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WORD SPREADS LIKE HUMUS: Better Place Australia might be dead but Evan Thornley’s felafel love lives on

Evanthornleyfelafel2The consequences of ex Labor MP Evan Thornley’s august legacy as a serial well-remunerated manager of companies that tank with multi-hundred million dollar losses are starting to get around with reports today in the Leading Company website and elsewhere confirming our sources’ claims here a while ago that a closure of Better Place’s Australian subsidiary was highly likely, if not inevitable, as a result of Thornley’s boning by highly regarded Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer.

Miriam Robin at the Leading Company website has reported on the prospective shut-down of the heavy-loss-making Australian company, and has even credited the original source, to her great credit. This is all too rare, unless we’re blamed for an unpleasant story (our case study for this is the otherwise reputedly sound Hun reporter Carly Crawford who used the technique to get up my Greensparty candidate is married to a lady who was previously a bloke yarn years ago. (We handled the story with our usual sensitivity) Ms Crawford is certainly not the only offender. She incorrectly described your beloved publisher as an ALP member, an incorrect claim she causes to be published to this day. The Australian, a News Limited, stable mate, has referred to us in the past as a Liberal blogger, a combination of claims that pleases us endlessly.)

When the revolution comes, all VEXNEWS stories will be correctly attributed when – or even before – they are inevitably proven correct. For example, the Prime Minister’s proxy at today’s internal party-democracy-affirming ALP National Executive meeting was apparently Kathy Jackson cheerleader Senator David Feeney. We fear this exalted designation won’t improve his chances of parliamentary survival and a future in giving witty, well-read, albeit perhaps slightly bitter, lectures to history students at, say, the Swan Hill Institute of Technology after his presumably inevitable Senate defeat appears increasingly likely. We’d be keen to enrol. He’s no dummy, even if he spits his rather too regularly.

We digress. Talk of felafel fan Evan Thornley’s life and slimes continues at Crikey, apparently a sister (in feminism) site of Leading Company. In truth, we find Andrew Crook’s missives more pleasing with each passing year. Either he’s improving or we’re slipping into mid-life dementia. One or the other.

He offers – behind a paywall it pleases us to penetrate – his own well-informed take from a former staffer whose name is probably Will Fowles (the jovial multi-millionaire heir and lefty who had the wisdom to depart his role as Investor Relations czar of Better Place Australia, a job akin to fielding Bernie Madoff’s phone calls after the GFC put a bit of a strain on his big Ponzi scheme). Fowles, a Facebook fan of Matt Viney MLC, seen by many as the natural and likely successor to John Lenders for upper house leadership, has been a successful entrepreneur and is believed to have been appalled by what he saw went on at Better Place in terms of waste, incompetence and cluelessness.

Crook – who never extends us credit for quite sensible employment retention reasons – reveals:

Better Place in a worse one: CEO gone, local ops powered down

The local Australian operation of global electric car firm Better Place is in limbo following the departure of global CEO Evan Thornley. Dozens of staff have lost jobs and high-profile investors left out of pocket.

The future of Australia’s first large-scale electric car experiment is hanging by a thread following the departure of global Better Place CEO and former Australian chief Evan Thornley.

Thornley, the former Labor upper house MP who famously turned down the offer of a ministry in the Brumby government to pursue his electric dreams, departed the firm in mid-January after strategic differences emerged with the board of the Israel-based charging and battery swapping operation.

He was elevated to global CEO for just three months after the sacking last October of company founder and global spruiker Shai Agassi. Now, the company’s 50 local staff are eyeing the exit — with around 10 already made redundant as part of a 300-strong global cull before Christmas.

A statement issued last week by Better Place’s Denmark-based office revealed Australian operations will be placed on the backburner while the board focuses on the key markets of Denmark and Israel:

“From the global perspective, the Better Place strategy has not changed and expanding globally remains the plan. There has been a recent shift to focus on the markets where networks are deployed and cars are on the road, currently Denmark and Israel.

