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This month's BlackBerry CEO vows: I won't axe the smartphone-making biz

Can lightning strike twice for former Sybase head?

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Newly appointed BlackBerry CEO John Chen has wasted no time letting the world know that he has big plans for the troubled Canadian firm – and shutting down its ailing smartphone division isn't one of them.

The former Sybase chief exec was introduced as BlackBerry's interim chief exec on Monday, following the unceremonious departure of previous honcho Thorsten Heins.

Heins presided over a rocky 22 months at BlackBerry, a period plagued by product delays that saw the former smartphone leader's share of the global handset market erode to almost nothing.

Not even the launch of the company's long-awaited BlackBerry 10 platform, which happened under Heins's watch, could halt the decline, and the company's latest handsets have sold poorly.

But the 58-year-old Chen says he's undeterred by that past performance and that he intends to rebuild BlackBerry's once-thriving handset business.

"I know we have enough ingredients to build a long-term sustainable business," Chen told Reuters in a telephone interview on Monday. "I have done this before and seen the same movie before."

By that, Chen was likely referring to his tenure at database maker Sybase, which was losing money when Chen became its CEO in 1998. After he assumed the top role, he refocused the company on narrower markets, such as mobility, rather than allowing it to batter itself against database heavyweights IBM and Oracle as it had done before. Sybase returned to profitability within a year, and Chen ultimately sold it to SAP for $5.8bn in 2010.

Selling off BlackBerry may yet be the plan, too. The company's board had been holding out for an offer more attractive than the $4.7m buyout plan proposed by Canada's Fairfax Financial Holdings, but it never emerged, and even Fairfax was unable to commit the necessary funds to take BlackBerry private, in the end.

The current plan is for Fairfax and a consortium of investors to pitch in $1bn to keep BlackBerry afloat while Chen works his "magic," but whether the same approach that worked for Sybase will work for BlackBerry seems questionable.

For starters, Chen's insistence that BlackBerry maintain its smartphone division goes against prevailing wisdom on Wall Street. Several analysts have observed that in its present state, the company is most likely worth more in pieces than as a whole – and that the one piece most suitors probably wouldn't be interested in would be the hardware group.

Investors seemed deeply skeptical of Monday's move, too. BlackBerry's share price crashed down more than 16 per cent on the news that the Fairfax takeover had been scrapped, leaving it close to its all-time low. ®

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