Zenn Motor makes U-turn

SAINT-JEROME, QUEBEC - Ian Clifford's enthusiasm for the electric car has never been higher - he just stopped believing that his company is the one to provide them to the world.

It's a shocking turnaround for Mr. Clifford, chief executive officer of Zenn Motor Co. ZNN-X , who has spent the past eight years vowing to convert consumers to his small electric vehicles.

From a manufacturing plant in Saint-Jérôme, Que., the company has built about 350 all-electric vehicles for delivery across North America. The $15,995 (US) two-seaters plug into a standard electric outlet, and take their owners some 80 kilometres on a single charge.

The small car was supposed to be the start of a larger line - a four-seater capable of reaching highway speeds. Zenn's business model has been built around the idea of the small company being both the manufacturer and distributor of the vehicle.

But something happened in the last year to change his mind - the world's major manufacturers launched a fierce push into the electric space, drastically reducing his company's advantage in the matter of only a few months.

Now, Mr. Clifford believes Zenn has a better chance of prospering if it works with big companies, rather than compete with them - so it now plans to offer its drive trains to anyone who comes calling, and reduce its auto-making ambitions.

"We believe we can be much more successful as a strategic technology provider than an automaker," he said.

As has always been the case for Zenn, everything depends on the success of EEStor Inc., a privately held U.S. battery maker. Zenn has invested $7.5-million for a 10.5-per-cent stake in the company, whose battery is reputed to deliver a charge - in five minutes - that can power a car for 400 kilometres at speeds up to 125 km/h.

Zenn's stock has risen after each report of a successful test of EEStor's battery, but the technology hasn't yet been proven. Automakers will line up at Zenn's door if everything goes as planned, he said, because Zenn has exclusive rights to sell the technology for small cars and those one year and older of any size.

The company's shares have gained 166 per cent since the beginning of the year, and are up 12 per cent so far in September. Three analysts follow the shares, and all maintained their "buy" ratings after the company changed its business plan.

Massimo Fiore, an analyst at Versant Partners, said the decision makes sense because Zenn's intention as it developed its own car was to demonstrate that the technology worked. It doesn't need to be an automaker to make its point, he said.

"Becoming the all-electric drive train supplier of choice was and remains the company's ultimate goal," said Mr. Fiore, who has a "buy" rating on the company's shares. "We had anticipated this, but not the timing. Nevertheless, our investment thesis remains the same as Zenn's medium-term price movement will only be impacted by progress at EEStor."


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