Coda's top executive departures don't bode well

UPDATED: 11/11/10 12:38 pm ET Editor's note: Although Coda Automotive announced Mike Jackson's resignation on Nov. 2, Jackson says that his actual date of resignation was Oct. 4.

LOS ANGELES -- Watching a startup company endure growing pains is always good theater. A startup's small size and capital base means everything happens in fast-motion. That includes boardroom panic.

Last week, electric vehicle concern Coda Automotive lost CEO Kevin Czinger quit suddenly. Top sales executive Michael Jackson left last month.

For a company claiming it is within weeks of delivering saleable vehicles, this may be more than a red flag of warning; it might be a white flag of surrender.

Coda's business plan was convoluted: Take an aged Chinese sedan with a dowdy design, ship it to northern California, and install lithium ion battery packs unproven in an automotive environment.

Claims of crashworthiness and reliability abounded, but without proof. There was no dealer body; Coda said it would follow an "Apple Store" model, even though it was cash-poor and had yet to erect a single facility.

But what it comes down to is the product itself: The car's sticker price of $44,900 before incentives was several thousand dollars more than a Nissan Leaf, and nearly double the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids.

Coda responded to Czinger's departure by hiring another Goldman Sachs alum, Mac Heller, a mergers and acquisitions guru.

In a statement, Coda said the realignment was part of its ongoing plan, "to set in place a team with deep manufacturing, marketing and sales strengths."

That statement must come with shaker of salt. As with most startups, Coda is short-staffed, with a shallow bench.

Jackson, who joined General Motors in 2000 and rose to vice president of marketing and advertising in 2006 and 2007, joined Coda in January. His replacement has not been named.

That's not to say Coda is doomed. Tesla Motors had a riotous boardroom tiff between founder Martin Eberhard and CEO Elon Musk. Despite the soap opera, Tesla still was able to gain sizable capital buy-ins from alliances with Daimler, Toyota and Panasonic Energy -- and then took itself public.

Perhaps Coda can rebound from last week's shakeup. But, usually, seeing two top executives quit in short order means more bad news is coming.

Tags: Blog

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