After effectively announcing its exit from the smartphone market late last week, BlackBerry on Monday announced that it has accepted a $4.7 billion buyout offer from a consortium led by Fairfax Financial Holdings. If completed, the purchase would take BlackBerry private and into a very uncertain future.
Indeed, the entire undertaking is uncertain. Fairfax, which currently owns about 10 percent of BlackBerry's common shares, has a six-week window during which it will perform due diligence, examining the firm's business assets. During this time, however, BlackBerry can continue shopping the company around and look for a better deal. Breaking the Fairfax agreement—which is currently at the "letter of intent" phase—would incur a small fee.
On Friday, BlackBerry announced that it would write down nearly $1 billion related to unsold inventory of the firm's latest device lineup and would cut 40 percent of its already-dwindling workforce, or 4,500 employees. This announcement was, in effect, an informal exit from the smartphone business, though the firm offered vague plans to trim its product lineup and focus only on enterprise customers. BlackBerry revealed that it was churning through about $500 million a quarter just running its depleted business.
And although an offer of some kind was expected for months—the firm previously said it was "exploring strategic options," including a sale of the entire company—this week's offer came suddenly, and not from an expected source. BlackBerry Cofounder Mike Lazaridis has been talking to private equity investors about making his own bid for the firm. Perhaps the Fairfax deal will trigger a higher bid.
For BlackBerry shareholders, the Fairfax offer is a bitter bill: They would receive about $9 per share in the transaction, which is just 6 percent of the stock's peak price in 1998. The firm was once valued at over $80 billion and was the biggest maker of smartphones in the United States. Today, it is an also-ran, succumbing first to Apple's iPhone and then more recently—and more egregiously—to Android, which has also trampled Apple back to Earth, especially outside the United States.
Although it's convenient to compare BlackBerry with other technology firms that have recently been privatized (like Dell) or sold to other companies (like Nokia), the reality is that BlackBerry has fallen much further than either. Dell is still a relative industry behemoth that went private in a $25 billion deal involving its founder, Michael Dell. And though Nokia is struggling to catch up to Apple in the smartphone market, its $7.2 billion planned purchase by Microsoft is worth almost twice the price for BlackBerry.
As for the future, any attempt to forge forward with BlackBerry 10, the firm's current smartphone platform, is futile. Despite some technically excellent functionality, BlackBerry 10 has bombed in the marketplace, and the version with a hardware keyboard—typically a BlackBerry strength—has done particularly poorly. This raises the possibility that Fairfax will simply manage the firm's patent portfolio, which is alone valued at $2 billion, and sell off its other assets. The BlackBerry Messenger instant messaging (IM) service is still considered viable, for example.
Related: "It's Over: BlackBerry Seeks Exit Strategy"