The New York Times offers its view of Balsillie:
NEW YORK TIMES/May 10, 2009
BlackBerry Billionaire Has the N.H.L. Buzzing
By IAN AUSTEN
A visit to the headquarters of Research in Motion, the Canadian company behind the BlackBerry, offers a hint about where the interests of James L. Balsillie, one of its co-chief executives, lie.
Instead of by conventional numbers, boardrooms and conference rooms on the company’s campus in Waterloo, Ontario, are identified with the names of hockey’s greats: Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.
Balsillie, 48, is something of a hero in Canada for creating (along with Michael Lazaridis) a company that smote former American giants like Palm Computing and Motorola.
Now the prospect that he may bring the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes to Canada has put him on a path to national sainthood of sorts.
Balsillie’s plan must overcome considerable obstacles, starting with the opposition of N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the league’s franchise rules.
But the tactics Balsillie used over the past decade to put BlackBerrys under millions of thumbs around the world suggest that he is unlikely to be easily deterred in his quest to bring the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario.
“I’ve said for years that anyone who wants to bring the N.H.L. to Hamilton should go on medication,” said Ron Foxcroft, a former investor in the Hamilton Bulldogs, a Montreal Canadiens farm team, and a friend of Balsillie’s. “Anyone except Jim Balsillie.”
Balsillie has been twice thwarted in attempts to bring another N.H.L. team to Canada. The league blocked his plans to bring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators north.
Those rejections, and the prospect that bankruptcy laws may now allow a route around the league’s rules, appear to have fueled Balsillie’s $212.5 million bid for the Coyotes.
“Jim’s a really complicated guy,” said Joan Fisk, a friend who also heads the chamber of commerce for Waterloo and neighboring Kitchener. “Jim’s drive to do this is partly because he was rebuffed. He is very, very dedicated to success.”
Although Balsillie’s personal wealth is estimated to be more than $3 billion, he leads a life that still largely reflects his middle-class upbringing. He lives with his wife and two children in a relatively modest house in Waterloo, a medium-size city not noted for millionaires, let alone billionaires; has a modest summer cottage; and drives an ordinary sport utility vehicle.
The son of an electrician at a nuclear power station, Balsillie grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, a hockey hot spot about 90 miles northeast of Toronto.
Balsillie was a die-hard fan of the Montreal Canadiens, rather than the nearby Maple Leafs.
Scholarships brought Balsillie to the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, something of an elite, establishment school, where he was named athlete of the year. He later earned an M.B.A. at Harvard.
Unlike many college athletes turned chief executives, Balsillie did not leave sports behind. He heads to a hockey rink once a week at 5:30 a.m. to train and plays twice a week in a local old-timers league. He also competes in triathlons and cycles, and he coaches teams that include his two children. (Foxcroft, a former referee who is now an arena observer for the N.B.A., also supervises the officials for the basketball league that includes his and Balsillie’s sons and in which Balsillie coaches.) A 10-handicap golfer, Balsillie controls GolfNorth Properties, which owns 19 semiprivate courses in Ontario.
While sports are clearly his passion, Balsillie has donated 50 million Canadian dollars (about $43 million) to establish a school of international affairs and governance affiliated with two universities in the Waterloo area.
Balsillie declined to be interviewed for this article.
But his role at Research in Motion provides a glimpse into how Foxcroft and others speculate he would run a hockey team.
In 1992, when Balsillie joined the company, which was founded by Lazaridis, it was an obscure maker of radio-based electronics. Lazaridis is a widely respected engineer who single-handedly developed the key concepts behind the BlackBerry and its wireless e-mail service. But most analysts credit Balsillie with providing the financial and marketing strength that turned Research in Motion into a global company.
In an earlier interview, Balsillie described meeting rejection after rejection as he tried to sell wireless phone carriers on the concept of wireless e-mail. Only one Canadian company, Rogers Communications, was willing to give the BlackBerry a try. Perhaps not by coincidence, it is now Canada’s largest wireless carrier.
Foxcroft, who invented the pealess whistle and heads the Fox 40, the company that makes it, said that any hockey club owned by Balsillie would be a similar partnership. Balsillie, his frequent golf partner, would supervise the business side while turning the hockey operations over to a Lazaridis-style expert.
“He wants the team for the right reason,” Foxcroft said. “This may be a business, but it’s also a passion. It would really make money from the beginning.”
Fisk and most of the other residents of Waterloo hope the team will come to Research in Motion’s hometown.
But Hamilton, which sits between Toronto and Waterloo, has an irresistible attraction: a suitable arena that opened in 1985 to lure an expansion team.
The team went to Ottawa.
Although Balsillie’s plan has dominated the news in Canada and apparently enjoys widespread support, not all Canadians endorse it.
Rod Bryden, who snared the franchise Hamilton had sought for Ottawa, said last week that Balsillie’s attempts to thwart the league’s control over team moves might ultimately harm Canadian hockey.
“If a team is just allowed to go to where the highest bid is, who’s next — Edmonton? Calgary?” he told The Ottawa Citizen.
Like Steve Jobs at Apple, Balsillie exerts tight control over what information Research in Motion makes available to the news media and the public.
If anything, that control has tightened since a Canadian securities regulator investigated Balsillie and Lazaridis for backdating stock options. As part of a settlement reached in February, the two men paid $15 million Canadian toward the cost of the investigation.
But the clearest template for how Balsillie will handle the N.H.L. in court is provided by Research in Motion’s entanglement with NTP, a tiny intellectual-property holding company based in Virginia, which claimed that BlackBerry service violated its wireless e-mail patents.
Many experts shared Research in Motion’s view that NTP should never have been granted wireless e-mail patents. Similarly, there was widespread sympathy about the apparent unfairness of the patent litigation system.
Where analysts and others parted ways with Balsillie, however, was his scorched-earth approach. Despite repeated court defeats, Research in Motion rejected the idea of settling with NTP.
That ultimately led to a point where BlackBerry service was in danger of being shut down by a court order. After spending millions on its legal defense, Research in Motion was ultimately forced to pay NTP $612.5 million to drop its suit.
Foxcroft is among many in Canada who doubt that Balsillie, despite that bitter experience, will readily back down against any challenge from the N.H.L.
“He’s the most dynamic, competitive sports guy in the world,” Foxcroft said.