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Who Is New BlackBerry CEO and Executive Chair John Chen?

Jon C. Ogg

BlackBerry Ltd. (BBRY) has announced that its strategic review is over. Thorsten Heins is also out as CEO. John S. Chen will be executive chair of BlackBerry's board of directors and also its interim CEO. It is easy to say that BlackBerry's best days are gone, but sometimes a new CEO or chairman can manage to save the day, or delay the death much longer.

Chen will have the daunting task of being responsible for the strategic direction, strategic relationships and organizational goals of BlackBerry. He is set to serve as interim chief executive officer, pending completion of a search for a new CEO. We have one simple question: Who is John Chen?

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It turns out that Chen is very well known in corporate board circles. He retired as the chairman and CEO of Sybase. He has also been a member of the board of directors of Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) since 2006. That means he has seen some ups and downs as Wells Fargo was in the midst of the financial meltdown of 2008 to 2009. We would not expect Wells Fargo to have any serious involvement in the future of BlackBerry. Still, Chen at least saw one awful situation before.

Chen is also a director of Walt Disney Co. (DIS). The Disney board of directors website shows he has been a director there all the way back to 2004. That means that Chen had to go through management turmoil in Disney as well, back in the Michael Eisner management fight of 2004 to 2005. Does he get credit for the success under Chairman and CEO Bob Iger? Maybe, but that is a good success either way.

Chen is a senior advisor of the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners. As a reminder, Silver Lake was once thrown into the ring by rumor mongers as a potential suitor of BlackBerry. We doubt that there is any future tie between the two companies, but that needed at least to be addressed.

Chen's tenure as chairman and CEO of Sybase was from July 2010 until he retired in November 2012. As a reminder, Sybase was acquired by SAP A.G. (SAP). From November 1998 until SAP's acquisition of Sybase in July 2010, he served as chairman, CEO and president of Sybase.

Pre-Sybase, Chen is shown to have held positions as the president of the Open Enterprise Computing Division of Siemens Nixdorf. Another position was as president and chief operating officer of Pyramid Technology Corp.


  • Chen's education: graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and holds a Master of Science from California Institute of Technology.
  • Chen was listed as a member of the President's Export Council and was the chairman of the Committee of 100 from May 2009 until May 2011.
  • Chen is listed as a trustee of the San Francisco Symphony and also of the California Institute of Technology.

We would point out that this is an interim CEO position at BlackBerry, even if Chen is being named executive chairman. He is 56 years old. Based on his career, we would be more than surprised if Chen wanted to keep the CEO title much longer than on the interim basis as suggested, although remaining on the board of directors, or even as a non-executive chairman, might be possible.

Chen said:

I am pleased to join a company with as much potential as BlackBerry. BlackBerry is an iconic brand with enormous potential -- but it's going to take time, discipline and tough decisions to reclaim our success. I look forward to leading BlackBerry in its turnaround and business model transformation for the benefit of all of its constituencies, including its customers, shareholders and employees.

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