“This requires focused resource allocation and management attention which will result in slowing down pace in other markets for a while. Australia is an important front and an attractive market, which Better Place plans to cultivate as soon as we are ready.”

But Crikey understands the local Australian operation is likely to be dramatically downsized or closed due to the company’s global cash drain and a lack of financial commitment from institutions and industry super funds who refused to join the party because they were already overweight in private equity-style investments

Primary local investors in the $25 million 2009 Australian capital raising included RACV, Lend Lease Ventures, Canberra-based energy utility ActewAGL and a number of prominent well-heeled families and individual investors. The majority are believed to be supremely nervous about their cash evaporating.

Global investors in a separate pot include HSBC, Morgan Stanley, General Electric and UBS, which have tipped in about $US860 since 2007. However, the biggest individual shareholder is Israel Corporation, the holding company run by Israel’s richest man Idan Ofer, who boasts personal wealth of US$6.2 billion. Ofer issued an ultimatum late last year, demanding management come up with a viable business strategy or have his support pulled.

The global company posted a loss of $US64 million in the last quarter and $US132 million last financial year. It has bled a massive $US490 million since it launched.

In a farewell email to staff, obtained by Crikey, Thornley thanks Ofer, also the group’s executive chairman, “for vision and commitment to our incredible mission” despite creative differences in strategy:

“I continue to believe that the Better Place vision is both accurate and commercially sound and trust that whatever shortfalls we suffer are correctly seen as errors of execution not of strategy. I have friends and colleagues too numerous to mention from the last four years who I want to thank and look forward to staying in touch. I will continue to support the company in any way I can and our broader mission.”

Better Place has a new acting CEO, company veteran Dan Cohen. But it could all be too late for the remaining Australian staff base, many of them housed at the firm’s Richmond-based “operations centre”. When the company launched, Thornley managed to lure a cavalcade of talent from his extensive ALP-centric Rolodex. Prominent hires included Kristina Keneally’s husband Ben Keneally, the recently-elected mayor of Sydney’s Botany Council.

Late last year Better Place halved its 400-strong Israeli staff base, by slightly less in Denmark and by 20-25% in Australia and it continues to face a strategic crisis.

In 2011, a 16-point Canberra charging trial was announced, but the rollout is behind schedule, despite the launch of “free” initiatives at various points around the national capital in December. The Canberra rollout was a joint venture between the ACT government, ActewAGL and Rock Development Group.

Better Place had inked a $60 million electricity deal with ActewAGL to purchase 100% renewable energy for the network and part of the firm’s planned revenue stream involved on-selling the electricity for more than it bought it for. A deal with car parts suppliers and a consortium, EV Engineering, to develop a battery-powered Commodore for the retail market with Holden’s support remains stillborn.

Evan Thornley has been contacted for comment and we will include his response when we receive it.

Crook is clearly an incurable optimist: 1) pursuing a career in journalism, 2) hanging on to the thought Eric Beecher will one day give him a pay-rise and that 3) Mr Thornley will interrupt his felafel-munching to send an email to the impertinent bearded hipster.

But he tells an interesting and well-informed tale that prompted this concerned missive from fill-in Titanic captain Antony Cohen. Please note we have gratuitously included the name “Kristina” in the salutation because it’s a distinctive first-name and we do enjoy being proven right about Better Place and maintain an unhealthy interest in “twisting the knife.”

Dearkristina

Meanwhile, back at the felafel van, Mr Thornley has been quiet and is believed to be converting to Judaism, for reasons some attribute to a possible marriage after the demise of his first marriage to human Tardis Tracey Ellery, often listed as a co-founder of Thornley’s first spectacularly profitable corporate catastrophe, Looksmart. She wasn’t really a co-founder at all but that’s another story.

Discussion

Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. It clear that the main problem facing Better place is its management. A bit like Google versus Look Smart. If we are to make the transition to electric cars then we need a means of topping up the charge. If not then we can expect more electric cars parked by the roadside waiting for a jump start.

