Henrik FiskerHenrik Fisker

Fisker Inc. CEO Henrik Fisker.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


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It’s easy, at times, to underestimate Henrik Fisker. The Danish-born car designer and serial automotive entrepreneur has already lived more lives than most. But the newest incarnation, as founder and CEO of the second startup to bear his name, just got some serious support from financial titan Apollo, through an unusual IPO and $1 billion funding round.

Fisker Inc., the electric-vehicle company, is now worth almost $3 billion. More or less overnight. The deal looks sort of complicated from the outside; Fisker is listing inside a vehicle called Spartan Energy Acquisition Corp., and Business Insider’s Melia Russell has a helpful explainer — but it’s actually not that tricky. At base, it’s a private-equity play, but with a public-equity component.

For Fisker, 56, the upshot is a cool billion to build a car that’s thus far been a creature of social-media conceptualizing.

“We’re financed all the way to the building the Fisker Ocean,” he said in an interview with Business Insider. “It’s a de-risking factor for investors.”

Renouncing the old way of doing business

Fisker Ocean

Fisker shows off the Ocean.

Mark Matousek/Business Insider


The Ocean was revealed in 2018, and Fisker has been presiding over its promotion ever since. But the process has been scrappy. Unlike his previous undertaking, Fisker Automotive — a one-time Tesla competitor whose fortunes were dashed by a perfect storm of the financial crisis, the bankruptcy of battery supplier A123, and Hurricane Sandy (which destroyed a shipment of Fisker Karmas) — the former BMW and Aston Martin designer’s latest effort is, in his own words, purposefully asset-light.

“We don’t want to be a vertically integrated car company,” he said. “We’re not going to do our own manufacturing. It would be stupid for any EV startup to make a brand-new factory.”

Instead, Fisker said that the company could work with contract manufacturer Magna International, which assembles cars for the likes of BMW and Jaguar Land Rover. He quickly noted that the global auto industry currently has 20% unused manufacturing capacity. Why add to that glut?

Nor does Fisker intend to take the Ocean to market in 2023 via traditional dealerships. The vehicle will launch with a direct-to-consumer sales model, in the US and Europe, emulating Tesla’s approach (in the US, that’s been a state-by-state effort, due to longstanding franchise dealership laws). Fisker has also outsourced this expertise, to Cox Automotive. Service would be highly individualized, with the company picking up vehicles from customers and returning them.

It’s a business model that’s gained currency in the coronavirus pandemic era, when traditional brick-and-mortar dealerships were forced to shut down; the entire auto industry was then compelled to explore an alternative sales-and-service approach, one it had flirted with for years.

Making cars for a new generation

Henrik Fisker Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Fisker created memorable designs for Aston Martin.

AP


Fisker thinks his company is ideally suited to this new normal — and that younger car buyers will respond to it.

“A new generation of buyers has a new view on mobility,” he said. “Their first ride in a car wasn’t in their parents’ old five-speed coupé. It was in the back seat of an Uber. They don’t care how big the engine is. They’re looking at the user interface.”

That could be Fisker Inc.’s biggest innovation: to conceive of the entire company as a user-experience. 

“We’re fundamentally rethinking it,” he said, noting that this is the direction he has to move in. “Everybody knows I can design a good car.”

(Not that Fisker has completely abandoned his old passions: with auto-industry veterans Bob Lutz and Gilbert Villarreal, he cofounded VLF Automotive in 2016 and rolled out a bespoke, 745-horsepower supercar.)

The concept is taken from the consumer-electronics realm: Apple designs its computers and smartphones in California, but manufactures them in China and, in many cases, sells them through financing arrangements with wireless providers.

The model stresses beautiful design and effective software, both focal points for Fisker.

“Software will be a huge part of our future,” he said. “It will create the character of vehicle.”

A radical vision of what an automaker can be

VLF Destino Detroit Auto Show

Fisker hasn’t given up on old-school design: he’s in business with industry vets Bob Lutz and Gilbert Villarreal.

Courtesy of VLF Automotive


For a legendary car designer to make such a statement shows just how radical Fisker’s vision is. Many electric-vehicle startups, from Rivian to Nikola, intend to own their entire design and manufacturing process. The century-old automakers that sell the vast majority of the world’s cars and trucks operate dozens of factories and support hundreds more in their supply chains.

Fisker thinks that’s a fool’s errand. As the late Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne argued several years ago in a much-discussed presentation about ruinous redundancy in the auto industry, carmakers waste billions competing to distinguish vehicles that are essentially the same.

“Nobody makes their own spark plugs,” Fisker said, driving home the notion that the Ocean, and the vehicles the company intends to launch afterward, will be about what the consumer wishes to buy (or lease, under flexible short and long-term arrangements), not what the automaker wants to market.

“We’ve had 100 years of one-time sales,” Fisker said. “But our customers will get what they want rather than having something forced down their throat.”

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