A Better Place For Evan Thornley?

The colourful entrepreneur has suddenly taken control at the world’s most ambitious electric car company... and it’s a very big bet.

A cynic might say Evan Thornley is back where he belongs – running a wildly ambitious multinational that is losing hundreds of millions a year. Then again, a supporter would suggest Thornley finally has a second chance to become an entrepreneur who might literally change the world.

Either way the stakes are high: Earlier this week Thornley was appointed as global chief executive of Better Place – the 'electric recharge grid operator' which has the singularly audacious aim to create and control the recharge station network behind the nascent electric car industry.

It’s a stunning elevation for the man who once led Australia’s search engine hopeful Looksmart Ltd. For those who don't remember, Looksmart, run by a then 34 year old Thornley, once had a market capitalisation of more than $500 million but the dream of building a serious rival to Google came to nothing.

Indeed, if the Better Place opportunity had not come along Thornley might have remained best known for his two great public disappointments – the calamitous ASX float of Looksmart (it floated with chronic timing in February 2000, just weeks before the dot.com crash) and his highly controversial rejection of a cabinet post in the Brumby government after spending months being groomed as a star by the Victorian ALP.

But Thornley has spent the last decade remaking his reputation as one of the most persuasive and dynamic executives Australia has produced. Consigning Looksmart to history as a near-miss, he has been chief executive at Better Place Australia, convincing keystone investors such as Lend Lease and car insurer RACV to contribute to a wider global private equity drive now totalling $700 million for Better Place International, which is based in Israel with key offshore centres in Denmark and Australia.

With Better Place aiming to make most of its money from switchable batteries that will be stored at company owned charge-stations, Thornley recently turned heads in the local auto industry by helping to convince Holden through working with a consortium called EV engineering to build a prototype electric car – the plan is now to produce more than 100 of the cars in test program.

And his ability to impress those that matter remains firmly in place: The chairman of Better Place Australia is NBN chairman and CBA director Harrison Young, while the biggest single shareholder in Better Place International – Tel Aviv based Israel Corp – has backed Thornley to bring a charismatic founder’s dream to reality. (Click here to see a proselytising TED talk on the potential of electric cars from Thornley’s predecessor, Shai Agassi.)

Indeed there are probably few people anywhere that would have the sheer gumption to take the job Agassi has left behind. Agassi had persuaded Renault to manufacture 100,000 electric cars under the ‘Fluence’ brand. But he also has left an operation where losses in the last six months doubled to $130 million. (Accumulated losses are now standing at more than $400 million.) Agassi has been promising that 100,000 electric cars today will become 10 million electric cars by 2016.

Explicit in the promise of Better Place is an environmentally friendly motor industry: Implicit is that those brave enough to put their money down now (HSBC, Morgan Stanley, GE) will enjoy a rate of return not seen since railway barons.

Everyone deserves a second chance: Maybe Thornley more than most.

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