Famed car designer Henrik Fisker is mounting a comeback seven years after his pioneering electric vehicle company collapsed. This time he has a secret weapon: Geeta Gupta-Fisker, his cofounder, CFO–and wife.
Henrik Fisker seems straight from Hollywood central casting for the role of “famous European car designer.” A tall, blonde, handsome 57-year-old Dane, he first became known outside the car world in 1999 for styling a silver, convertible BMW Z8 roadster for Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in The World Is Not Enough. In the early 2000s he ran Aston Martin’s famed design studios before serving as an early design consultant to Elon Musk’s Tesla. In 2007, he founded Fisker Automotive, which made one of the world’s first plug-in cars, before failing spectacularly six years later.
Now he’s back–and three things are different. First and foremost, he has a vital new partner: his wife, cofounder and Fisker Inc. CFO Geeta Gupta-Fisker. Second, his Los Angeles-based company is public this time around, raising more than $1 billion in an October 2020 IPO. And finally, Fisker’s stock price, up 56% since its debut, has made both Henrik and Geeta billionaires, each worth about $1.1 billion as of Friday’s market close. The auto industry has seen father-son and sibling leadership teams, but Fisker Inc.’s CEO-CFO combo is the fast-changing sector’s first husband and wife power couple.
“We have very different styles of working. I would almost say it’s a right-brain/left-brain-type segregation,” Geeta, 46, tells Forbes. “Right brain is the creative side, so that’s Henrik. The left side is the data-driven analytical brain. That would be me.”
The division of labor works. Take the Fisker Ocean, a battery-powered SUV they have promised to start selling for around $38,000 in 2022. “One thing that’s on Geeta’s plate is to take more of the cost out,” says Henrik, who is Fisker Inc.’s CEO. “One of the things on my plate is to ensure that we have a stellar product.”
Wealth isn’t the purpose of the new company, Henrik says. “I never got into cars because of money. My mother wanted me to be a dentist.”
The couple sought a big stake in the new venture to ensure they can control its fate in a way Fisker couldn’t with his earlier company, which was mostly owned by investors including the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar and prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Fisker Automotive was a hard lesson because its namesake, who was also design chief, CEO and a board member lacked one crucial title: owner. “He didn’t own even one share of the company,” Geeta says.
“Ownership is the only way to influence decisions, the right decisions,” she says. “That’s why when we structured the deal…what was really important for us was super-voting rights. Because what you don’t want is a repetition of what happened last time, when other people come in and make the decisions.”
The Fiskers describe the new venture as a “digital car company” that’s outsourcing production instead of building its own factories to hold down costs. Fisker is buying most of its core components–including the batteries and electric motors–from outside suppliers. Parts maker Magna, which also builds vehicles under contract for BMW, Daimler, Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota, formed an alliance with Fisker in October and will build the Ocean at its Graz, Austria, plant. As part of the deal, Magna also acquired a 6% stake in Fisker.
Affordability is a key selling point. The stylish Ocean, unveiled at CES in Las Vegas last January, won’t try to appeal to consumers just on its looks and its heavy use of recycled materials. The five-seater has a base price of just $37,499 (before federal and state incentives that could knock about $10,000 off the purchase price). Though roomier than Tesla’s Model Y crossover, its base price is more than $12,000 cheaper. So far, more than 10,000 people have paid $250 each to reserve one. Range is targeted to be about 250 miles per charge.
Henrik is an auto industry celebrity, but Geeta’s background is equally impressive. A native of India, she holds multiple degrees in science, including a Ph.D. in biotechnology from Cambridge University where she was also a Research Newton Fellow. From there, she started a career in international investment for Lloyds Banking Group, and then managed investments for a high-net-worth client for several years. She met her future husband in 2011 when he was visiting London, just before things started going very wrong at Fisker Automotive. They married in 2012.
The couple confesses to working round-the-clock for the past couple of years as they scramble to get their company off the ground. During the pandemic, they stick to working from individual offices in their West Hollywood home “to avoid kicking each other under the table,” Henrik says.
They’ve divided responsibilities with Fisker working closely with the engineers, overseeing the Ocean’s design, features and performance and planning for future models. Geeta handles finance, taxes, investor relations and negotiations with suppliers to ensure the Ocean arrives with that promised $37,499 base price.
“When I left Fisker Automotive, all I had was my car,” Henrik remembers. “I’m in a different position, mainly because of Geeta. Because she cuts the deals.”
An early rival to Musk’s Tesla (who hired Fisker as a consultant for the car that became the Model S–and unsuccessfully sued him for breach of contract), Fisker Automotive was equal parts shooting star and cautionary tale. The Orange County, California-based company won early support from influential backers, including VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins, adoring press attention for the looks of its dramatic Karma plug-in hybrid car and even a $529 million low-cost federal loan in 2009 to build future electric models. But success wasn’t in the cards. The $100,000-plus car suffered a string of setbacks, including faulty battery packs, technical glitches and even a hurricane that trashed an entire shipment of luxury cars. The company went bankrupt in 2013, and its assets were purchased by China’s Wanxiang Group, which changed the name to Karma Automotive and continues to sell Fisker’s elegant plug-in hybrid as the Revero.
To get the new venture off the ground, the Fiskers invested the majority of their life savings–an enormous financial risk given the fate of Henrik’s prior company. Then, just as they were locking in plans for the IPO back in July, they were hit by a highly unwelcome complication: Geeta learned she had early-stage breast cancer.
“She got the call (from her doctor) during a call with investors,” Henrik says. Despite that bombshell, she continued working with banks and investors in the weeks that followed, even as she underwent two surgical procedures and radiation therapy. Her medical therapy concluded in November.
“At this point, I’m cancer-free,” she says. “It was a couple of months of downtime from a movement perspective, but I’m recovering and much better.”
Henrik, who marvels at her fortitude throughout the health crisis says, “she only missed something like one day of work…That’s just how she is. She works tirelessly.”
But Geeta is also mindful of the risks if things don’t go right for the new company. “Henrik and I will never get a job after if this fails, we are done,” she says. “We’re not doing this to get rich. We’re doing this because we want to make an amazing company that makes amazing cars. We want to make really cool green cars, affordable cars.”
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