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By hiring former Sybase Inc. CEO John Chen, BlackBerry Ltd. (BB-T)(BBRY-Q) has turned to the type of leader it probably should have hired when co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis decided to step down in late 2011.
Chen’s biography looks much like a checklist of experiences one would look for to take over a once-mighty tech company that has fallen on hard times and needs a radical reboot. The passage of nearly two years and further deterioration in the business during the brief tenure of his predecessor Thorsten Heins makes his task that much more challenging.
Chen has been named as executive chair of the BlackBerry board and interim CEO.
Chen rose from modest beginnings to become a successful Silicon Valley senior executive, an accomplished turnaround artist, and a director of major Fortune 500 boards with powerful connections in Washington D.C. – and a deep knowledge of China. He also found success for Sybase by correctly foreseeing the coming growth in mobile communications in the late 1990s and positioning the company as a leader selling business services into that market.
Chen, 58, the son of poor refugees from Hong Kong, excelled in the U.S., attending the elite Northfield Mount Hermon School, and then graduating from ivy league Brown University in 1978 with a degree in electrical engineering and earning his masters degree a year later from the prestigious California Institute of Technology.
He joined Unisify as a design engineer, rising to vice-president, and served in senior roles at Pyramid Technology Corp. and a Siemens Nixdorf before joining Sybase as chief operating officer in 1997, moving up to the job of CEO and president in late 1998.
At the time, the database and business services company was in the midst of its fourth straight year of losses. Chen instituted a successful turnaround and moved the company into the then-nascent field of mobile information, which was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the company more than a decade later. He also returned Sybase to profitability, leading to its sale to SAP AG for $5.8-billion US.
“A few years back once I stabilized the company, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could exploit what we know and then skip a generation and go ahead of our competitors and become more relevant,” Chen told the New York Times in August 2006. “People were laughing at us for getting into mobility so early and they were saying there’s no money there, wireless is just a dream and everyone’s losing so much money. We are now the largest enterprise software provider in wireless technology.”
Chen’s success at Sybase earned him appointments to the boards of Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC-N) and Walt Disney Co. (DIS-N), as well as the board positions with the New York Stock Exchange and several tech startups. He was also appointed by U.S. president George W. Bush to serve on the President’s Export Council and was made co-chair of the government’s Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee.
He is also a trustee of the San Francisco Symphony, the Brookings Institution and CalTech. He has long played a senior role in building relations between the U.S. and China, serving as a member of the “Committee of 100” a group of high-level Chinese-Americans, and winning accolades and awards for his work, including making Forbes’ magazine’s list of the Top 25 Notable Chinese-Americans in Business.
But Chen, who initially stayed on at SAP, was never promoted to its senior ranks, and retired from the company early this year. He took a role as a senior adviser of global private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, no doubt waiting to take on a challenge like the one that BlackBerry now presents for him.
“John Chen knows how to manage a mobile company, and perhaps more importantly, can make things happen in the industry,” wrote technology analyst Jack Gold. “In fact, he had been rumoured to be in line to run SAP, but that didn’t happen.”