Gagnon: COO of N.A. sales
Barshefsky: Expert in trade
The circle closed last week when Gagnon, 49, former CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, joined Bricklin's audacious venture to import vehicles built in China into the United States.
Gagnon is one of two high-profile hires that Bricklin's company, Visionary Vehicles LLC, has made. The company also retained the law firm of former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky to advise it on regulatory issues in Washington.
Both hires reflect Bricklin's efforts to build credibility in industry and government circles. Bricklin is looking for dealers to sell vehicles built by China's Chery Automobile Co. in the United States. Those vehicles will be ready for sale in January 2007, he says.
Gagnon becomes Visionary's president and COO of North American sales and distribution. He contributes two decades of executive experience at Mitsubishi and General Motors. He also brings the controversy of his resignation under pressure from Mitsubishi in 2003, after 14 months at its helm.
Barshefsky, 54, oversaw the negotiation of a major U.S.-China free-trade agreement during the Clinton administration. She provides Visionary with expertise on trade issues in both countries.
One call does it all
Gagnon says the process that led to his affiliation with Bricklin began when he called his former colleague Dennis Gore in mid-February. Gore had joined Visionary as chief engineer and executive vice president of r&d. He had worked with Gagnon at Mitsubishi as a vehicle development executive.
Gagnon recalls telling Gore: "You are really going to be at the forefront of the next big thing in the auto industry. If there was an opportunity, I'd be most interested in meeting with Malcolm to discuss the possibility of joining the team."
Gore relayed Gagnon's request. Bricklin called Gagnon March 4 and asked him to fly to New York. Two days later, they met for the first time over steaks at Beacon Restaurant & Bar in Manhattan.
Bricklin "was more than I expected," Gagnon says. "The first question he asked me was 'Tell me about your family.' I was sold at that point."
By March 7, they had a deal.
"I have never made such a quick decision in my life," Gagnon says,
Gagnon concedes that many industry observers consider him responsible for Mitsubishi's financial mess in North America. During his brief tenure as CEO from July 2002 to September 2003, Mitsubishi suffered huge losses. Gagnon was blamed for his aggressive focus on increasing sales with too-generous buyer incentives.
"What happened at Mitsubishi was way beyond Pierre Gagnon," Gagnon says. Bricklin says he "loves people who have gone through adversity."
At the top of Gagnon's agenda is recruiting 250 dealers to sell Visionary Vehicles' China-built products in the United States. He says he also will set up a sales and distribution headquarters for the company in Southern California.
Barshefsky was more circumspect than Gagnon last week in discussing her new affiliation with Bricklin. She says her Washington law firm, Wilmer Cutler Pickering LLP, will provide Visionary with background advice on corporate and regulatory issues. She is a senior international partner with the firm.
Imported vehicles must meet U.S. safety and environmental standards and comply with customs regulations.
"Perhaps I'll be called on," says Barshefsky, who served as U.S. trade representative from 1996 to 2001. "I'm not a corporate lawyer."
Barshefsky is married to Ed Cohen, the principal Washington lobbyist for Honda North America Inc. Honda and other automakers would face challenges at the low end of the U.S. market if Chery cars arrive as planned.
Asked whether her link to Visionary Vehicles has sparked lively dinner conversation at home, Barshefsky says: "Absolutely not." She insists she doesn't discuss her work with her husband, especially when it is related to the auto industry.
Cohen declined comment on the potential competition Chery could represent to Honda. That matter is a topic for marketers, he says, while his specialty is government relations.
You may e-mail Gail Kachadourian at [email protected]
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]