Miata Designer Matano, T. Boone Pickens Part of Start-Up Car CompanyBy Michelle Krebs June 17, 2009
MONROE, La. -- Mystery solved. Or at least the players behind it.
Mazda Miata designer Tom Matano and Texas billionaire investor T. Boone Pickens are key figures behind a car plant being established in Louisiana to build environmentally friendly vehicles by a start-up company that has never before built cars.
V-Vehicle Co., of San Diego, is a start-up company being financed by California venture capitalists. Its CEO is Frank Varasano, a former executive vice president of Oracle Corp. who is described as the project's visionary.
Company chairman is Ray Lane of the California venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, which has been extensively involved in environmentally friendly projects and companies, including Fisker Automotive. John Doerr, a managing partner with the California venture capital company, is a V-Vehicle board member. Former Vice President Al Gore recently joined the firm. Matano will direct design.
Also an investor is Louisiana businessman James Davison, who owned the Guide Corp., which once belonged to General Motors for producing automotive lighting components.
AutoObserver had reported Monday that an announcement of the plant by a start-up company was expected Wednesday.
"We're joined by some of the most revered names in American business to build the next great American car in Northeast Louisiana," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at the announcement at the old GM plant, according to the News Star newspaper in Monroe, Louisiana.
"We're here to announce an opportunity to transform the entire American auto industry and the economy of northeastern Louisiana," he continued. "The concept is amazing and the team behind the company is first class."
The company will create 1,400 jobs in Monroe, Louisiana. The state of Louisiana has committed $67 million toward the project and will spend an additional $12 million for worker training.
What remains a mystery are the cars that will be built at the plant and the business model behind the venture. And the players behind the new company are saying little except that they are expected to be gas-powered, high-mileage vehicles. The first is expected to roll down the assembly line at the end of 2010.
"We're trying to be protective of the things we need to be [because of potential competition]," said Varazano, as quoted by the in Monroe, Louisiana. "We want to tell you about the car and distribution system all at once. What we plan on doing is as it's appropriate release more information about what we're doing and how we're doing it."
Louisiana's Web site for economic development added little more about the venture: "VVC will produce a high-quality, environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient car for the U.S. market. The goal of the company is to provide the American buyer greater product value and a superior automotive experience."
Pickens has been extremely vocal and active in promoting his energy plan to invest in wind power and natural gas. Pickens was not at Wednesday's announcement in Lousiana. Rather, the founder and chairman of Dallas-based BP Capital was in Calgary speaking about oil prices. Pickens predicts crude oil will average $80 to $85 a barrel in the coming year, he said, Bloomberg News reported.
Matano, 61, was the lead designer on the original Mazda Miata roadster and oversaw the development of subsequent generations. He left Mazda in 2002 to become director of industrial design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
A News-Star Twitter account from Wednesday's announcement at the plant site quoted Matano saying, "This car will be another icon of American industry."
The Guide Corp. plant was once part of GM's Delphi lighting group and was spun off before GM spun off Delphi Corp. into an independent company. It ceased production a few years ago. The plant will undergo a $100-million expansion that will double its space.
An economic-impact analysis by Louisiana State University (LSU) concluded the project will inject more than $19.6 billion in new state economic output from 2010 to 2024, the News Star reported. LSU estimates that the 1,400 direct, new on-site jobs will create 1,800 indirect jobs for a total of 3,200 new jobs in Louisiana. That would make the new company one of Louisiana's top 30 economic-driver firms based on direct and indirect job impact.
The Louisiana development corporation's Web site said workers for the new company will be paid an annual salary of $40,000.
The state commissioned an economic evaluation of the project from A.T. Kearney, Inc., that concluded the project is viable. That report concluded: "Based on the information provided by the Project Liberty leadership team, industry benchmarks, third-party market research, as well as our automotive expertise and analysis, we believe that Project Liberty has a compelling business model, and targets economics that are reasonable and achievable."
1 - Tom Matano
2 - T. Boone Pickens