Five Questions: Mac Heller, Coda Automotive Interim CEO

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Steven "Mac" Heller, interim CEO of Coda Automotive

Steven "Mac" Heller, interim CEO of Coda Automotive

It can't have been a particular easy 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show for Coda Autmotive's newly minted interim CEO, Steven "Mac" Heller.

Just one day before Coda hosted a reception at its new "Zen meets Tech" display booth at the greenest of all U.S. auto shows, the startup electric car company announced it would delay the launch of its 2011 Coda Sedan from next month to the third quarter of 2011, meaning next summer at the earliest.

And that announcement came just a week after the resignations of both the firm's senior vice president of sales & marketing and the previous CEO.

Heller had been co-chairman of the Coda board of directors, so he knew the company. He previously worked at investment bank Goldman Sachs, where he was co-head of its investment banking division and its worldwide head of mergers and acquisitions.

By the time we sat down with Heller to dig into what's really going on at Coda, he'd undoubtedly heard all the questions before. He was guarded, as we expected, but affable and more or less straightforward.

2011 Coda Sedan electric car, New York City, September 2010

2011 Coda Sedan electric car, New York City, September 2010

Why the delay in delivering the car, and why was it announced so late?

Mac Heller: We did it to build a couple of four-to-six-week buffer zones into our manufacturing approval process, which lets us make quality adjustments to the tooling and load balancing on the production line that builds the "gliders" in China.

The design is frozen, for anything that's customer-facing, but minor adjustments can be made to assembly processes and any components affected by them.

We had some time built into the launch schedule to let us pause and reflect on the process. If you have 100 stations, you need to coordinate timing among then. That turned out not to be enough time; we needed more. So that's what we're doing.

screen capture from promotional video for 2010 Coda Sedan electric car, released June 2010

screen capture from promotional video for 2010 Coda Sedan electric car, released June 2010

At $44,000, the Coda Sedan is more than $11,000 pricier than the 2011 Nissan Leaf at $32,780. Your delay means you're no longer launching your cars at the same time, so how do you expect to compete with Nissan?

MH: First, we think the demand for battery-electric cars will exceed the supply in the early phases. We anticipate substantial demand from both fleets and consumers. But we think there'll be a fast ramp-up of sophistication among electric-car buyers.

Our consumers prefer to buy an electric car from a company that's all about electric cars, not a company that has one electric model in a range of gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Early buyers are skeptical about incumbent brands. They're part of a movement, and they see us as an ally and an enabler in reaching their goal of a gasoline-free life.

Second, as we've said before, our car has a bigger lihtium-ion battery pack and quicker onboard charging.

We'll provide a real-world range of 120 miles, and our active thermal management system will make that range much more predictable. Our 6.6-kilowatt charger means you can recharge the Coda twice as fast, and we offer a compact sedan with a full trunk.

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