A round with Jim Balsillie

News today was that Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, had withdrawn his bid to acquire the Pittsburgh Penguins. Given the news, I thought some might find this story interesting, a piece I wrote for my Going for the Green series for the National Post, that involved a round of golf with the tech baron.

Tech warriors take downturn in stride: ‘If I worried about every competitor, I’d never get anything done ‘

Friday, June 14, 2002
Page: FP1 / FRONT
Section: Financial Post
Byline: Robert Thompson
Column: Going for the Green

KITCHENER, Ont. – “Did somebody drop a BlackBerry?” booms a voice from the first fairway at Deer Ridge Golf and Country Club. Just about anyone here could have lost it. Deer Ridge is in the heart of the Waterloo technology cluster, a rarefied area where you would have to look hard to find someone who does not carry a BlackBerry e-mail pager.

“Gotta be Tom’s,” says Peter Schwartz, co-CEO of Descartes Systems Group Inc., who is playing alongside Tom Jenkins, chief executive of Open Text Corp., and, ironically, Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research In Motion Ltd., creator of the wildly popular device. Indeed it is Tom’s BlackBerry, and Mr. Jenkins makes his way sheepishly down the fairway to retrieve his wayward pager.

Messrs. Schwartz, Jenkins and Balsillie have been instrumental in the creation of the tech industry in the greater Waterloo area so it is natural that a friendship has developed — one that involves a lot of good-natured ribbing during our round at Deer Ridge, a fine private course designed by Tom McBroom, a noted Canadian golf architect, just off Highway 401.

“Hey, Tom,” says Mr. Balsillie as the Open Text’s chief executive approaches the fourth hole. “How did you get to borrow my grandfather’s socks?” Later, he takes another jab at Mr. Jenkins’ sartorial sense, asking if his wife chose his outfit, a nondescript golf shirt and brown shorts.

Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Balsillie are ultra-competitive and very focused — in golf and business.

Mr. Jenkins doesn’t feast on sports like they do. His introspective nature means he is more often at the office than on a golf course.

The other two have multiple memberships in private clubs. Mr. Schwartz is a member at Deer Ridge, the Redtail Golf Club near St. Thomas and the Port Carling Golf and Country Club in Muskoka; Mr. Balsillie belongs to Redtail and the Westmount Golf and Country Club in the Kitchener area. Mr. Jenkins belongs to just Westmount, and admits he doesn’t golf very often.

On this hot, hazy day, Mr. Schwartz is recovering from a hockey injury but still wants a competitive game. We decide that Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Jenkins will be partners against me and Mr. Balsillie in a matchplay round.

Mr. Schwartz is almost certainly one of Canada’s best golfing CEOs. Though he only plays on weekends during the summer, he regularly shoots around par. Given his skill, and the fact that both Mr. Balsillie and I are playing to single-digit handicaps, we spot the novice Mr. Jenkins one shot a hole. We agree at the outset we won’t wager.

The jokes between the three friends continue throughout the round, though they diminish somewhat when Mr. Jenkins manages to drop in a couple of long par putts, putting his side ahead by four holes through the front nine. Maybe a wager would have been a good idea, the Schwartz-Jenkins’ team jokes.

It’s good the three CEOs have a sense of humour because it hasn’t been an easy year to run a tech company in Waterloo or anywhere else. All three have seen their share values drop this year as tech stocks continue to be beaten down by skeptical investors. Open Text is down 30% from the start of the year, Descartes has fallen 49% and RIM is down 43%.

“No one seems to want to invest in technology companies,” Mr. Schwartz tells me while we walk briskly down the third fairway. “It is a really tough market out there.”

But their schedules are just as hectic. If anything, they are working even harder trying to drive sales in a market where businesses aren’t buying.

“Shareholders get their money’s worth out of me,” Mr. Schwartz tells me after our drives on the long fifth hole, a 415-yard par 4. He says he usually gets to the office around 6 a.m. and works well into the evening.

He has had good reason to work late in the past year. Descartes, which has created a computerized logistics network that can be accessed by companies to track shipments, was hit hard by the slowdown in corporate spending. In response, the company cut 70 employees, restructured parts of its business and hired Manuel Pietra, a new co-CEO.

Mr. Jenkins tags along behind the group, sending e-mails on his retrieved BlackBerry. Many courses have banned electronic devices like cell phones and pagers, but Deer Ridge looks the other way, given the popularity of the devices in the area. Banning them would be like asking a smoker to quit cold turkey. It can be done, but it can mean the deprived golfer will be more than a bit cranky.

“I’ve answered about 20 e-mails,” says Mr. Jenkins while heading up the short par 4 11th hole where he’s hit a short drive up the fairway. He is in his fifth year running Open Text, which makes knowledge management software. Today he is in constant touch with his office because an obscure research firm has put out a “sell” report on Open Text, which has caused the shares to fall 10%.

The BlackBerry has allowed Mr. Jenkins to escape his office and hit the links, and still drop e-mails to those who want information on the revised assessment.

By the 15th hole, the Jenkins-Schwartz team, led by the strong early putting of Open Text’s CEO, have won the match and anxiously head off the course for a meeting with an investment bank. Mr. Balsillie, though, wants to finish the round.

Standing on the 15th hole, a 187-yard par 3, he tells me his personality and lifestyle is a good foil to that of Mike Lazaridis, his co-CEO at RIM. Mr. Balsillie, a chartered accountant and physical fitness nut, says he’s a “guy’s guy” who proves that number crunching is anything but boring.

He certainly isn’t your standard high-tech executive. He has an MBA from Harvard and enjoys the rough and tumble of a good hockey game. He also owns several Waterloo-area golf courses through his sizable position in GolfNorth Properties, a recent investment.

“You could put your money in the market, but I figured I’d had enough exposure there,” he says with a laugh.

His personality seems worlds away from his co-CEO. Mr. Lazaridis is an audiophile who has a keen interest in theoretical physics.

But it is a partnership that works, Mr. Balsillie says while heading up the tree-lined 17th hole, where he will make a bogey following a strong drive. Analysts and industry watchers continue to expect the company to come under pressure from competitors looking to break into the market for e-mail handheld devices.

The latest is the little-known Good Technology, a California start-up that has made a big splash following two surprisingly laudatory articles in The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Balsillie isn’t concerned about this latest pretender to RIM’s wireless throne.

“If I got worried about every so-called competitor that made news, I’d never get anything done,” he says after pushing his drive into the rough on the final hole, a spectacular par 5. “First it was Palm, then it was Nokia, now it is Good Technology. Why would anyone be interested in an enterprise solution from an unestablished company?”

We both take a bogey on the 18th and retire to the clubhouse patio overlooking the final hole, where Mr. Balsillie orders two Coors Lites.

Despite their success at the peak of the tech boom in 1999 and 2000, he says the lifestyles of many technology executives in the Waterloo area didn’t change. He remains in the same house he owned when he took the job as RIM’s co-CEO in 1992. Married with two children, he still works a 60-hour work week punctuated with a workout at the gym each day. A good night out for him, he says, is playing pickup hockey with friends. In other words, there’s no hint of the lavish excesses of Mike Cowpland, Corel Corp.’s former CEO.

“People have a real radar for phoniness and that can be a liability to your business. You need to reflect the values of your community and have some leadership roles in that as well,” he says.

Our conversation over, RIM’s multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur says goodbye, then hefts his golf clubs to his car with just enough time to make his daughter’s soccer game.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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