Fisker files for bankruptcy protection in wave of EV startups, moment of déjà vu for its founder

Henrik Fisker stands with the Fisker Ocean electric vehicle after its unveiling at the Manhattan Beach Pier ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show and AutoMobilityLA in Manhattan Beach, California. on Nov. 16, 2021.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Fisker on Monday became the latest all-electric vehicle startup to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid lackluster consumer demand, significant cash burn and operational and product issues.

For investors, the writing’s been on the wall for some time as Fisker issued a going concern about its ability to continue as a company in February, leading its charismatic founder and CEO Henrik Fisker to disappear from social media and the limelight.

It’s the latest in a series of EV companies to collapse. Other companies backed by special purpose acquisition companies, or SPAC, have also filed for bankruptcy protection. That list includes companies such as Proterra, Lordstown Motors and Electric Last Mile Solutions. Others such as Nikola and Faraday Future remain in business but trade for under $1 per share amid operational challenges, missed targets and broader industry headwinds.

It’s also a bit of déjà vu, as it marks Henrik Fisker’s second car company, both branded under his last name, to file for bankruptcy protection.

The new filing comes after the Fisker company failed to secure an investment from a big automaker to keep afloat. Nearly four years ago, Fisker announced plans to go public through a reverse merger with an Apollo-backed SPAC that valued the company at $2.9 billion. The deal infused Fisker with more than $1 billion in cash.

Fisker, like many other companies at the time, was fueled by low interest rates and a bullishness on Wall Street around EVs following the rise of U.S. electric vehicle leader Tesla.

“They looked at Tesla’s success, and Tesla was more of an anomaly than an example,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

Can Fisker survive?

But consumer adoption for EVs has grown slower than expected, costs have risen and investor interest in EVs other than Tesla has dried up. The company also faced significant issues with its operations as well as the launch of its first product, called the Ocean SUV EV.

Software focus

When going public through a SPAC in 2020, Henrik Fisker compared the company with U.S. EV leader Tesla. He also touted its production relationship with Canadian auto supplier Magna, comparing it with the relationship between Apple and Foxconn.

The automaker, unlike most of its peers, contracted a third-party manufacturer to build the Fisker Ocean crossover. The partnership with Magna was supposed to be an “asset-light” strategy, as Fisker described it, to allow the company to save cash and focus on differentiating technologies, such as software.

Abuelsamid said such a strategy isn’t inherently bad, but he called the management of the company inept and pointed the finger at Geeta Gupta-Fisker, the company’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer. Gupta-Fisker is also Henrik Fisker’s wife.

“That approach can be made to work,” he said. “The problem in the case of Fisker that I underestimated was … the incompetency of the senior management.”

Fisker's 'going concern' warning

The company burned through cash and last month recalled thousands of Ocean SUVs in North America and Europe due to issues with vehicle software.

According to the company’s Chapter 11 filing, it owes millions to software and engineering companies, such as Adobe, SAP America, Manpower Group and Prelude Systems, among others. CNBC parent company NBCUniversal is also listed as a top creditor.

“[The auto industry is] capital intensive. You’re trying to match production, consumer demand and when they have any kind of issue with the vehicle, money has to be allocated to that,” said Stephanie Valdez Streaty, Cox Automotive Director of Industry Insights. “Also when they don’t have other revenues like [internal combustion engines] to fund it … it makes it very challenging.”

Its operating unit, Fisker Group Inc., estimated assets of $500 million to $1 billion and liabilities of $100 million to $500 million.

At the end of last year, Fisker had $530 million in inventory, as it only sold 4,700 of the more than 10,000 Ocean EVs it had produced in 2023.

Déjà vu

For Henrik Fisker, a renowned automotive designer credited with designing the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9, it’s déjà vu.

His first namesake company – Fisker Automotive – filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013, shortly after he left the company. It later sold its assets to China’s Wanxiang Group for $150 million.

It was supposed to be better the second time around for the founder, who said he had learned from his past mistakes with his former bankrupt company.

“Having done this before, I’m in a unique position to kind of almost take lessons learned, which is very rare especially in the car industry,” he said in 2017, a year after launching the new company.

But the parallels between the two failed companies are hard to ignore.

Both companies were much-hyped, largely by Fisker himself claiming they would revolutionize the industry. They were fueled by “free” money – first federal funds, more recently Wall Street – on the premise that “green,” or electrified, vehicles were the future of the auto industry.

Both also faced significant quality problems that led to recalls. The first Karmas produced by Fisker were recalled for a battery safety issue and fire risk in 2011.

Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker discusses the production debut of the electric Ocean SUV

Both companies also changed direction and priorities many times.

After delivering less than half of the more than 10,000 vehicles it produced through a direct-to-consumer approach that resembled Tesla’s model, the second Fisker turned to a dealership-based distribution model in January.

But there was one key difference this time. With the failure of the second Fisker, its investors were left out to dry instead of American taxpayers. While Henrik Fisker’s first company was boosted by a $529 million federal loan — $139 million of which the government lost — the second was funded through Wall Street’s bullishness on SPACs and EVs. Its stock was delisted in April.

A Fisker spokesperson said in a statement early Tuesday that the company is “proud of our achievements” but determined that Chapter 11 was the best option.

“Like other companies in the electric vehicle industry, we have faced various market and macroeconomic headwinds that have impacted our ability to operate efficiently,” the spokesperson said in a release. “After evaluating all options for our business, we determined that proceeding with a sale of our assets under Chapter 11 is the most viable path forward for the company.”

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