Norway’s Think Global, which has a new factory in Indiana and a tiny but friendly two-seat electric car to sell, has more lives than a cat. It just emerged from its fourth round of bankruptcy with yet another new owner, this time Russian timber magnate and multi-millionaire Boris Zingarevich.
There are striking parallels between Zingarevich and would-be Saab investor Vladimir Antonov, since they’re both very rich Russians seeking footholds in the foreign auto industry. But Zingarevich was allowed to go through with his Think takeover in Norway and banker Antonov (hit by rumors of unsavory ties, including links to the Russian mob) has been stalled by background checks from the Swedish government and the European Investment Bank (EIB). “The past months of speculations around me, as an individual investor and my businesses has been exhausting,” Antonov said.
Zingarevich, a rags-to-riches story who is now one of the wealthiest men in Russia (#75 on the Forbes list in 2004, with $330 million then) already had one foot in the door, since he was a near-50 percent owner of Ener1, Think’s battery supplier, and had a less than 40 percent stake in Think itself. He and his Ilim Holding entered into a 50-50 joint timber venture with U.S.-based International Paper in 2007. “Boris Zingarevich is an international businessman and beyond repute,” said Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of Ener1. “There aren’t any parallels to Antonov.”
Operating under the new name Electric Mobility Solutions AS, it looks like Think will carry on much as before, but with a striking twist. According to spokesman Brendan Prebo, the two-seat electric car is still priced at $36,495, which makes it expensive against the four-seat Nissan Leaf. But Prebo said that buyers in the 12 zero-emission states that follow California will get $4,000 off the top. (That’s because Think can sell the ZEV credits.)
The bottom line for Think buyers, counting the $7,500 federal income tax credit, is therefore $24,995. At that price, they’re likely to sell some. Prebo declined to comment on how many Thinks have been moved in the U.S. so far, but the numbers aren’t big. “We’ve only been selling in limited markets,” he said. “But we have some cars available for immediate delivery.” Could Thinks eventually be made in Russia (which, after all, is close to where they’re built now, in Finland)? Prebo said we need to wait and see.
There was considerable speculation that Think's assets would go to another emerging automotive power — Turkey. BD Otomotiv recently sent missives to journalists, including me, that identified itself as the leading bidder and likely winner of the spoils. They make a million cars annually in Turkey, though the Ford Transit Connect is one of the few to make it here.
Think, along with Coda, Wheego and a few others, are startups trying to go up against the mainstream entrants from GM (Chevy Volt), Ford (Focus electric), Nissan (the Leaf) and Daimler (Smart electric drive). It’s an uphill battle, because the big boys have the advantage in size, marketing, dealer networks and name recognition.
Think is different from the rest in that it has quite a history, dating back to 1991. Because there wasn’t much of a market for EVs back then, it struggled along, except for a nirvana period of Ford ownership from 1999 to 2003. Ford poured more than $100 million into Think, and a lot of its technical advances were made in the period. But financing has always been iffy.
Zingarevich certainly has the deep pockets to make Think work — we’ll see how far his goodwill extends. While he’s writing checks, he should consider that what Think really needs is a modernized four-seat sedan to compete head-to-head with the Nissan Leaf.