For anyone who's been following the Research In Motion success story, Mike Lazaridis and his co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, are familiar names. The pair have brought wireless Internet technology, in the form of the BlackBerry device, to four million subscribers around the world. They're both billionaires and have been on the Canadian Business Rich 100 list four out of the past seven years. Less familiar is Douglas Fregin, the company's co-founder and vice-president of operations. Less familiar, but still hugely wealthy.
When RIM, based in Waterloo, Ont., went public in 1997, Fregin owned just over 5% of the company, then worth $23.6 million. He currently holds more than five million shares, which represents a 2.7% stake in RIM. The dramatic increase in RIM's stock price over the past few years gives Fregin an estimated net worth of $396 million in 2005 and ranks him 94th on our latest Rich list.
Fregin, 45, has been described as “childhood friend,” “partner” and “right-hand man” of Lazaridis. The two met in grade school and stayed friends right through high-school graduation. They loved science fairs and would tinker in the electronics shop room after classes. Fregin went off to the University of Windsor and Lazaridis to the University of Waterloo. They both studied engineering and developed a product together, a video signalling device. “We got back together after school and decided to market that product,” says Fregin. “And that's the foundation of Research In Motion.”
After eight years, RIM had 16 employees, sales of about $500,000 a year, and three or four business lines. That's when the two engineers realized they needed a business partner. “Mike and I could do the engineering, but it was the business end that we really needed help with,” says Fregin. “That's where Jim came into play.” Balsillie joined the company in 1992 and assumed the shared CEO position with Lazaridis. Fregin remained focused on engineering. “My title is VP operations,” says Fregin. “The truth is, though, I work in product development and engineering. That's my background.”
When interviewed for this story, Fregin was hesitant to answer some questions, saying, “You're getting into the fringe areas of the stuff I normally reveal.” Even analysts who cover RIM don't know much about him. “He stays in the background,” says Deepak Chopra, an analyst at National Bank Financial. Indeed, most mentions of him in the media centre around a $10-million donation he made in 2000 to help found the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the brainchild of Lazaridis, in Waterloo. But if RIM shares, worth $76 at press time, hold their value, expect this media-shy multimillionaire to reappear on our Rich list next year.