BlackBerry shakeup: Third time's a charm?

November 25, 2013: 1:15 PM ET

The Canadian phonemaker has seen three management regimes in as many years. Is this the one that will save the company from obsolescence?

<> on January 30, 2013 in New York City.

FORTUNE -- It has been almost 10 months since the Canadian business mobility company BlackBerry ditched the RIMM ticker symbol for (BBRY), renaming itself after the device that made -- and then lost -- its fortune. That rebranding was Frank Boulben's idea. The French marketing executive showed it to me in December during my last trip to Waterloo, shortly after he'd become chief marketing officer of the smartphone maker. We'd bunkered down in a conference room embedded somewhere within the company's halls of gray cubicles, which he boasted would soon be replaced with bright and colorful collaborative workspaces. "It's the new BlackBerry!" he told me, pushing a gorgeous demo phone my way.

For a moment last winter, we BlackBerry watchers held our breaths.

The tech giant had replaced its management team with a band of executive outsiders and was about to launch a pair of devices it believed could save the company. Employees who had survived rounds of layoffs were energized again. And the devices! Oh, the devices. They were so beautiful. On the Z10, for example, the touchscreen display boasted a keyboard with a heat map beneath it so that, as customers use it, the position of keys adjusted to their keystrokes (leading to few spelling mistakes, to be fair, no matter how fat your thumbs). As the company prepared for its winter unveiling, the excitement was palpable. Maybe, just maybe, BlackBerry will get it right this time.

Then it was over.

On November 25, BlackBerry announced Boulben will leave the company along with Chief Operating Officer Kristian Tear and Chief Financial Officer Brian Bidulka, a longtime BlackBerry exec. Both Boulben and Tear were recruited by chief executive Thorsten Heins, who left the company three weeks earlier. Apart from BlackBerry's chief legal officer Steven Zipperstein, the only one of Heins's high-profile hires who hasn't publicly been ousted is the company's chief creative officer, singer Alicia Keys.

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Heins had a tough job. When he took over as CEO in January 2012, displacing the duo who had run the company for a decade, BlackBerry was in crisis. The BlackBerry 7 operating system wasn't selling, nor was its tablet, the PlayBook. The company had missed several technology transitions: from physical keyboards to virtual; from 3G wireless communication technology to faster LTE. Having been in a state of chaotic hypergrowth for so long, it had layers of management -- two CEOs and three COOs to start -- with overlapping responsibilities. The stock, which had peaked at $144 when the company dominated the explosive North American smartphone market in summer 2008, was idling at $15. And rumors had surfaced that BlackBerry had no cash.

Analysts and shareholders alike cried out for a turnaround specialist. In Heins, they instead got an insider who suggested in his first conference call that RIM did not need a turnaround. To be fair, Heins understood the position in which the company found itself. When I visited him last year, he told me: "You can't go in front of your people and say, 'This company is in deep shit'," he said. "Before I talked to the media about a turnaround, I had to talk to my people and prepare [them] for what was to come."

Heins's biggest mistake was one of strategy. He attempted to take on the ruling smartphone oligopoly by besting them at their own game, creating sleeker devices with snazzier software. But as beautiful as BlackBerry's new devices were, they were late to market, launching many months after the company had promised, and they went largely unnoticed by a sea of smartphone users already entrenched in the app ecosystems of Google (GOOG) and Apple's (AAPL) products. What's more, Heins was competing in a market in which the third player was getting pushed out.

At the same time, Heins hired bankers to evaluate the company for a potential sale. "I had to plan for a 'Plan B' as well," he told me. As BlackBerry's devices met with a tepid response, Heins put more effort into finding the company a suitor. But that didn't work either. After completing a two-month review of strategic options and talking with potential buyers that included Facebook (FB), Lenovo and several private equity firms, the company abandoned its efforts -- and also Heins.

Instead, BlackBerry has announced it will raise $1 billion, and the company has appointed outsider John Chen as an interim CEO.

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Chen, who sits on the boards of both The Walt Disney Company (DIS) and Wells Fargo (WFC), gets credit for saving Sybase in the late 1990s; in 2010, the enterprise software company sold to SAP (SAP) for $5.8 billion, more than 15 times the company's market cap when he first came on board. But the BlackBerry job before him is arguably harder. (It is notable that his role is deemed "interim.") In an interview with the industry blog CrackBerry, Chen said he envisioned a future in which he hired a CEO for day-to-day management, framing his commitment to the company this way: "I'll think through and listen to everybody else and what their advice is, and then I'll decide how interim is interim."

As this week's news suggest, Chen's first order of business is casting a new management team, the third in as many years, to rebuild the company that first taught all of us we could check email from our palms. He'll need to rally the company's remaining employees, many of whom have heard promises of change before. Chen has said he doesn't plan to abolish the handset business, and he wants to keep BlackBerry in Canada.

If anyone can save BlackBerry from a slow death, it is Chen. But it's not impolite to ask: Can BlackBerry be saved at all?

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About This Author
Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel
Senior Writer, Fortune

Jessi Hempel is a New York-based technology writer for Fortune. She has written extensively about digital media, online advertising and social networking. Before joining Fortune in July 2007, Hempel worked at BusinessWeek and most recently served as their innovation department editor. Hempel is a graduate of Brown University and received a Masters in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley.

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