As co-CEO of Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM), the Waterloo, Ont.-based company famous for the ubiquitous handheld BlackBerry device so addictive it's earned the moniker "CrackBerry," Balsillie has fought off one rival after another.
Now he wants to take on the rest of the NHL, using some of a personal fortune built on the incredible success of the BlackBerry to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Balsillie, 45, grew up in Peterborough, Ont., where he was immersed in sports. His father, who died last summer, had season tickets to the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League and often took his son to games. As an energetic child, Balsillie played hockey, badminton and basketball, and competed in track and field meets - all while deftly balancing school work, and at one time, five paper routes.
Now Balsillie plays right wing in a recreational league twice a week and plays corporate quarterback at Research In Motion.
A chartered accountant by training, Balsillie joined RIM in 1992 as chairman and co-CEO.
He's the financial brains behind the company, while Mike Lazaridis, who co-founded the company in the mid-1980s, handles the technical side of the business as co-CEO and president.
Under Balsillie and Lazaridis, Research In Motion has become a global powerhouse in the world of wireless electronic mail and one of the leading technology stocks in Canada or the United States.
Over the years, Balsillie has faced numerous questions about the latest so-called "BlackBerry Killer" about to enter RIM's home arena. Sometimes the challenge is software from Microsoft. Other times it's a device from Nokia or Motorola or Palm.
But Balsillie unerringly takes a "show-me" stance, challenging the questioner to distinguish between the hype surrounding the other team's latest star player and what they're actually able to deliver.
"I think that one has to understand that most of these companies have been bringing their best game to this space for over a decade," Balsillie told analysts last week on a RIM conference call.
"So this kind of competitive reality has been there from the beginning when we didn't have anything like the resources and position and capacity and experience and so on that we have today," he said.
"So if it's so easy, why did all these best efforts not derail us from the beginning?"
Research In Motion, founded in the mid-1980s and publicly traded since October 1997, has had its ups and downs - including a string of unprofitable quarters during the tech sector's downturn a few years ago. However, RIM shares are currently riding high.
At current stock prices, RIM has a total market value of about $22.5 billion. Balsillie's own stake in the company - about 12 million shares, according to regulatory documents filed last June - is currently worth about $1.4 billion.
Part of the recent success is due to the BlackBerry Pearl, a phone-like device that's got multimedia features for playing MP3 files and taking digital pictures. It's currently available in Canada only through Rogers Wireless and available in the United States only through T-Mobile, but will undoubtedly be rolled out to dozens of other carriers.
As a result, the analysts have raised their estimates for RIM shares and the stock is currently at about C$120 - up about 20 per cent from a week ago and in a trading range RIM visited only briefly in early 2000 and late 2004.
"We knew what we were capable of doing," Balsillie said in a recent interview. "We knew it was a home-run product."
Balsillie's unrelenting competitiveness was also evident throughout RIM's court battle against Virginia-based NTP Inc., a patent-holding company that successfully convinced a Virginia jury that the BlackBerry violated some of its patents.
The judge overseeing the case also ruled in NTP's favour, as did several higher courts on appeal, but Balsillie continued to fight - through the courts, the U.S. patent office, the media and in the U.S. Congress.
In the end, the two sides reached a compromise with RIM agreeing in late February to pay US$612.5 million for NTP's patents - a huge sum for many Canadian companies but an amount that Research In Motion was able to easily afford.
Balsillie earned his bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Toronto where he belonged to the Zeta Psi fraternity. After working as an accountant for a few years, he went on to complete a Masters of Business Administration at Harvard. He also holds an honorary engineering doctorate from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
Balsillie met his future wife, Heidi, while studying in Boston. The couple has two children.
After graduation in 1989, Balsillie took a job at Sutherland Schultz Inc., a small technology company in Kitchener, Ont.
In 2002, Balsillie spent $30 million of personal funds to found the think-tank Centre for International Governance Innovation, which emphasizes the role of financial and economic institutions.
In 2000, he put $10 million of his money toward the founding of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in addition to $100 million from Lazaridis.