    Parking Stations are far and few between.

    Apart for no-cost to great local governments that are renowned for wasting money on hair brain schemes (City of Melbourne Council House2 for example where the wind turbines do not turn) there are few serious businesses that would invest in technology that has not been been proved or widely adopted.

    A bit like cable TV which we know is fast becoming as obsolete as the DVD.

    Maybe Solomon Lew would invest in such a loss making adventure as Better Place no one else would..

    Maybe a loss making super fund execs looking for new ways to lose our money.

    It is as much a con as the Flexi-Car subsidies that Council staff try to promote by giving them free on street parking or the Blue wall of bikes that few people use – costing 10 times per year more then the value of the bike.

    Just another ill-considered Green waste idea that is poorly managed

    Posted by Green Waste Subsidy | January 29, 2013, 22:37
  2. It is so nice to see all of these losing money. suck my dick HSBC, Morgan Stanley, General Electric and UBS

    Posted by if i were a rich man | January 30, 2013, 8:50
  3. BL is just complete shonk. At one point they literally said they were going to build a million electric petrol stations in Australia. There aren’t even a dozen electric cars in the country.

    Jail time warranted here.

    Posted by Bill | January 30, 2013, 15:06
  4. I’m sad about this for a friend who may lose his job. But there was always a funny smell about it.

    First there must have been barrels of snake oil used to shake US$1bn out of investors on the dream of an explosion in electric vehicle uptake after so many false starts. Year after year concept ev’s would be rolled out to great fanfare, never to be seen again. You didn’t have to be watching the industry too closely to see a vicious circle with reluctant or half hearted big manufacturers drip feeding R&D, consumers waiting for the tech to improve, and governments the buyers of last resort.

    Secondly it was essentially claiming prescience over the technology that would win out when electric vehicles inevitably take off. My interest was with guys like Elon Musk who were sweating to make the basic platform work. Now the Tesla Model S looks like the first serious consumer ev and Musk is rolling out solar powered recharging stations. There might be place for a Better Place one day, but its just too early to tell. Battery performance is still wanting and there is just too much innovation ahead.

    I want an ev revolution, but a lot of well intentioned folks were sold a thought bubble. Naive celebrities are one thing, but the RAC and ACT governments should have known better and I would be asking questions about my member fees/tax dollars. No doubt the aura brought to the table by the usual global banks (who will elbow their way to the head of the creditor queue) was enough to sway less informed investors.

    Posted by Hoogs | January 30, 2013, 15:31
  5. The Looksmart history is instructive. Follow the money trail. Lost big gobs of money for everyone except the insiders who sold out to the punters. The other Looksmart co-founder was a fellow by the name of Martin Hosking who has since made his name selling Hitler tshirts and getting head butted by his lawyers Arnold Bloch Leibler who resigned in protest, unlike Thornley he won’t be converting to Judaism.

    Posted by Young | January 31, 2013, 6:42
  6. Bullied the market, mislead and false statements about true infrastructure needs.. cannot wait to see this fall in a heap and those that supported a totally out of space model that was doomed as soon as all their political connections were out of office. Unfortunately it hurts the good players in the market, the ones doing the real work..

    Posted by Kaptain | January 31, 2013, 17:53
  7. I don’t like felafel. In fact, I couldn’t spell it until I read this article.

    Posted by Giuseppe De Simone | February 1, 2013, 22:44
  8. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative.

    I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if you
    continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from
    your writing. Cheers!

    Posted by Barcelona Low Fares | February 13, 2013, 8:07
  9. “The other Looksmart co-founder was a fellow by the name of Martin Hosking who has since made his name selling Hitler tshirts and getting head butted by his lawyers Arnold Bloch Leibler”

    Hold on a minute. You’re smearing Thornley by referencing an association with someone, who more than 10 years later was involved in unsavoury activities, even though there is nothing to substantiate any continued association between them let alone the unsavoury activities.

    Posted by Hold on a minute | February 13, 2013, 23:35

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