Friday, September 27, 2013

Who's Betting on Blackberry?

Worth a $4 billion gamble?
Among other deal announcements in Sept., 2013, an investing group from Canada has decided to bet on Blackberry, the tech company that was all the rage from the late 1990's until the iPhone shoved it off the scene in the mid-2000's.

People still use Blackberry (yep, some still do!), and many companies support employee usage, partly because of an efficient messaging system. Yet with rapidly deteriorating market share and with its feeble efforts to catch up with what other smartphones offer (and with mounting losses), who would want to buy the company?

A Canadian private-equity company has jumped in to take the gamble and assume the risk. It sees some value other market investors and the consuming public at large don't--up to about $4.7 billion worth. It has agreed to a buy-out to purchase shares it doesn't already own. 

In recent weeks, Blackberry's CEO has announced large losses, lay-offs and a new strategy focusing primarily on institutional relationships (selling the product and service to companies, not individuals).

Blackberry's prospective owners, Fairfax Financial, must see some virtue in this strategy. And they get to observe the strategy in execution out of the public's eye (as a private company).  No more need to earnings conference calls to disappointed investors to explain why market share dipped a few more percentage points.

For now, Blackberry and its new owners must digest some big losses.  The company just announced a quarterly loss of nearly $1 billion--mostly write-offs of Blackberry product that never could sell and never will in an environment when other companies take bigger leads in the smartphone race.

But the new owners also see billions in cash that still reside on Blackberry's balance sheet and tens of billions in value from patents and other intangibles. For all its troubles, the company has a balance sheet that's surprisingly sturdy--over $2 billion in cash and negligible amounts of debt. (Somebody in its finance office deserves a pat on the back for that.)

The new owners haven't articulated publicly an acquisition strategy (what they plan to do when they control the company). They may think that Blackberry's prospects deserve one more desperate effort. And the deal was struck such that they could change their minds without much penalty.

Over time, if all doesn't go well, they can always sell off valuable parts of the balance sheet, seize whatever cash that remains, and sell what was once a top-of-the-heap brand name.

Time will tell, and the new owners will probably give a go for the next year and a half. The clock starts now.

Tracy Williams

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fighting the Gender Fight at HBS

The pot is stirring at Harvard Business School
Harvard Business School made the front page of the New York Times last weekend.  It wasn't because one of its alumni is perched atop a Fortune 500 company or another announced a blockbuster merger with another mega-company.  It wasn't because one of its alumni is waging a ferocious shareholder campaign to take over a multinational company. And it wasn't because one of its alumni is the announced head of McKinsey, Goldman or Booz Allen.

It was because its dean and staff are fighting a fierce fight to change the culture of the school and make it more accepting of the growing number of women on campus. According to the article, women now comprise 40% of the students in the business school. But the culture still remains entrenched in male dominance--in case-study groups, in classroom discussions, in the assembling of secret societies ("Section X," one is supposedly called), and in seizing the highest-compensation opportunities after graduation (especially in private equity, venture capital, investment banking and consulting). The article points out how males at the school are better at "touching the money," finding easier pathways to lucrative job offers.

Harvard, in the article, is applauded for recent successes and progress. It highlights the efforts of Dean Nitin Nohria and his team of administrators, who want to spawn an environment where women can thrive. And they want to change attitudes and increase the number of women faculty.

In business school, class participation, the art of leading discussion and presenting ideas and arguments, can comprise much of the final grade in a course.  In many Harvard courses, participation, as subjective as it is assessed, can be as much as 50% of the final grade.  Harvard administrators want to change how professors assign participation grades, because aggressive, outspoken males in class--honed by aggressive styles from stints in banking and trading--dominate class discussions, outshine others, and dismiss input of females in class.  Harvard wants to change the classroom dialogue and the benchmarks by which students are evaluated.  They are even recommending women to attend sessions on how to raise their hands (highly, visibly and confidently) in class.

This revolution of sorts, a punishment of old, male conventions and traditions at Harvard, has been welcomed by many, but has caused uneasiness, discomfort in others. The Harvard administrators press on, aware that right now the impact is cast only on campus and that the current group of students are part of a grand experiment.

Frances Frei, one of the deans on staff in the business school, is the face of many of the changes, the one who has decided progress is possible by making "unapologetic" (her favorite word) moves and making things uncomfortable for the old guard.

The article highlights what most have speculated about HBS for years--that the experience of attending the school involves intense immersion inside the classroom, in case groups, and, perhaps most important, outside the classroom in networks, social interactions, and after-hours gatherings. Social success, social connections and even social match-making, it seems, count as much, if not more than, aptitude inside the classroom--in finance, marketing, accounting, and operations management.  Some students worry more about social dynamics than about basic principles of valuing a corporation.

That might be disconcerting to some, especially to those who deem themselves unconnected, disadvantaged, or without means or ties to the business elite. That might be fresh air to those with connections, special ties, and less of a knack for dissecting financial statements, cash flows, and volatile currencies.

That's not the way it should be, asserts HBS's current leadership. And the leadership has decided it will change the ways of the school even if it means making unpopular decisions, some of which have rankled many who knew Harvard better as a two-year fraternity for the sons of the elite.

Will HBS succeed? Will the experiment work? Or will it work on campus, but its impact will simmer once its 900 graduates march off to a resistant real world?

Harvard staffers are operating on an old premise for overhauling a culture. Making changes sometimes means inflicting discomfort and pain. Old ways, old patterns and old prejudices against women must be smashed, not just gingerly dealt with. Taking bold steps requires stirring the pot.  Not only is Harvard guiding female students on how to raise their hands in class, but it is monitoring the tone and flavor of discussion in class and evaluating professors on grade participation. It is even setting strict rules on the costumes women might wear or the parts they play at theme parties or end-of-year follies.

Harvard deans understand that changing Harvard won't mean sudden changes in hiring practices and the work environment at private-equity firms, venture capital firms, banks, trading floors and consulting firms. They hope for some eventual trickle-over impact.  They know what they do at Harvard will be watched and replicated at some business schools--at least those schools that have harbored similar cultures of marginalizing women. They know, too, that graduates today will one day become decision-makers, business chiefs and industry leaders in due course and could be influenced by values they adopted in school.

Has Harvard (not a Consortium school), however, addressed similar issues and a similar feeling of disenfranchisement among under-represented minorities on its Boston campus? Maybe not. Or not as vocally. Some among under-represented minority groups will avow they, too, sometimes feel excluded from social groups or closed, social societies on campus or feel uncomfortable raising their hands and presenting their views in classes filled with boisterous former investment bankers on the front row.

Harvard, or at least this group of deans running the business school these days, hopes that a plan that helps resolve gender issues is a plan that crosses boundaries and creates a culture that is a comfortable, conducive setting, so that everybody can thrive--not just brash former M&A bankers taking a two-year break from Wall Street. 

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Venture capital and Diversity, 2011
CFN: MBA Diversity:  A Constant Effort to Catch Up, 2012