John Chen is a turnaround guy. The Hong Kong native was hired in November 2013 to do just that by BlackBerry, a Canada-based technology company — once known as Research in Motion — that helped pioneer mass mobile communications before Apple’s iPhone took over.
Chen, 60, is a big deal in American business, sitting on two of the nation’s most prestigious boards of directors: the Walt Disney Co. and Wells Fargo. He is best known in Silicon Valley for reinventing an ailing company called Sybase and turning it into a financial juggernaut — 55 consecutive quarters of profitability and an increase in market cap from $362 millon to $5.8 billion — that was acquired by SAP in 2010.
The Washington Post interviewed Chen in a quiet Bay Area conference room on a rainy afternoon for about an hour. He discussed everything from the influence of his Catholic high school to why almost no job is beneath a person to how he plans to rescue BlackBerry. This was edited for length and clarity:
What was your first job?
My first job was in high school in Hong Kong when I worked for a travel agency doing odds and ends. In the beginning, they didn’t give me anything to do. Then one day, my father said, ‘How’s your job?’ I told him.
He said, ‘Go back to the office very early in the morning before everybody shows up. I’d like you to sharpen everybody’s pencil.’
It turns out to be the best advice I ever had. People came in early, looked at me sharpening the pencil and said, ‘What in the world are you doing?’
Then I started getting real things to do. That taught me a lot.
A lot of times in our professional lives, you think about jobs being automatically beneath you. And you’re sitting there looking for somebody to give you a really interesting, change-the-world job.
You just have to earn it. You can’t assume that you showed up one day like a hotshot.
How did you end up going to school in the U.S.?
One day I ran into my college counselor at the high school I attended in Hong Kong. He was asking me what I wanted to study. I said, ‘I like math and I like science.’
He said Hong Kong University is a really great school, but ‘you might want to think about going overseas.’ I had this crush on Ivy League schools. Just purely from pictures.
Brother Michael said I was a reasonable student, but not good enough to go directly from Hong Kong to the Ivy League.
But he said, ‘There is another way. You go through prep schools.’
I applied to Andover, Exeter, Northfield Mount Herman, Deerfield Academy and Choate or something. I didn’t get in the first two. So I went to Northfield Mount Herman.
Then I went to Brown University.
That was wonderful. Those first years were more than just study. It’s about being part of the society. I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time. I understood it and I could read most of it. I could write some of it. But I couldn’t converse like we are doing now.
What are you good at?
I’m very good at bridge. I don’t do it anymore. I used to play at the high school level and also intercollegiate — until it started to interfere with my normal student life.
How did you get on the management track?
Almost entirely because of the race issue. I was an engineer, helped to design chip sets, circuit boards. I loved it. The company was Burroughs. We made mainframes.
I found out that a number of promotions in the company went to Caucasians, despite the fact that we knew from working day in and day out that some of the minorities were better equipped to do that job.
I thought it was strange.
I went to my section head, who happened to be a middle-aged Caucasian gentleman (they were all middle-aged Caucasian gentlemen) and asked, ‘Why is that?’
He told me something that was very impactful. He said, and this is stereotyping, ‘You guys are very good at engineering, math and science and stuff.’ Great employees and stuff like that. ‘But I’m not so sure that you guys are very presentable.’
This is the late ’70s, early ’80s. I was not quite sure what he meant. I thought he meant presentation skills.
So I went and, on my own nickel, hired a local TV producer and his wife who ran a communication and presentation class.
They wanted $2,000 for six hours or something. I made $2,100 per month before tax as an engineer.
I did it. They put me on the VHS tape recorder. They put me on this set and gave me a lectern and said, ‘Read this.’
It was horrible. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I was swaying on the lectern. I got dizzy watching myself. I was not clear. I was not looking at them. I was looking down.
I wasn’t communicating. And that’s what I learned. It’s not about the English. Not about the pronunciation or the diction. It’s really about could you communicate.
So I worked a lot on it.
The company realized I was doing all of this and promoted me and then paid me back the $2,000.
After that, the company put me on the fast track. They give you an assignment for six months in every department. By the time I finished it, I learned accounting. I learned material requisition. I learned about how a plant runs. I learned about software. I learned about sales. I learned about marketing, program management.
After two or three years, I ended up the plant manager. The very person who told me about the presentation thing actually worked for me afterward.
How did you end up at Sybase?
I got recruited to run Sybase in 1997 through a couple of board members.
Sybase was a company that used to be wonderful and didn’t do that well. So I went in. It took me a long time, but we did very well.
I’m pretty good at finding talent. I put together a team that has a certain characteristic, is willing to try new things that are data driven, won’t mind the ups and downs, could laugh at the failure but could celebrate success.
It’s a little different type of personality that is able to do that. Most people, when things go down, tend to want to run away, attach themselves to winners.
I want to attach myself to something that we’ve done, not something somebody else did.
We lost a lot of people at BlackBerry. Very talented people. I’d rather not have them gone, but if their minds are not in it, or if their attitudes are not there, then it’s not the right mix.
