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BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins says company is on the right path, to be patient

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Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins speaks at the company's Annual General Meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

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Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins speaks at the company's Annual General Meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

WATERLOO, Ont. - BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins stood before shareholders of the smartphone maker on Tuesday and asked for patience as the company pushed ahead with its goal to become profitable again.

"We are still in the midst of a major, complex transition of this company, and like most of these transformations ... progress can be volatile," Heins told the BlackBerry annual meeting.

"BlackBerry will pursue every opportunity to create value for shareholders," he added.

Investors generally took an optimistic and patriotic tone at the event, especially given that their shares have been pummelled since the company reported a first-quarter loss less than two weeks ago and its stock dropped 28 per cent.

The market also appeared to feel encouraged as BlackBerry shares closed up 10 cents at $10.20 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

It was a noticeable shift from a year ago, when several of the company's shareholders used the annual meeting as an opportunity to express their concern over the company's future. This year, a few took to the microphones to express their hope for BlackBerry's future and its significance to Canada.

"I am not somebody who thinks the company should be broken up," said one shareholder to a round of applause from the crowd.

"I don't believe that's a way to create wealth in this country."

Activist shareholder Vic Alboini of Jaguar Financial, who has been a vocal critic of the company, even took a moment to tell Heins how pleased he was with the progress so far, but he also repeated his opinion that the company should consider breaking apart its operations to sell them off.

Heins downplayed the option, but didn't rule it out, saying the company needs to be in a stronger position in the market first.

"Before you go into any option, you have to create value, and the value of the company 15 months ago was way less than today," he said.

In the meantime, Heins said he's aware that some investors aren't pleased.

"Clearly, in the short-term, investors expect better results and faster progress from us," he said.

"I can assure you, we are driving night and day to implement the improvements in our company necessary to build this as a strong company for the long-term."

Much of Hein's speech focused on a three-stage plan that included pushing ahead with new products yet to be unveiled, focusing more on corporate customers, and opening the BlackBerry Messenger service to competing devices like Apple's iPhone and smartphones on the Android operating system later this summer.

From there, Heins said the company aims to return to profitability, which he called the third stage of the plan, but he stopped short of predicting when that would happen.

Outside the meeting, a number of shareholders — many who said they only had small holdings in the company — expressed disappointment with how the new BlackBerry phones have been received in the United States, both by analysts and consumers.

"I sometimes wonder if there's a conspiracy south of the border," said Richard Clausi of Elmira, Ont., who said he considers the new phone a success, even if the U.S. market hasn't necessarily perceived it that way.

"They've got a magnificent product, and despite that, if they walked on water, the headline would say they can't swim. It just seems they can't get a good rap."

Waterloo resident Don Nightingale said he believes BlackBerry is unfairly criticized, and should be supported by Canadians, especially those in the region who have benefited from the company's past successes.

"They have contributed greatly here, and that's a part of how loyal one should be," he said.

Others weren't quite as enthused, including one shareholder who told Heins that a recent visit to the U.S. left him with the perception that the rollout of BlackBerry's Z10 touchscreen phone "was a disaster" because of minimal advertising and retailers who weren't properly trained on the device's abilities.

Heins said he didn't believe the launch was a disaster, but there were "lessons learned" in the process. He also said it was too early to discuss the launch of the BlackBerry Q10 keyboard model in the U.S., which went on sale last month.

Also at the meeting, shareholders voted to formally change the company's name to BlackBerry (TSX:BB) from Research In Motion. The company has been using the new name since launching its BlackBerry 10 smartphones in January.

Shares in the company were clobbered when it surprised investors last month when it reported a loss for its most recent quarter and Heins warned that further losses could be expected in the next quarter.

BlackBerry also abandoned an operating system update to its PlayBook tablet that would have made it work seamlessly with the new phones. That announcement surprised some customers last month, but also sparked further rumours that an smaller BlackBerry tablet model is headed for the market later this year.

Shareholder Richard Pelletier was puzzled by the decision to abandon the PlayBook tablet. He owns one, and so does his grandmother and her friend, who are both in their 90s and use the device regularly, he said.

"It appears like it has a dead future," Pelletier said.

"I'd like to have asked the question, should I get rid of it and get another tablet?"

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