98: BlackBerry CEO John Chen; Plus, How to Beat Amazon

John Chen has led BlackBerry for about five years, and serves on the board of Disney.

John Chen has led BlackBerry for about five years, and serves on the board of Disney.

The theme this week is "underdogs." John Chen has history in this department: His parents escaped communist China to Hong Kong, and his father had to work jobs beneath his education level so Chen could have a shot at a better life. At age 17 he came to the United States to finish high school. After he entered the workforce, Chen hit a roadblock. It wasn't common at the time for engineers to get promoted into broader management positions, and he was still growing in his comfort with communicating as a leader in English, his second language.

Fast-forward to today, and Chen has been CEO of BlackBerry for five years. He has taken the company from a dying smartphone maker to a stable provider of security and automotive software. And it's not Chen's first turnaround; after becoming CEO of Sybase in 1998, he led a reinvention that saved the company.

In all of my years covering Chen, I'd never heard his personal story. For the Fortt Knox 1-on-1 this week, I finally get to the root of why Chen is so comfortable playing the long game when it comes to leadership ... and how it ties back into the sacrifices he saw as an immigrant and the son of refugees.

For one, he consciously tries to keep his emotions in check when dealing with setbacks, or the reality that a business is in a pinch. For another, he keeps in mind a series of experiences where he had to prepare himself to reach the next level.

Taking on the Giants

I see it all the time on CNBC: the "Amazon effect" on rival stocks. For example, when news broke that Amazon was buying online prescription retailer PillPack this summer, CVSRite Aid and Walgreens all dropped more than 9% as investors quaked at the challenge. Pundits can slip into the bad habit of assuming Amazon always grinds its enemies' bones to make its bread.

Not always. Sometimes the underdogs thrive. Three years ago Amazon launched "Handmade at Amazon" to compete with craft marketplace Etsy; Etsy fell to around $7 per share, losing half its market value in the days after. But now it trades at $52. Best Buy has battled back after Amazon was poised to kill it. That's just two examples. So what's the secret? How do you beat Amazon?

This week on Fortt Knox we assembled a panel to answer that. Dan Rosensweig is CEO of Chegg, a company that got its start in textbook rentals – and in Amazon's crosshairs. Anthony Bucci is founder of RevZilla, a retailer of motorcycle parts and accessories that had to figure out how to grow and not get commoditized. And Nadia Shouraboura is a former Amazon insider who clearly still has a fondness for the company. In our conversation, they share examples of how smaller businesses can thrive by focusing on things that perhaps Amazon can't.

A couple of hints: Don't try to compete with lower prices or wider selection. And stay lean in other areas so you can invest in building unique insight into what your customer base needs.