Why did you accept the BlackBerry job?
This is a very important company. An iconic company. This is where and how smartphones started.
It kind of lost its way.
One of the bigger investors in the company, Prem Watsa, approached me. He is a very persistent fellow. I said no the first couple of times. He kind of fooled me by saying, ‘Why don’t you just kind of come in and build a management team and set the strategy and be the executive chairman?’
You can’t really set the strategy and build the management team without being hands-on.
This company was founded 30 years ago. It started with a pager, real-time two-way communications at the time. Then it evolved into a smartphone.
At one time, the company owned about 49 percent of the market share in smartphones. It was a status symbol.
The market changed, and the company didn’t change with the market. The consumer shifted from a closed environment, where everything functions together, and worked well and all that stuff to, ‘Hey, they want applications.’ Then the iPhone came on the scene.
What the iPhone represented we missed. To give people the choice. It was to integrate it into more and more a part of their life. Music. iTunes. Pictures.
At one point in time, we even had an internal debate that putting a camera on a phone is a source of a security leak. So we’ve gone through a lot.
Well, you know the rest of the history.
How are you going to fix this company?
I want to go back to the people who really need security. So what we’re going to be coming back on are security, encryption, privacy, enterprise and a lot more on end-to-end solutions.
The real cusp of what we are focusing on is the software. Our software runs on everything now. Not only on BlackBerry, it runs on iPhone, IOS, Google devices, Microsoft devices. We want to manage all these devices in a very secure manner.
All the acquisitions we make, secure voice, secure document transfers, these are all to make sure we could offer those solutions to our customers.
What about other lines of business?
There are 60 million automobiles running out there using BlackBerry software — telematic software, infotainment software, radio and all that. We added a lot more features, like advanced driver’s assist, communications between vehicles.
Today’s car, if you go to the car manufacturer, they are really building a software platform. They are not building a car.
When you talk to them, they are not talking about horsepower. They are not talking about zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds. They talk more about the connected cars, the cars have intelligence. The car detects your driving conditions, preventing you from getting hurt. Web service getting news, the personalization you want. Infotainment system. We are expanding rapidly in that.
Any other game-changers?
Mobile is part of everybody’s life. And it’s going to be a bigger and bigger part. We are going to transact banking data on devices. We are going to consume medical data on devices. There’s going to be your personal ID on these devices. The mobile security is going to be even much more needed than today.
Everybody’s going to be hacked.
You may not feel as threatened today because they only read it. But if I change your medical records, you will be very threatened. And you’re going to come running to me and you’ll buy my stuff.
So how’s business?
In the last eight quarters, we’re generating cash from operations. EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] is getting positive. We’re getting there. We still have a lot of work to do. I won’t fool anybody.
I would like to be profitable, definitely by the end of the year. But I’m hoping it’s going to be a little sooner.
What is First Tee?
They are taking inner-city kids of poor families and teaching them values through golf. Persistence. Honesty. Hard work. Sportsmanship. How you deal with life.
You combine education with something that is really fun and has the benefit of taking them off the street and giving them something meaningful to do. A lot of them are the first generation going to a university.
I came from Hong Kong. When I was growing up, people were relatively poor. In Hong Kong, there’s not enough libraries. You can never borrow a book because there aren’t books to borrow.
When I first came to this country and going into a library I couldn’t believe how great and beautiful and the zillions of books and nobody there. My friends from Hong Kong would be in heaven.
A lot of people, including my parents, are refugees from China. So I saw a lot of heartbreaking situations in life.
So one of the philanthropy decisions my wife and I made, when we came into a little bit of money a while back, was to set up a fund that supports anything that helps children.
Any business lessons you have learned in your career or mentors who have helped you?
I’m very fortunate that I had a lot of bosses. I had my share of bad bosses. But I had a lot of good people. Good people who taught me a lot about how I think about things, like if we’re doing something really, really hard, then we’re doing it wrong.
It sounds very trivial sometimes, but it really hit me and I sat back and I thought, ‘Why is this so hard for us?’
The reason it’s so hard is because you are going through a narrower and narrower corridor. So you might want to figure out if it actually leads you anywhere.
Don’t be 100 percent sure about everything. Stay focused. I got that. But there is a limit. I’ve learned from different bosses that you’ve got to look at problems a little differently.
Experiences that people share with me save a lot of hard, meaningless work.
Why do you serve on the boards of Walt Disney Company and Wells Fargo?
Great people. Great management. The complexity of the business of both of them is unbelievable.
Everyone around the world knows Disney. It’s an entertainment giant. It’s in all kinds of business and extremely well run.
Wells Fargo has $1 trillion in deposits. That’s bigger than a lot of countries’ GDP.
Being able to sit around the table and learn what they do and how they do things and how they think about things helps me tremendously here in my day job.
If you think my problem is big, some of their problems are gigantic.
Being an overseer, you understand what the institution really needs and make sure those are being addressed by somebody competent.
That’s all you do.