Barry Engle followed an increasingly common career route this month when he became CEO of a small electric-vehicle company.
Engle, the former CEO of Ford of Canada, will head Think, the Norwegian EV maker planning retail expansion in the United States. That makes him part of a wave of former executives from automakers and big suppliers who are jumping into small, entrepreneurial companies.
For the execs, the move represents a fresh challenge and, sometimes, a chance to restart a career. For the startups, the executive can bring credibility, contacts and know-how.
"We bring, obviously, a set of experiences and a discipline and an organization that may not exist at some of the smaller companies," Engle says. "They haven't been around long enough and seen everything that the rest of us have." He says there is "something invigorating" about moving into a small, innovative company.
"These are small, high-growth companies that really don't have time for the bureaucracy that the larger companies have built up over the years," Engle says. "There's an energy, there's a passion, especially in the electric-vehicle space."
Another Detroit 3 veteran, Jim Taylor, recently became an adviser and board member at AMP Holding Inc., a company near Cincinnati that retrofits vehicles as EVs. Taylor, who was CEO of Hummer during General Motors' unsuccessful attempt to sell the brand, also was general manager of Cadillac and a vehicle line executive at GM.
Taylor says companies appear to seek auto executives to help them move from product development to sales. That's when founders need industry contacts and expertise, he says.
"I think what they're finding is that this is a very highly regulated, complex business," Taylor says. "They come to this realization that 'Hey, we need to get some car guys.'
"A lot of guys can whip up a piece of hardware, but then they start to ask: 'How do I deliver and sell this thing? How do I service it?' "
In many cases, little-known companies reach out for people who bring not only management experience but also credibility.
People like Bob Purcell.