Chinese firm positioned to acquire U.S.-funded battery maker A123 Systems


A123 President and CEO David Vieau, left, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Energy Secretary Steven Chu and A123 Vice President Jason Forcier, right, tour the Romulus plant.

A123 President and CEO David Vieau, left, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Energy Secretary Steven Chu and A123 Vice President Jason Forcier, right, tour the Romulus plant. / July 2011 photo by Carlos Osorio/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The future of A123 Systems, which received a $249.1-million grant in 2009 from the Obama administration and more than $125 million in State of Michigan tax credits and aid, is now up to a Chinese auto supplier.

Wanxiang Group agreed in August to invest up to $450 million to acquire as much as 80% of the Waltham, Mass.-based battery maker.

But shares in the company, which employs about 700 people in Romulus, Livonia and Ann Arbor, are now trading for 27 cents, down from a 52-week high of $4.44 about a year ago. It has lost $857 million since its inception, and $208 million of that in the first half of this year. Clean-tech companies backed by the U.S. government have been a target of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who accuses President Barack Obama of “picking winners and losers” with grants and loans like those to A123.

Now, the Wanxiang investment has made the administration’s support of A123 even more sensitive.

The deal gave A123 much-needed cash to continue operating, but experts said the future of the company’s manufacturing operations in Michigan is in doubt.

“The issue of having the Chinese come in after the U.S. has supported the company with loans is a challenge for them,” University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute analyst Bruce Belzowski said. “Do they end up moving the plant to China? As owners they would have that right to do that.”

Critics have suggested that Wanxiang identified an opportunity to pounce on a company with valuable intellectual property at a cheap price. Pin Ni, president of Elgin, Ill.-based Wanxiang America, referred questions to A123, which declined to comment for this report.

A123 CEO David Vieau told investors in August that the deal would “remove the uncertainty regarding A123’s financial situation” and allow the company to “leverage Wanxiang’s global supply chain and automotive manufacturing efficiencies to reduce our costs.”

Wanxiang, owned by Chinese billionaire Guanqiu Lu, told the Securities and Exchange Commission that its investment would help A123 gain “access to the vehicle electrification and grid-scale energy storage markets in China.”

Pike Research analyst John Gartner said that for A123 to expand sales in China, it would make sense to manufacture batteries there.

“Because of the weight of the batteries, it’s much more cost effective to manufacture where they’re going to be used in the vehicles,” Gartner said.

A123’s stock closed Friday at 27 cents, down 98% from its September 2009 initial public offering price of $13.50. Several executives have sold thousands of shares in recent weeks, according to SEC filings.

“It’s not clear what the Chinese are going to get out of this,” said Theodore O’Neill, founder of Connecticut-based Litchfield Hills Research and a former securities analyst who tracked A123. “There isn’t any value here. There really isn’t enough need for the product, and the product isn’t profitable.”

Battery companies have struggled to achieve breakthroughs and lower costs, which is necessary to make electric vehicles more affordable. Most consumers are still buying conventional vehicles that run on gasoline or first-generation gasoline-electric hybrids that don’t require recharging.

Gartner said lithium-ion battery packs cost about $700 per kilowatt hour, but that needs to come down to about $350 to become competitive with internal combustion engines.

“It’s really going to take the next generation of battery technology to get there,” he said.

Costly errors

A123 is spending more than $66 million to complete a recall of battery packs it supplied to Fisker Automotive. At issue is a faulty welding machine at its Livonia plant.

After the discovery, A123 hired materials handler MPS Group to conduct the Fisker battery-pack recall, according to company documents obtained by the Free Press.The recall is not expected to be finished until mid-2013, and Fisker, which represented 26% of A123’s revenue in 2011, may switch battery suppliers, Fisker CEO Tony Posawatz said Monday in Detroit.

Others are sticking by A123. General Motors, which selected A123 as the supplier for the forthcoming electric version of the Chevrolet Spark minicar, said it has no plans to switch suppliers.

But A123 has warned the SEC that there is “substantial doubt” about its ability to continue operating as an independent company.

A bankruptcy filing or Wanxiang taking control of A123 would stir further questions about the government’s role in funding private enterprise, especially if it expanded production in China.

“The venture capital community has been burned just as badly as the taxpayer,” O’Neill said. “This is a segment of industry that nobody’s making any money in.”

Contact Nathan Bomey: 313-223-4743