Many of these Detroit graduates have found greener pastures at electric car start-ups and suppliers
Don Sherman - NYTIMES
- Dec 24, 2010
Somehow I knew this was happening, but its great to see it as a good news story --Ed.
Shown is Tom Reichenbach, who left Ford for Aptera.
The great economic quake of ’08 rattled Detroit mightily, wreaking severe damage to the foundation of the American auto industry. Bankruptcies at Chrysler and General Motors, resulting in drastic cuts at the automakers and their suppliers, dominated the headlines day after day.
Behind the front-page news were the more personal stories of job losses — hundreds of thousands across the industry, according to the Labor Department — that were part of the aftershocks. Even so, some who found themselves on the outside discovered that their talents were in demand elsewhere.
Instead of playing musical chairs with competitors or starting down entirely new career paths where their knowledge and experience might not be so highly valued, many of these Detroit graduates have found greener pastures at electric car start-ups and suppliers.
Green product developers need experienced people
Technological advances in batteries, motors and electronic controls have created new possibilities for electric-car ventures. After plodding along for two decades, the carmaking operations are accelerating with the help of a new business model: small, agile organizations aided by a network of outside suppliers, developers and consultants.
Credit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for greasing the skids at the manufacturer level. Nearly $3 billion in loans and grants helped firms developing electric, hybrid-electric and alternative-fuel vehicles gain momentum. The companies, in turn, often hired former Detroit 3 employees who had the required skills.
The downturn made available proven leaders like Jim Taylor, who, after a 30-year career on small and large engineering teams, was ready for a change. One of the first dozen employees of G.M.’s Saturn division, then later the head of Cadillac and Hummer, Mr. Taylor had enjoyed more highs than lows. After leaving G.M., he joined Amp Electric Vehicles, an Ohio start-up whose ranks include members of the team that developed G.M.’s EV1 electric car in the 1990s, as the firm’s vice chairman and chief executive.
“The opportunities here range from the conversion of existing cars to electric drive to establishing new relationships with major manufacturers to help develop electric-propulsion components,” Mr. Taylor said in a telephone interview. “All the experience I gained at G.M. prepared me well for this environment, where there are far more questions than answers.” He’ll have plenty to do. A utility in Iceland recently hired Amp to provide 1,000 electric S.U.V.’s, and Michigan-based DTE Energy wants Amp to electrify part of its fleet.
Tom Reichenbach, chief engineer at Aptera, an electric car maker, is another Detroit graduate thriving in this emerging field. Though he lacked electric-car experience, Mr. Reichenbach spent the last half of his 26-year stint at Ford working on high-stakes racing and high-performance projects. As engineering manager for the Special Vehicles Team, he helped to develop the Ford GT and the Mustang Shelby GT500. And until he left two years ago, he was assistant chief engineer for the EcoBoost V-6 engine.
Aptera’s outlook convinced Mr. Reichenbach it was a company where he could thrive. “Their business plan was modest, and their growth prospects were geared to cash flow,” he recalled. “Aptera’s desire to build a light and aerodynamically efficient — albeit unusual looking — car made sense.” He said his new job “is way more fun and rewarding than working at Ford,” adding, “The four-year incubation times there were torture.”
Farther up the California coast, Tesla also tapped the Detroit talent pool. The chief financial officer, Deepak Ahuja, came from Ford. The chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, is an alumnus of G.M., where he won credit for creating two sports cars, the Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky.
Fisker Automotive, a developer of high-end hybrids based in Irvine, Calif., recently hired Linda Theisen as vice president for purchasing. During 20 years at Ford, she worked in North America and Europe. “I’m enjoying much less bureaucracy and far more accountability,” Ms. Theisen said. “We get data, make decisions and move without over-analyzing. It’s a much quicker environment than what I experienced in Detroit.”
Enlarge This Image
Another California start-up, Coda Automotive, recruited experts who spent years at G.M. Broc TenHouten, a senior engineering vice president, brought chassis design and development experience to the Chinese-made sedans fitted with electric powertrains that the company plans to sell. Coda’s battery systems vice president, Philippe Gow, cut his engineering teeth developing batteries for G.M.’s EV1. Coda’s drive system is provided by UQM Technologies, a Colorado company headed by Eric Ridenour; until 2007, he was Chrysler’s chief operating officer responsible for engineering, manufacturing, quality and product strategy.
Not just cars...
The battery industry, growing rapidly in response to demand, is also peppered with former Detroit 3 executives. Mary Ann Wright was ahead of the curve when she joined Johnson Controls, a leading auto industry supplier, in 2007, after a high-profile career at Ford. She once led the development of the Escape Hybrid and Ford’s fuel-cell demonstration fleet. Now she is vice president for technology and innovation at Johnson Controls’ new power solutions division.
“I decided to focus on sustainable mobility during my time at Ford,” Ms. Wright said. “Johnson Controls was an attractive destination not only because it’s the world’s largest battery provider, but also because it’s financially sound, socially responsible and deeply committed to environmental sustainability.”
Several other Ford graduates hold high-level positions at competing battery makers. At A123 Systems, Mujeeb Ijaz is an engineering director and Geoff Taylor is vice president for quality. Prabhakar Patil, a former colleague of Ms. Wright, is chief executive of LG Chem’s North American battery-making subsidiary; Martin Klein, previously of Ford, is engineering director.
G.M. has also been a training ground for the ranks of battery companies. Bob Purcell, who once headed the advanced technology group that created the EV1, was recently named chairman of Protean Holdings, a maker of in-wheel electric motors.
“What we electric-car veterans contribute besides our expertise is a higher level of confidence that a given program will be properly executed,” Mr. Purcell said. “Since we understand how the decision-making and validation processes work inside the large companies, we’re more able to meet ambitious cost and performance targets.”
... [Read More]