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Tough questions will define Blackberry’s AGM

Blackberry’s shareholder annual general meeting takes place this morning in Ontario. What’s going to happen at the gathering of the troubled smartphone maker’s shareholders?


One year ago, Research in Motion, as it was called then, braced itself for its annual general meeting with shareholders. If one could be a fly on the wall in the meetings held between CEO Thorsten Heins and his executive team, he would probably be coaching them to keep calm and remind the angry shareholders that although the immediate future was bleak the company’s salvation was near with the next-generation of Blackberries.

Today Heins and his executive team are set to face a likely redux of last year’s event, which was marked for its air of uncertainty and sheer hostility from shareholders present.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect at the meeting today:

Tough questions

This is a given. Blackberry’s first-quarter numbers announced late last month showed an adjusted loss of $67 million. Analysts were disappointed, and Blackberry’s stock plummeted by nearly 28 percent.

One has to ask, how much more can Heins and co. really say? A loss is expected for this quarter, and Heins has said that this year will be defined by Blackberry investing in itself (which means burning through its precious reserves of cash). There’s not much more to that story.

A topic that hasn’t already been extensively covered, and to which Heins will very likely be asked, is why his company has decided to limit the information about sales projections it discloses to investors. In its defense, Blackberry says the smartphone market has become to difficult to predict. But, curiously, it hasn’t yet explained why it refused to disclose how many of its shipments this quarter were Blackberry 10 phones (he disclosed this figure during an conference call in response to a question).

A motion from the floor?

AGMs are the place where change happens in a corporation. It’s sort of like Parliament or Congress as change can happen from binding motions, laws the company must abide by,  presented at the AGM.

Many in the technology blogosphere expect Heins’ career to end at this meeting. However, a firing at the AGM isn’t a likely outcome. Generally, corporations the size of Blackberry are structured in such a way that the positions of the top executives are insulated against hostile shareholders. Shareholders can only appoint members of the board of directors, though the board has the power to fire executives. At last year’s AGM, the entire slate of directors was re-elected with only a whimper of opposition so hostility to the extent of rolling heads isn’t likely.

A shareholder group may put forward a resolution to force Blackberry’s executive to explore options like selling off intellectual property, or breaking the company up into hardware and software units. Heins’ enthusiasm for such drastic change has been tepid at best, so if this were to occur it would likely be by shareholder resolution or from the board.

Talk of a sale or a company breakup seems to happen every quarter, but no serious inroads have ever been made into going down this path. It’s an extreme measure and it isn’t something that is likely going to happen any time soon.

Updates to Blackberry’s developing world strategy

Traditionally, Blackberry has done quite well in the developing world. While slumping sales in mature markets certainly concerned investors, continued growth in the developing world calmed them down.

Case and point: in May Blackberry announced that it had been named a top smartphone brand in South Africa in 2013. It also has similar accolades in other countries in Africa, and a stellar sales track record in developing southeast Asian countries as well as the Middle East.

Blackberry’s problem is its market share is now being encroached by low-cost Android powered handsets. Everyone is focusing on making them, from brands well known to the western consumer to relatively unknown Chinese ODMs. Not to mention Nokia and Windows Phone’s surprising popularity in China.

To compound Blackberry’s difficulties in the promising market it lost Patrick Spence in May of 2012, its London-based head of global sales that spearheaded the company’s push into the developing world.

The company’s next-generation efforts for the developing market is largely anchored around the Q5, the more traditional style Blackberry with a keyboard as opposed to a touch screen.

Expect an update on sales numbers, as well as a plan to retake lost sales in the developing world, or, at least, a series of questions from shareholders on this topic should Heins and co. refuse to divulge extensive figures.

Looking back, looking forward

During last year’s AGM the company’s stock price hovered around a record low of less than $7. As 2013 began, shares were trading around $17.50 from optimism that the new devices would be a hit.

On Friday, RIM shares ended trading at $9.55.

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