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Prem Watsa Comments on BlackBerry

March 11, 2014 | About:
Holly LaFon

No sooner had the ink dried (almost!) after I wrote to you in last year's Annual Report about BlackBerry (BBRY), than BlackBerry became a daily headline. The Board of Directors of BlackBerry decided to form a Special Committee to look at all options for the company. As we were the biggest shareholder in the company (almost 10%) and were potentially conflicted by my being on the Board, I decided to resign as a director so we could review all our options. On September 23, 2013, Fairfax made an offer to take BlackBerry private at $9 per share, subject to a six-week due diligence period. To do our due diligence, we hired a very experienced team led by Sanjay Jha, who ran Motorola, Sandeep Chennakeshu, who was President of Ericsson Mobile Platforms, and John Bucher, who was Chief Strategy Officer at Motorola Mobility. Briefly stated, their conclusions were simply: 1) the company had excellent assets, 2) the management teams had made many mistakes along the way, and 3) the company could not afford high cost LBO debt. For the first time in our history, our due diligence resulted in our not being able to complete an announced deal. After discussions with the Special Committee, led by its Chair Tim Dattels, instead of continuing with a go-private transaction, we proposed to raise $1.25 billion for BlackBerry in the form of 6% seven-year convertible debentures (convertible at $10 per share into BlackBerry stock) and proposed that John Chen be concurrently appointed as Executive Chairman of BlackBerry.

John Chen has an extraordinary background. After immigrating to the U.S. from Hong Kong at the age of 16, John gained a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Brown and a Master's from Caltech. He then trained at Burroughs (Unisys), turned around Pyramid Technology Corp., and then very successfully resurrected Sybase and ran it profitably for about 15 years. When John took over Sybase in 1998, it had lost money for four years, its stock price

was down 90% (ring a bell?) and most analysts were predicting bankruptcy within six months. Within a year, Sybase was profitable and in 2010, 12 years later, SAP came knocking to buy it at $65 per share, more than ten times the $5 – $6 per share it sold at when John took it over! John has also been on the Board of Wells Fargo for eight years and Disney for ten years.

Since his appointment as Executive Chairman at BlackBerry in November 2013, John has bolstered the management team (mainly with people he has worked with), done a joint venture with FoxConn to manufacture low cost phones for emerging markets, brought back the ''BB Classic'' phone (the Q20) and publicly said that BlackBerry would break even by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2015 (i.e., the quarter ending January 2015). John is on his way – and all BlackBerry shareholders are fortunate that he decided to take the job of saving Canada's iconic technology company. I must also say, BlackBerry would not have survived if not for the extraordinary leadership of Tim Dattels as Chair of the Special Committee. You may understand why I say this if you read the recent book on Nortel's bankruptcy ''100 Days: The rush to judgment that killed Nortel'', by James Bagnall.

We purchased $500 million of the BlackBerry convertible debentures and have said that we would sell some of our common shares over time to rebalance our position (we have sold 5 million shares at about $10 per share as of this writing). The rest of the convertible debentures were purchased by six contrarian long term investors, of whom four were Canadian.

Interestingly, Twitter went public, just after BlackBerry announced its convertible debt issue, at $26 per share, giving it a market value of $18 billion. It had revenues of $665 million and losses of $645 million, and most investors could not get a single share unless they were very good clients of the major houses underwriting the issue. On that day, BlackBerry traded in excess of 100 million shares at $6 per share, giving it a market value of $3 billion. BlackBerry had revenues of approximately $8 billion with cash of $2.6 billion and no debt other than the new convertible debt to be issued. If you thought that Twitter was grossly overvalued at $26 per share, it promptly doubled and currently is selling at $55 per share, with a market value of $39 billion.

Twitter is no exception – please see the recently compiled table below to see the extraordinary speculation in high tech companies. This sort of speculation will end just like the previous tech boom in 1999 – 2000 – very badly!

From Prem Watsa (Trades, Portfolio)'s annual 2013 letter to shareholders.


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