as co-CEO with founder Mike Lazaridis. The company had fewer than ten employees and would eventually become the "international powerhouse" called BlackBerry Limited, with as many as 28,000 employees. Both men prospered from the partnership: Lazaridis looked after the technological side and Balsillie looked after the sales, business and accounting side.
Many people considered that Balsillie infused RIM with "institutional arrogance" as he remade the landscape of the smartphone industry. He was "feared and respected" by senior managers within his hierarchy. The twin-CEO structure of Lazaridis and Balsillie eventually became cumbersome and inhibited their competition with the Apple iPhone and Google's Android devices.
On March 5, 2007, Balsillie resigned his role as chairman of RIM as the firm reported over US$250 million in past stock option accounting errors after an extensive review. He retained his roles as co-chief executive and director. On May 17, 2007, RIM announced that "Consistent with current best practices in corporate governance, the roles of Chairman and CEO have been separated.".
In June 2007, Apple brought to market the first reliable touchscreen smartphone. BlackBerry would not have a reliable touch-screen smartphone until after Balsillie's departure from the executive suite.
In February 2009, as part of the penalties and sanctions approved by the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) in settling the improper option practices, which the OSC called a "fundamental failure of governance", Balsillie was forced to resign as a director of RIM. In May 2010, almost immediately after the OSC sanctions expired, Balsillie was reappointed to the board, in spite of strong shareholder objections, and notwithstanding RIM's earlier public representations that the roles of chairman and CEO were separated.
At the end of 2011, Balsillie was the third largest shareholder of the company, holding 5.1% of the outstanding shares. But that June, BlackBerry cut 2,000 employees, or 11% of its global workforce, and the joint CEOs reduced their pay to $1. The share value had tumbled from $137.41 in 2008 to $14.80 at the end of 2011. By then, the iPhone from Apple had launched and cornered the mobile apps market, and some investors called for resignations from the executive suite.
On January 22, 2012, Balsillie and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis resigned from their positions and were replaced by RIM Chief Operating Officer Thorsten Heins. Two months later, on March 29, 2012, RIM announced that Balsillie would be stepping down from the board of directors. He resigned from the Board due to strategic differences with RIM's new leader and CEO, Thorsten Heins, who abandoned the licensing strategy that Balsillie was pursuing. One publication blamed "managerial gridlock" and deteriorating product quality for BlackBerry's fall from grace in the years from 2010 to 2013 and beyond. The decline was steep for RIM: in the span of five years, the company had gone from Canada's most valuable property, surpassing even the biggest bank, to a tenth of its former value.
Balsillie commercialised 44,000 patents during his career at RIM, and claims he is "the largest commercial IP protagonist in the history of [Canada]."
Failed NHL ownership bids
Balsillie has been involved in three attempts to buy a National Hockey League franchise with the overt intention of moving it to Hamilton, Ontario. On October 5, 2006, Balsillie made a bid to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise for US$185 million from owners Mario Lemieux and Ronald Burkle. On December 15, 2006, Balsillie withdrew his bid to buy the team after receiving a notice from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the league would negotiate the arena deal on his behalf and the league also wanted the right to take over the team if necessary.
On May 23, 2007, it was announced that Balsillie had reached a tentative agreement to buy the Nashville Predators from Craig Leipold. On June 28, 2007, CBC.ca reported that Leipold had decided not to sign a binding agreement with Balsillie. Though Balsillie offered lip service that he would keep the team in Nashville, he reactivated a deal to become the primary tenant of Copps Coliseum in Hamilton and was already selling season tickets in the city, which influenced the decision to deny Balsillie the Predators.
