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Fisker Automotive founder quits over "major disagreements"

Henrik Fisker, co-founder, executive chairman, and chief designer at Fisker Automotive speaks during the Chicago Auto Show, February 7, 2013
Henrik Fisker, co-founder, executive chairman, and chief designer at Fisker Automotive speaks during the Chicago Auto Show, February 7, 2013

By Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT (Reuters) - The founder and executive chairman of Fisker Automotive Inc resigned from the cash-strapped "green car" startup on Wednesday, saying he was at odds with the automaker's top executives over business strategy.

Henrik Fisker's abrupt exit comes at a sensitive time for the company, which has not produced a car since last July and is looking for a financial backer to buy a stake and help build its second model, the Atlantic plug-in hybrid.

"The main reasons for his resignation are several major disagreements that Henrik Fisker has with the Fisker Automotive executive management on the business strategy," according to an email from Henrik Fisker announcing his departure.

He declined to describe the nature of the disagreements that prompted him to leave the company, which he founded with Barny Koehler in 2007 shortly before a deep recession in the United States undercut consumer demand for vehicles.

It is unclear how the departure of the Danish-born Fisker, 49, will affect the company's search for a partner. The company is weighing bids from two Chinese automakers: Geely, the owner of Sweden's Volvo, and state-owned Dongfeng Motor Group Co <0489.HK>, sources have said.

In a statement, Fisker Automotive said the departure would not prompt a change in the company's strategy.

"The company has a strong and experienced management team and its strategy has not changed," the company said in a statement. "Mr. Fisker's departure is not expected to impact the company's pursuit of strategic partnerships and financing."

Finding a partner would lend the company credibility after the rocky and delayed introduction of its flagship plug-in hybrid sports car, the Karma, which starts at $103,000.

The delay in bringing the Karma to market prompted the U.S. Department of Energy to bar the company from drawing down the rest of its $529 million federal loan.

The resulting cash crunch made it tough for the company to meet what Chief Executive Tony Posawatz described as an "overly ambitious and aggressive" business plan.

"He started something with a great idea but it just hasn't been able to get to that next level," AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan said, of Henrik Fisker.

"They've been sitting idle long enough," Sullivan added. "If there's any hope of wanting to save the company, now is the time to step down and let the experts revive the company."

EXIT COULD HAVE 'DIRE' EFECT

But Kelley Blue Book analyst Jack Nerad said Fisker's departure may have "dire" consequences to a possible deal with a strategic investor. He added that the move raises questions about the company's future product line.

"There have been so many people passing through the executive suite there that it's hard to imagine that there's been much continuity in terms of product development," he said.

Fisker's exit is the most high-profile departure from the automaker, which has seen considerable turnover among its top ranks for more than a year.

He told Reuters in a brief telephone interview that leaving was a "very tough" decision. When asked if he would be an adviser to the automaker, Fisker said, "there have been no discussions at this point."

In early 2012, Fisker stepped down as chief executive, giving that role to former Chrysler Group LLC CEO Tom LaSorda. LaSorda left in August, handing the reins to Posawatz, a former General Motors Co engineer.

The former BMW and Aston Martin designer has been hailed for the look of the company's flagship Karma, a plug-in hybrid that counts pop singer Justin Bieber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio as owners.

But he also faced criticism for what some industry experts perceived as a lack of experience beyond designing vehicles, AutoPacific's Sullivan and other analysts said.

"This guy is not a businessman," Joseph Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends Consulting, said. "This is a guy who basically drew cars for a living. And that's a hell of a lot different."

(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert in Detroit and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Matthew Lewis)

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