New Motorola CEO a ‘Hail Mary’ Leader?

One pundit calls Motorola’s (NYSE: MOT) new co-CEO Sanjay Jha a “Hail Mary leader,” for the daunting challenges facing the new leader of the struggling handset maker.

Another called the choice of CEO a “a great pick,” before asking tough questions during an impromptu conference call today. They gathered to discuss leadership news of Jha’s role as co-CEO of the corporate operation and CEO of the company’s struggling mobile devices business. One analyst kidded whether Jha had the courage to take on the dual roles.

While the exchange was meant in jest, it was Jha’s response that drove home his intentions in leaving QualComm after 14 years, where he served in a variety of high-level executive posts, to share the reins at Motorola with current CEO Greg Brown.

“It takes less courage than you think,” Jha told conference call attendees before outlining a series of strategic business initiatives he plans to focus on during the next three months. Jha, who started his new job as of today, said the company’s engineering talent, its brand name and history of innovative design were reasons he made the career move.

Few industry watchers, however, believe Jha’s brush-off about needing courage for a minute.

Turning the 80-year-old handset maker back into a mobile device powerhouse will not only will take courage, but guts and determination. It will also take the right experience, expertise and industry connections.

Jha, said experts, offers all that and more.

“This is very good news,” Jeff Kagan, telecom analyst, told, adding the hire is a testament to Brown’s ability to bring on needed talent.

Motorola had been searching for a mobile device business leader since late January, shortly after newly christened CEO Brown took over for Ed Zander.

In today’s call Brown told analysts the search had been robust and called Jha an “outstanding addition” to the executive roster.

Jha said he had been discussing the potential position with Brown and board members since late June, but noted he’s worked with Motorola teams for the past four years during his various jobs at Qualcomm.

Jha’s expertise with device chips, given Motorola’s multi-source chip strategy, as well his relationships with wireless carriers were noted by Brown as reasons for his hiring. During his time at Qualcomm Jha was responsible for its mobile chip division and served in various leadership roles during his tenure, including executive VP and general manager.

Industry watchers acknowledged his depth of knowledge.

“It’s very exciting to have such a caliber of executive, though he has a hell of a job ahead of him,” said Gold.

That’s putting it mildly, though Jha’s feedback to queries about strategy and future changes were clear and direct.

His said his first step is a 90-day review process of Motorola’s product development cycle, supply chain and distribution processes. The next step is to push out devices faster and quicker, noting Motorola has 25 new products slated for 2009.

Then, Jha said, he will turn his attention to driving better form factor and device user interface design work.

“We also have to determine which market we will focus on, and will our focus be on feature format or form factor. Our distribution channel has to be improved as well,” said the new co-CEO.

While no analyst asked about the co-CEO role, which had not been mentioned by Motorola during earlier discussions about the mobile device business spin-off plan, both Motorola and Gold said it’s a strategic move that will help Motorola regain its market share.

“Motorola believes having two co-CEOs is the right structure to provide the necessary management focus and agility to position both businesses for long term success as two separate companies,” Motorola told after the analysts call.

Kagan said the additional co-CEO role likely came into play during contract negotiations, and other analysts noted that a COO of his level would typically not move into a lower position of business division head.

“We will now have to watch and wait to see what happens,” said Kagan. “He’s got to find out what’s broke and fix it and that could take awhile.”

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