The lady behind your BBMs

2012-10-13 08:49

BlackBerry’s Southern Africa managing director is determined to keep the brand at number one here, writes Eleanor Momberg

Mobile phones feature among the top “must-have” items for South Africans on a list that includes food, sleep and shelter.

“It is bad to say this but I think mobile phones have become in some ways a commodity, a must-have where a person with disposable income would buy a phone before they buy any clothes, go to the cinema or spend money on entertainment,” says Alexandra Zagury, the relatively new managing director for Research in Motion (RIM) in Southern Africa.

RIM owns BlackBerry and its network.

At 37, the mother of an active 10-year-old brings with her a wealth of international experience, which she hopes to channel into growing a product already popular among mobile phone users across Africa.

This despite a sharp drop in company shares in the past four years.

Born in Brazil, Zagury grew up in Portugal, where her parents own a Lisbon Stock Exchange-listed property and leisure group.

“I have lived in 11 countries so I have worked in various industries,” says the holder of a master’s degree in management from the London School of Economics.

Zagury’s CV is impressive and tells the story of someone with boundless energy.

Before joining RIM in April 2008, she was at Yahoo! in Europe, where she headed the online company’s UK and
European business operations and intelligence teams.

She was responsible for operationalising and managing Yahoo!’s annual media sales plan in the region.

Prior to this, she was a commercial director and board member of her family’s Grão Pará Hotel Group, before which she spent time as a producer for the award-winning financial show Squawk Box on CNBC Europe.

She started her career in banking, with Citigroup, where she held various commercial-management positions in Tunisia, Argentina, South Korea and Poland.

She was also based at the bank’s US headquarters as vice-president of business development for global e-solutions, where she led early efforts to define the bank’s e-business strategy, and was responsible for business development and alliances with technology partners.

It was during her stint with Yahoo! that Zagury was hired by RIM’s UK office, where she was responsible for regional strategic planning and business operations for Europe, the Middle East and Africa before becoming the company’s first managing director in Turkey.

She officially took up her new Southern Africa post in Joburg at the beginning of August.

Zagury believes South Africa and Africa are fascinating, particularly as South Africa is a “country that opens all
doors in Africa”.

She says: “(South Africa) is probably one of the places with the most opportunity, especially if we look at the macro-economic environment and see what’s happening in Europe and in other places.”

She points out that even the other Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – performed under par economically during the global recession.

While South Africa’s economy has not grown as fast as it should have, she believes there is a recognition of the need to invest in industries that will create sustainability and give the country a competitive advantage, particularly in the field of technology.

As incidents such as the killing of striking miners at Marikana in North West in August make foreign investors jittery, Zagury emphasises that BlackBerry is more focused on how it can improve mobility in the country and ensure that everyone is connected to the internet to aid them in setting up their own businesses.

“Empowering a community, that is really what a mobile phone does,” she says.

BlackBerry’s popularity in South Africa and neighbouring states, she says, can be attributed not only to its devices’ qwerty keyboards, but also to BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), cross-border communication abilities, the immediacy of internet access, and access to a variety of apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

That some carriers offer BlackBerry connectivity at only R59 per month, or R2 per day, while others have recently introduced even cheaper packages, means the BlackBerry smartphone remains among the most affordable means of communication for not only businesspeople needing to keep in touch, but has also continued to grow in popularity among teenagers in constant contact with friends via BBM.

“People do love BlackBerry as a brand in South Africa. It appeals to different ages and genders, and is focused on people who want to get things done, and who are connected and social,” says Zagury.

According to her, the global recession has not affected RIM’s ability to develop new products.

She cites the launch earlier this year of the Canadian company’s new PlayBook tablet with built-in support for cellular networks, a crucial feature that was missing from its poor-selling initial models.

Zagury believes her appointment to Southern Africa is strategic and a privilege, based on her international experience and understanding of different business models in different countries.

Economic theory, she says, proves that mobile phones are becoming increasingly popular not only as essential devices, but as status symbols as well.

“It is still a growing industry, and more so because there’s the transition from the feature phone to the smartphone, and that still has a long way to go,” she says.

While RIM’s share price dropped to below $7 (R60) in September from a high of $144.56 in June 2008, Zagury writes this off as irrelevant to the company’s operations on
the ground in South Africa.

This was evident in the fact that BlackBerry remains the number-one selling smartphone in a number of countries including the UK, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

The company also remains profitable with $2.5 billion in cash and no debt, 78 million subscribers in 175 countries and relationships with more than 650 carriers and distribution partners.

There are about 56 million BBM users worldwide.

“It is a company that has built a sustainable competitive advantage based on the brand, the experience and the fact that we do have a market out there of BlackBerry people that like our products and they’re still buying (them),” says Zagury.

Conceding that the iPhone and other new smartphones have affected BlackBerry sales, Zagury believes such competition is good.

“In the last year or two we have had to face intense competition, more so from companies with different business models than we have.

“Of course the competition is there, it is fierce and it has affected us more in some markets than in others. But it is also healthy because competition brings the best for customers and that’s what we’re focused on,” she says.

At present, RIM is focusing its attentions on bringing out the heavily delayed BlackBerry 10 operating system, which has been punted as a new competitor to Google’s Android services and Apple’s iOS.

Zagury says the main reason for the delay in launching the new system has been the challenges of implementation, the vastness of which had been underestimated time wise.

But Blackberry 10, she says, will ensure seamless communication for the future.

“If you are on your phone and get into your car, the connectivity from your phone to your car (will be) seamless,” she says, adding that the same will apply to a GPS setting, which would immediately be available to the driver the moment he or she switches their car on.

“Convenience, that is where we think people want to go next and that’s why we built BlackBerry 10. We understood we needed a more powerful platform. I think our customers have already seen it in the new PlayBook, which shows what the new BlackBerry 10 platform will do versus the existing BlackBerry OS.”


e no guarantees could be given that the BlackBerry network will not crash again – as it did in October last year and again in July this year – leaving users in the dark for several days, Zagury has given assurance that the company has corrected the technical problems, has learnt from its mistakes and will talk to its customers in future.

“There have been improvements in internal processes to ensure that (that) does not happen again,”
she says.

Zagury started working in South Africa at the beginning of Women’s Month and says it was a privilege and honour for her as a young businesswoman.

She views it as unfortunate that a woman appointed to a senior position in a company can remain a talking point, even by modern standards.

“I wish that saying the appointment of a woman is not significant, but I think also, in a way, it’s a nice indication of the cultural change in the company and something I am quite humbled and honoured to be part of, not only as a woman but the fact that I have an international background.

“And it is really a testament to the fact that RIM is a global company now,” she says.

Her appointment to Joburg, she says, means that “strategically we are focused on this continent”.

She says: “It is an important part of the world for us and we want to ensure that the local needs are heard and that is why it is a good sign.”


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