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Aptera's Management Mystery

production prototype of the Typ-1 by Aptera Motors

Will Aptera Motors Inc. be the latest electric car startup to throw its founder under the bus? The Carlsbad company -- which is taking $500 deposits on an as-yet-unreleased, three-wheel electric car that it says will get 120 miles on a charge and cost less than $30,000 -- said today it had hired a new chief executive, auto industry vet Paul Wilbur. With experience at Ford, Chrysler, sports car maker Saleen and major industry suppliers, Wilbur seems like a competent choice.

The problem is that the company already had a CEO, Steve Fambro, who founded the company five years ago. According to an Aptera spokesman, Fambro will become chief technical officer, since "it is a much better role for him to concentrate on vehicle development."

If this sounds a bit like last year's soap opera at Tesla Motors, we hear you. That company's founder, Martin Eberhard, stepped down from the CEO job just over a year ago to be "president of technology," a move Tesla said at the time would allow him to "focus on...the advancement of our core technologies." The company said that Eberhard had been planning on making the transition since early in the year and was on board with the changes.

Yet just four months later, Eberhard left company management completely, trailing plenty of fire and brimstone that he later distributed liberally on the Internet, including the message that he was forced out. 

Management struggles seem to plague electric car startups. In late 2006, Ontario-based Phoenix Motorcars saw its founder, Daniel Riegert, make way for a new CEO, Daniel Elliot. Riegert assumed the role of, wait for it, chief technology officer, but in March of this year, the company said it had severed relations with Riegert and the company's other founder, Dana Muscato.

What's the common link? It's early to say, but our money is on, well, the money.

Under Eberhard, Tesla grew from a struggling young startup with only a few backers to a money magnet, with $140 million in venture capital in its accounts by the time the founder left. In February, it announced plans to raise $250 million more. And shortly before Riegert's departure, struggling Phoenix got a $40-million shot in the arm from a Dubai-based investor, Eqbal Al Yousuf, on the board in Riegert's place.

And then there's Aptera. In late July, Google said it would invest $2.75 million into Aptera and a car battery maker. Just two days later, Aptera announced it had closed a $24-million round of venture fundraising, and now has a growing list of investors, including Idealab, Esenjay, the Simons family and the Beall Family Trust.

Just over a month later, the CEO gets demoted. The company spokesman said that this is "a good fit all around," but this song sounds awfully familiar.

--Ken Bensinger
Photo of production prototype of the Typ-1 by Aptera Motors.

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I knew (and even did business with) Dan Riegert and Dana Muscato back before 9/11 ... back before Phoenix Motorcars even existed.
Much like Henry Ford, from their bike-shop (in Ojai, CA) they began research toward what became Phoenix Motorcars.

From day-one, Dan and Dana both repeatedy told me how ...
Once they got Phoenix up making a profit, they were done and intended to get out of it ... and just enjoy life.
They expressed that dream just about every time I talked to them.
(Always with high enthusiasm.)
You can even hear them voice that in one early audio interview (available somewhere out there on the web).

Nowadays I keep hearing everyone describe it as though they were tossed out of Phoenix by Al Yousuf.

That's a far cry from the truth.
This is what they wanted.
Maybe Al Yousuf played a part in achieving that goal ... and not in any conflicting way.

They had no intention of sticking around forever.
Instead, they wanted the most capable people doing the work as the company grew and it got more and more complicated, demanding, and critical.
They're not stupid and they're not egotistical about it.
They want it done right.
They've done their job.
Now they'de like to kick back and enjoy what they earned ... and possibly pursue something else of their own (Pristine Int., for example).

I'm sure they would like to be even more free from it than they are, but they'll always be the ultimate gurus/pioneers of this new industry.
So ... Phoenix may continue to tap their wisdom while it's rising from the ashes ... at least until it finally spreads its wings and and takes its maiden flight.

Last time I talked to Dana was well after he was supposedly out of the picture there ... yet how is it that the receptionist transferred my call to him?
(Good to hear his jolly voice again.)
A couple months ago I got my new "membership-unit" certificate (since they converted from share certificates).
It's signed by Dan.

So, tell me ... are they really out of there?
Go figure.

Great article and I also enjoyed the comment by Jim Dale. I think that it takes a unique person to envision something that does not exist and turn that vision into a viable start-up company. Frequently, that person is not a day-to-day management type person. So once the company is up and running, a whole new breed of person is needed to make a start-up into a profitable ongoing venture. Thankfully, there are many different types in the world.

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About the Blogger
Our Bloggers

Dan Neil is a Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who writes the weekly column, Rumble Seat.

Ken Bensinger is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who covers the automotive industry.

Martin Zimmerman is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who covers the automotive and finance industries.

Joni Gray is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who covers the automotive industry.

Whitney Friedlander is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who writes for both Autos and Travel section blogs.

Colin Ryan is a freelance writer who covers the automotive industry.

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