By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE — Evel Knievel may be remembered today for his kitschy outfits or his ambitious but failed jump across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon, yet few can claim to have attempted bolder challenges. A good corporate turnaround artist knows that adrenaline-seeking instinct. The business suit may be much more conservative than a star-spangled white jumpsuit, but the heart beating inside knows what it’s like to master a seemingly impossible challenge.
In the waning days of 2013, what challenge is more daunting than turning around BlackBerry (BBRY)? The vision of a revived BlackBerry — competing squarely with Apple (AAPL), Samsung, Microsoft (MSFT), and a growing crowd of Asian manufacturers — is conceivable. But it’s also so remote, it may as well be on the far side of a yawning chasm that eats Skycycles and the daredevils who ride them.
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When BlackBerry announced that CEO Thorsten Heins would be replaced by John Chen, the company’s stock fell 16% in one day, even though the news was folded in with an announcement that top shareholder Fairfax Financial and other investors would invest $1 billion in the company through convertible debt.
The sell-off had nothing to do with investor fondness for Heins, or even a thumbs-down for Chen. It came from a disappointment among investors that a buyout that Fairfax had earlier proposed had fallen through. Few loved the idea of a buyout, but it seemed like the best available option for BlackBerry.
In fact, it looked like the only option besides letting the company die a slow death in a vicious market. BlackBerry had courted suitors to no avail, despite a robust patent portfolio and $2.3 billion in cash. Beijing-based Lenovo showed interest, but Canada nixed it on security concerns. Other companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google (GOOG) were interested in buying small pieces of BlackBerry, but as Reuters reported Friday, the company’s board rejected each suitor.
BlackBerry seems firmly committed to keeping the company intact as it turns things around. That leaves Chen to accomplish a task that few outside the company can imagine happening. BlackBerry phones once inspired strong loyalty among customers, but more and more have defected to iPhones or Android phones even as BlackBerry countered with new handsets like the Q10 and the Z10.
In recent interviews, Chen speaks as is he’s up to the task. He plans to bring in new executives, reach out to governments that have been a core part of the BlackBerry customer base, and hang on to the troubled handset business. Chen says he’s been down this road before with Sybase, which he sold to SAP (SAP) for $5.8 billion, a figure that was more than six times Sybase’s value when Chen took over 12 years earlier.
A native of Hong Kong, Chen graduated from Brown and Caltech before working as an engineer at Unisys (UIS) and an executive at Siemens Nixdorf. After joining Sybase as chief operating officer in 1997, Chen was promoted to CEO a year later. By the end of 1998, Sybase’s stock had fallen below $5 a share, having lost 91% of its value over the previous four years. That stock performance is similar to BlackBerry’s which is down 92% since its September 2009 high.
Chen’s bio boasts that he saved Sybase from bankruptcy. Back in 1998, Sybase was struggling to reverse years of losses when it was forced to restate earnings because of financial regularities in its Japanese subsidiary. But Sybase also had deeper strategic challenges as a maker of database-management software, an industry in a slump and one increasingly dominated by Oracle (ORCL).
Chen responded by expanding into what were then emerging niches, corners of the database market where giants like Oracle might not compete as aggressively. For example, he created a division focused on making database software that could run on laptops, just as portable computers were in demand. He also kept Sybase focused on sectors like financial trading, insurance, and governments, ceding larger markets like retail and manufacturing to rivals.
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Other moves proved to be remarkably prescient. Chen pushed Sybase into developing data management for mobile devices like cell phones, a market that some analysts once considered too peripheral for Sybase to bother with. He encouraged developers to write hundreds of apps for Sybase’s mobile database. And he moved services like customer service onto the web.
For the next decade, Sybase quietly built up its expertise in mobile database software. At first, the skeptics were right: The mobile market was slow to take off. The stock price traded between $20 a share and $30 a share for several years. Through 2009, Sybase shares more than doubled to $44 as smartphones began to go mainstream among consumers and corporate workers.
In May 2010, SAP, a German software giant with a penchant for overpaying for companies, bought Sybase for $5,8 billion, or $65 a share. Only a few days earlier, Sybase was trading below $40 a share. At the time, Chen said that Sybase handled SMS traffic for 4 billion mobile phones.
playbook at Sybase
may give some insight to how he’ll try to turn BlackBerry around in the six quarters he says he’ll need. According to interviews near the end of his tenure at Sybase, Chen said he quickly and aggressively cut costs, especially in underperforming areas. He wasted no time in building an executive team with an equal mix of insiders, people he’s worked with before, and outsiders he didn’t know but who could bring in new ideas.
Chen also met with hundreds of Sybase customers to assure them the company would be around and to explain his plan for the company, then followed with early evidence the turnaround was working. After a year, Sybase had turned red ink into black and in 2000 had its most profitable year to date.
Can Chen repeat that turnaround at BlackBerry? Maybe. It’s hard to think of a better candidate for the position. Chen has a deep understanding of the mobile market and a track record for spotting emerging trends before they shape markets. He speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Asian languages and has deep ties to countries where smartphone demand is growing.
Assuming Chen is the right CEO to turn BlackBerry around, the only question remains whether BlackBerry can be saved at all. Enterprise software and consumer devices are two different beasts. Chen steered Sybase into mobile databases, he once said, by backing into it because there was little other choice. In smartphones, there aren’t many niches to back into.
If the tantalizing goal of a BlackBerry turnaround is just too far away for even the most ambitious daredevil to reach, then Chen might be smart to follow Evel Knievel example and secure a sturdy parachute to his own Skycycle.