WATERLOO, Ont. — The markets may be hitting Research in Motion hard after its most recent restructuring, but the community considered synonymous with the BlackBerry isn’t letting bad news get it down.
RIM (TSX:RIM) shares fell sharply after the company’s recent announcement that co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis were stepping down from their lead positions.
The shakeup followed a bad year that included 2,000 in layoffs as RIM lost consumers to Apple’s iPhone and the Google-powered Android smartphones, especially in the United States, as well operational problems and public relations gaffes.
That has left many wondering what RIM’s seemingly cloudy future would mean for the region of Waterloo and Canada’s so-called Technology Triangle, which experienced a boom after becoming the go-to place for technology companies.
Business and community leaders, however, say the mood hasn’t soured in the southwestern Ontario city, because even though RIM was integral to its tech boom, the sector has now grown beyond simply one company.
“People sort of forget, they say: ’It’s RIM.” Well, it’s RIM plus 800 other tech companies,“ said Ian McLean, president and CEO of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.
“RIM has spurred a lot of things in this community, I don’t want to underestimate that. But RIM has also settled here and grown up here because of the other things that Waterloo region has done to support it.”
The area’s economy has also diversified well beyond technology, and includes a large advanced manufacturing industry, two universities, a college and a growing financial services industry, which not only includes insurers Manulife Financial and Sun Life Financial, but also all four major banks.
That diversity, McLean said, “allows someone as important as RIM to take a step back, get their footing again and move forward.”
“We are very fortunate to have as them as the cornerstone of tech and innovation in this community, but … there’s all kinds of room for others to grow and maybe take up a little slack while RIM is taking its time.”
Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran echoes that sentiment, saying most of the gloomy predictions about her city come from those who haven’t been there to see it thrive.
“The mood of the citizens of Waterloo, I think, is very positive,” she said.
“There’s this feeling within the outside of this community that there’s a lot of turmoil within Waterloo region or the city of Waterloo itself. That isn’t the case.”
Waterloo, hit hard by the recession and the disappearance of thousands of auto sector jobs two years ago, has since lowered its unemployment rate and has 1,000 jobs waiting to be filled in the tech sector, she added.
“Of course there are a lot of people who are looking for work, but we have the lowest unemployment rates in Ontario, we’re below the provincial average,” said Halloran.
“There are certain sectors in our community that are going though tougher times on employment issues, but overall we’re doing very well.”
On the streets of Waterloo, most residents appeared unconcerned about the changes, and were either unaware of the latest details of the company’s inner workings or willing to dismiss them as something that will pass.
“It’d be mainly concerning for the engineering students and students who are getting co-op jobs at RIM, but not necessarily for everyone,” said student Michelle Oliver.
A local radio station even posted a video on YouTube asking that people stop all the negativity toward RIM, and thanking the company for its contributions to the community.
“I think we tend to have a bit more confidence than perhaps people who live elsewhere because we live next door to the people who work at RIM,” said Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, an organization that represents 800 tech companies in Waterloo region.
“We get a sense as to what’s coming down the pipe, and have a set of relationships that other people don’t have, which gives us a bit of an inside scoop on the future of the corporation.”
Any prognosis about RIM’s downfall, Klugman adds, is “wildly exaggerated.”
“I see a company that’s going through a significant transition this year. They’re still a very profitable company, strong balance sheet, strong, established customer base around the world, and they continue to grow year over year,” he said.
“I don’t know anyone in the community right now who buys into the argument that this is the end.”
He also dismissed suggestions that the area would lose talent or funding because of RIM’s troubles, saying there is no set way for tech companies to secure investment.
People who leave RIM, he added, will often be re-deployed locally to some of the medium-size companies in the region.
Google, for instance, chose to set up shop in Kitchener-Waterloo after a global search that included Zurich, London, England, Sydney, Australia, Shanghai, and Beijing.
“I asked a lot of questions at the time: ‘Why are we coming here?’,” said Steve Woods, engineering director at Google.
“And the answer was, ‘We’re not really sure, but something great is happening in Kitchener-Waterloo.”’
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who this week visited the newly-expanded Communitech Hub, said continued expansion in the area by companies like Google shows the growth isn’t slowing down, and promised to invest in the sector despite the province’s massive deficit.
“We will continue to support innovation, I take great pride in elevating innovation as an important commitment and priority for our government,” he said.
To many within Waterloo, most of the negative outlook for RIM comes from analysts and headlines that seem to relish in gloomy prediction for a company that, they argue, Canadians should be celebrating.
And while watchers may tie much of their outlook to the products RIM puts out — and how they compare to those launched by media darling Apple — the company’s main strength, says McLean, is in its security software and massive, worldwide network.
“RIM’s bad news gets splashed all over front page and they don’t get a break,” said McLean.
“But you’re looking at it from the outside and you’re really just reacting to what the market’s doing, where the stock is going. I don’t think a lot of people watch that as much as maybe the headlines in the business sections necessarily do.”