Fisker without Fisker: What's next?
Infusion of Chinese cash is a good bet
LOS ANGELES -- What happens to Fisker Automotive now that Henrik Fisker is gone?
Having produced no cars since last summer and scrambling to find new investors, Fisker's fate may be to pawn its technology and assets to Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely.
That prospect may have led to the resignation of the 49-year-old designer/entrepreneur as executive chairman of the plug-in hybrid automaker that bears his name. In an e-mail to Automotive News last week, Henrik Fisker cited "several major disagreements" with "Fisker Automotive executive management on the business' strategy."
He declined to elaborate and said he does not have another job in the works.
Fisker: “Major disagreements”
What is Fisker without Fisker? Late last week, the Fisker Automotive Web site still splashed several photos of the founder posing confidently with the car. About 1,800 Fisker Karmas have been built, but none since battery maker A123 Systems declared bankruptcy last summer, leaving Fisker without a battery supplier.
Zhejiang Geely, which owns Volvo, leads the bidding to take over Fisker Automotive, according to news reports. But China's Dongfeng Motor Co., which has some collaboration with EV zealot Nissan Motor Co., also has expressed interest.
In a press release, Fisker Automotive -- which has raised more than $1.2 billion in private equity funding and owes the Department of Energy about $193 million for loans -- sought to give the founder's departure a positive spin.
"Many other companies have seen their founders depart and in many cases return to influence or even lead their company in the future," according to a release. "The growth process of an entrepreneur and their projects are often enhanced from these changes.
"The company has a strong and experienced management team, and its strategy has not changed. Mr. Fisker's departure is not expected to impact the company's pursuit of strategic partnerships and financing."
Fisker executives declined to be interviewed. Fisker's lead venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, had no comment.
In the e-mail to Automotive News, Henrik Fisker wrote that he is proud of the company he formed in 2007. He said it was "amazing [how] the small Fisker Automotive team has performed from inception to the full-scale commercialization of the Fisker Karma."
But the fledgling company has not escaped the hardships usually associated with auto company startups.
During development of the Karma sedan, Fisker Automotive parted ways with its hybrid fuel system technology provider, dumping the task of developing its own system onto in-house engineers.
In the two years before deliveries of the Karma began in December 2011, the price of the car jumped by 27 percent to more than $103,000, although Fisker honored the original transaction price when a deposit was made.
Initial press reviews praised the hybrid system's innovation but criticized the shuddering drivetrain, poor interior packaging and amateurish fit-and-finish. Battery supplier A123 Systems delivered defective packs, sparking an early recall. Some fires under the hoods of Karmas had 2,500 order-holders wondering whether the cars were safe.
The automaker then missed development and sales milestones needed to obtain another round of Department of Energy funding, resulting in layoffs. With cash in short supply, Fisker's proposed assembly plant, a former General Motors facility in Wilmington, Del., never got off the ground.
Its second product, the Atlantic, was delayed repeatedly. A concept coupe, convertible and wagon were unveiled, scheduled for production -- and then vanished from view.
It didn't help that a revolving door for senior executives over the past three years left the company seemingly directionless as the newcomers attempted to get the company back on course. To add insult, Fisker became a political symbol Republicans used to attack President Obama's energy policies -- even though the DOE loans were proposed under President George W. Bush.
But the biggest blow came when A123 Systems went bankrupt last summer, halting production of Fisker's cars by Valmet, a contract manufacturer in Finland. No new supplier could be found.
Henrik Fisker last year described the startup experience as "running over fire while people are whipping you."
As the problems mounted, Fisker -- a former Ford, Aston Martin and BMW designer who penned the Aston DB9 and V8 Vantage and BMW Z8 -- stepped back from daily management of the company, giving authority to more seasoned production and engineering executives. The CEO job first went to former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda in December 2011, then to Chevrolet Volt architect Tony Posawatz in August 2012.
Jon Bereisa, CEO of consulting firm Auto Lectrification, said a company's brand can survive without its founder, and Henrik Fisker's styling touch on future cars can be replicated by another hired-gun designer.
But the engineering, and the overall business case also are necessary ingredients. Fisker rushed the car to market to meet DOE deadlines, and the engineering wasn't quite ready for prime time, said Bereisa, who was chief engineer of GM's EV1 and systems architect for the Chevrolet Volt.
As for the business case, "Fisker was building to inventory instead of to demand. Building cars to a production rate will kill you. The cash they had is sitting on the ground," Bereisa said.
"It will be extremely difficult to keep Fisker a going concern, even with the amount of money the Chinese might bring in," he said. "And they have to restart production with a [new] battery supplier."
In the e-mail last week, Henrik Fisker said: "Despite the difficulties, and setbacks, more than many big car companies have to face, Fisker Automotive tackled the issues head on and managed to sell more than 2,000 cars to date."
Dave Guilford contributed to this report
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