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Tesla & Fisker: The Game of Favorites

For two companies with remarkable similarities, how is it that Tesla basks in the sun while Fisker's Battleship is sunk?

Fisker Atlantic Design Prototype (left) and the 2012 Tesla Roadster

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It sure helps to have someone with movie-star wattage running your company's show.

Just ask Tesla Motors, which qualified Wednesday for a $10 million grant from the California Energy Commission to develop its third-generation Model X car, an SUV-minivan hybrid.

Tesla is led by tech superstar and nascent Space-X spaceman, Elon Musk. And the awarding of the state grant was reported as a "love-fest" for Tesla and Musk.

But Tesla isn't the only game around--especially in California. We're thinking of electric car maker Fisker Automotive, just down the road in Anaheim. Though it resembles Tesla in many ways, it's had primarily negative press coverage for months.

Yet both companies have encountered serious financial problems, and Tesla motors on, retaining something of a "most favored nation" status while Fisker, founded by the comparatively unknown Henrik Fisker, is left to tough things out Survivor-style on its own remote island.

The companies are both involved in something of a speed race to develop electric cars. Both have been accused of targeting millionaires with their $100,000-plus vehicles. And both companies have countered that they are developing more wallet-friendly versions of their cars with price tags ranging between $30,000 and $50,000.

"Too often we're portrayed in the press as only producing an electric sports car," Mike Taylor, Tesla's vice president of finance, told Forbes on Wednesday. "Our mission has always been to aggressively promote electric vehicles for the masses."

(Strictly speaking, the cars are different. Tesla's automobiles are purely electric. Fisker's can also use gas to charge their electric motors.)

Their big financial woes even mimick each other, and can be traced to half-billion dollar loans from the Department of Energy and its Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program, which Fisker received in 2009 and which Tesla received in 2010. (Incidentally, more established industry players Ford Motors and Nissan North America got even greater access to funding under the same program. They received $5.9 billion and $1.4 billion respectively.)

Both companies also ended up on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's smear list--first, Fisker in July, when Romney singled the car company out as an example of government waste, comparable to that formerly at solar-panel maker Solyndra, during a stump speech. Tesla, next, encountered Romney's wrath in October, during the presidential debates--again with the tired comparison to Solyndra, which qualified for an entirely different DOE loan and went bankrupt in 2011 owing taxpayers more than $500 million.

Still, Tesla has consistently gotten sweeter deals on everything from financing to treatment in the press, while Fisker is more frequently savaged.

For instance, on September 25, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tesla announced it had big cash-flow issues that would jeopardize covenants of it DOE loan, of which it had drawn down nearly the entire amount. It issued about seven million shares to raise cash.

Tesla then negotiated a temporary suspension of its current financial ratio requirements with the DOE for the third quarter and postponed half of a prepaid financing payment until February 2013, among other things, in return for an accelerated repayment plan.

Fisker, by contrast, had drawn down less than $200 million of its DOE loan. By May 2011, it had failed to meet some production deadlines, which also jeopardized covenants of its loan. In response, the DOE froze the remainder of its line, throwing Fisker's expansion plans into chaos. It had purchased an old GM plant in Delware, where it was planning to add 2,500 employees to work on its more affordable Atlantic sedan. It had counted on the loan to do that, and has since had to lay off about 26 workers there who were prepping the space.

Fisker, which is privately held, has instead turned to private equity, of which it has raised about $1 billion since 2007, to self-finance while it renegotiates terms.

As for Tesla, it says it will use the California grant money, which it will match with an additional $50 million, to hire 500 employees who will continue development work on its more affordable X sedan.

Where press is concerned, Fisker has garnered more than enough dents over performance issues with the Karma, including a car bursting into flames and the vehicle failing to perform for Consumer Reports, to relegate it to the salvage yard. Negative reports about Tesla's Roadster and Model S seem to garner much less coverage, including reports of design flaws in its battery.

Both companies face strong headwinds trying to sell in a flaccid market for electric and even hybrid vehicles. Nissan Leaf, which is electric, and the Chevy Volt, which is hybrid, and whch both retail for around $30,000 sold fewer than 10,000 units each in 2011--far below company forecasts.

Such is frequently the case with new technology, which often requires hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. In tough environments, though, being the most favored is more than a leg up.

 

Last updated: Oct 11, 2012

JEREMY QUITTNER is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.
@JeremyQuittner




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