On May 5, 2009, Balsillie made an offer of $212.5 million to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes following the team's filing for bankruptcy protection in Arizona. In a press release from Toronto, the offer to purchase was described as conditional on relocation to Southern Ontario. At the request of then-owner, Jerry Moyes, Balsillie agreed to post debtor-in-possession financing of US$17.0 million to allow the Coyotes to operate in advance of a restructuring or a sale. A few hours later, the NHL, citing a proxy agreement signed by Moyes, removed him from all decision-making regarding the future of the Coyotes. On June 15, 2009, Judge Redfield T. Baum rejected Balsillie's bid to purchase the Coyotes from the bankruptcy trustee. Judge Baum's ruling stated that he did not have the power to force the team to move and that Balsillie's June 29 deadline did not give the court enough time to resolve all the issues in the case. On September 30, 2009, Balsillie's bid was again rejected by Judge Baum, who also rejected the NHL's bid. Balsillie's bid was rejected "with prejudice," preventing him from making another bid for the Coyotes. Balsillie did not appeal the ruling.
It was rumoured that Balsillie made an unnamed bid to purchase the Buffalo Sabres during their sale in 2011 to Terry Pegula. It was also rumoured that Balsillie was interested in purchasing the Atlanta Thrashers prior to their eventual purchase, relocation, and rebranding as the Winnipeg Jets by True North Sports & Entertainment, but neither of these rumours was confirmed.
Philanthropic work and awards
Balsillie is a philanthropist who supports numerous local and national initiatives. In 2007, he donated $50 million to the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) as part of a $100 million initiative to create the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA). Balsillie created the Canadian International Council (CIC) through a partnership with the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIAA) and CIGI. He is also the founder of the Council of Canadian Innovators.
Balsillie has contributed resources and time to organizations such as Waterloo Children's Museum, Grand River Hospital, the Canadian Olympic Foundation and others.
In 2012, Osgoode Hall Law School faculty council rejected Balsillie's proposed $60-million collaboration between the school and CIGI that would have consisted of a $30-million donation each by the CIGI and the Government of Ontario to establish a school of international relations at York University and fund 10 research chairs in international law.
In October 2022, he published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail critical of the Trudeau government for proposing the Digital Charter Implementation Act 2022 (Bill C-27), writing that it "normalizes and expands surveillance and treats privacy as an obstacle to corporate profits, not as a fundamental human right or even a right to effective consumer protection."
Jim Balsillie married his wife in 1989 in Hamilton, Ontario. They had two children before separating in 2011.
Balsillie maintains that all three major political parties have made unsuccessful efforts to recruit him.
In popular culture
Glenn Howerton portrayed Balsillie in the 2023 film BlackBerry. Balsillie himself states Howerton's portrayal and the film's portrayal of the culture at RIM as inaccurate. Balsillie was portrayed as arrogant, manipulative, and aggressive in the film. He has said the consensus on his characterisation is that it was "5% accurate, and 95% made-up", but also said that he could take being teased, having lived 60 years with his last name containing the word "silly". Balsillie helped promote the film by doing television interviews and attending premieres. He praised Howerton's performance as "brilliant".
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- Kelly, Declan (April 2, 2012). "CIGI remains committed to program of research into international law". cigionline.org. Centre for International Governance Innovation. Retrieved May 29, 2023.
- "Organization Profile - Canada Foundation for Sustainable Development Technology". Government of Canada. November 30, 2017. Archived from the original on January 10, 2018.
- Balsillie, Jim (October 22, 2022). "Privacy is central to human well-being, democracy, and a vibrant economy. So why won't the Trudeau government take it seriously?". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved May 29, 2023.
- Wells, Jon (April 15, 2016). "Philanthropist Heidi Balsillie's heart never left Hamilton". The Hamilton Spectator. Hamilton, Ontario. Retrieved May 29, 2023.
- Government of Canada, National Defence (April 19, 2013). "Royal Canadian Navy - Honorary Navy Captains". www.navy-marine.forces.gc.ca.
- CBC News Canada. "What the real Jim Balsillie thinks about the Blackberry movie". YouTube. CBC Canada. Retrieved July 28, 2023.