John Chen Begins Reshaping Floundering Blackberry

The man who transformed Sybase from a down-and-out into a leading enterprise software maker for the mobile internet has been tapped to turn around Blackberry.

As executive chairman and acting CEO of BlackBerry since mid-November, John S. Chen has already shaken things up by cutting several from the Canadian mobile phonemaker’s C-suite. Among them are COO Kristian Tear, CMO Frank Boulben and CFO Brian Bidulka. His next likely step will be to lay off about 5,000 employees in the process of shedding product lines that have no place in a reimagined Blackberry.

Chen was placed in the driver’s seat of the Waterloo-based former high-flyer by Fairfax Financial Holdings which is leading a $1-billion rescue of Blackberry after it failed to attract a buyer before its early November deadline.

Chen’s credentials for the difficult task of salvaging and reshaping Blackberry’s assets is his 12-year stint as Sybase CEO. He joined the firm in November 1998 when analysts were predicting its imminent demise. Chen immediately slashed product lines and workers and repositioned Sybase as a leader in the wireless database space at a time when the segment was just emerging.

In the process Chen led Sybase to 55 consecutive quarters of profitability during which its market cap grew at a 28% compounded annual rate from $362 million to its ultimate 2010 sale price of $5.8 billion while adding $2.8 billion in cash to its balance sheet.

John S. Chen, 58, was born in Hong Kong. He attended the city’s La Salle College before moving to the US to graduate from the elite Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. He received a BS in electrical engineering magna cum laude from Brown University in 1978 and a masters the following year from CalTech.

Beginning as a design engineer at Unisys, he rose to become vice president and general manager of the company’s Convergent RISC Platform Division and its Convergent UNIX Systems Group. Between 1991 and 1996 he rose steadily in three more technology firms until being named president and CEO of Siemens Nixdorf’s Open Enterprise Computing Division.

The defining challenge of his career began in 1997 when he joined ailing Sybase as COO, president and a board member. By the next November he was promoted to chairman, CEO and president. In that role he was reshaped Sybase from a doddering tech firm falling behind in a mature segment into the leading database firm in the emerging mobile space.

A source of some speculation about Chen’s ultimate role in Blackberry is his position as an adviser to the US private equity firm Silver Lake which had helped Dell founder Michael Dell buy Dell for $25 billion and sold Skype to Microsoft. Silver Lake has denied having an interest in buying Blackberry, but Chen’s involvement may induce it ultimately to take on a significant stake. In turn that suggests the possibility of Chen staying on long-term role as chairman. After all, returning Blackberry to its onetime status as the mobile phonemaker for the business elite could be the crowning achievement of Chen’s career.