Zero Motorcycles has quietly announced some interesting news: that Mark Blackwell, V.P. of Motorcycles at Polaris Industries, will be joining the electric motorcycle company’s Board of Directors. With a plethora of reasons as to why an industry veteran like Blackwell would join Zero’s board, it’s been no secret that the Scotts Valley company has been collecting seasoned industry professionals like pokemon characters, seemingly building a brain trust of people who actually know how to run a motorcycle company.

Blackwell’s addition to Zero is interesting because it could signal a relationship with the Polaris V.P. that goes beyond merely an advisory/visionary position, which is the core responsibility of a companies board. The timing is interesting as well, as Polaris has been on a buying spree, first acquiring the original American motorcycle company brand: Indian Motorcycles, and a few days later electric car manufacturer GEM. With a Polaris executive sitting on Zero’s board almost immediately after these aquisitions, one has to wonder if this isn’t a precursor to some sort of larger arrangement between the two companies.

Reports to Asphalt & Rubber indicate that Zero Motorcycles is in a precarious position financially. Waves of layoffs continue to gut the company of its diligent workers, while the executive and leadership ranks continue to swell. By our estimates the company will be out of cash in less than a year’s time, unless Zero gets another cash infusion. The chances of that occurring are dubious, as we’ve heard credible rumors that the future funding of Zero Motorcycles by its lead, and virtually sole investor, Invus is contingent on the Scotts Valley company ramping up its motorcycle shipments and turning something resembling a profit.

Zero Motorcycles went through a big effort a month ago to announce a $26 million cash infusion by Invus, though the company actually only squeezed another $17 million from the private equity investment group. The missing $9 million we’ve heard is contingent on Zero meeting the above mentioned sales and income goals, which is a strong signal that the well to unlimited funding is running dry for the California company.

Invus, as an investment group, is a long-haul financier, and likes to dominate the funding rounds of its portfolio companies. With over $4 billion in capital under management, the group is funded by the wealth of some of Benelux’s upper-crust, who take a long-term strategy approach to the way they invest their money. Simply put, Invus is not an investment group that pumps and dumps its portfolio companies, but they don’t hang on to dead weight either.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the current state of Zero Motorcycles is highly relevant to this latest announcement, as Invus is clearly signaling its discontent with Zero’s performance by not fully-funding Zero’s latest round. The investment group has also already gutted the company’s ranks, replacing them with recognizable industry professionals. The group’s presence at Zero has also been ramped up. Keeping a hand on the tiller at all times, it’s not uncommon now to see a quote from an Invus representative in Zero’s press releases (not that we get sent any press materials from Zero Motorcycles).

With the changes that the company needs to go through in order to turn around its business likely to take over a year’s time, the road for Zero appears to be uncertain. With the announcement that Blackwell will be joining the Board’s ranks, a new avenue for Invus unfolds that previously seemed to be off the table. It’s entirely possible that Blackwell’s addition to Zero Motorcycles Board of Directors is precursor to the electric motorcycle company getting acquired by Polaris Industries, as Blackwell would be able to see the inner-workings of Zero. Such an act would allow Invus to unload a company that’s cost the investment group nearly $50 million in capital invested, with roughly only a million dollars in total sales since its inception.

Already reducing staff to a bare minimum, and securing a bevy of industry veterans, Zero could be trying to improve its desirability on paper, while showing a roadmap for future success under new capital investment. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see layoffs before an acquisition, as the move helps boost the bottom line value of the company, which could have an exponential factor on the purchase price. Unlikely to turn itself around before it runs out of cash, Zero would have to sell itself to a potential buyer on a vision of what the company could be (ironically the same pitch it gave journalists at its 2011 product launch), which likely would include the notion that the company now has the team necessary for future success.

As Zero has begun to transition its science project motorcycles into a more polished offering, the company also has designs to finally start utilizing a proper dealer network. Both items are critical to a sustainable business plan, but both also take a considerable amount of time to undertake — time of course being a commodity the company is in short supply of at the present juncture.

The Diet-Coke version of this speculation is that Blackwell’s presence could signal simply a partnership between the two motorcycle companies, with Zero presumably helping Polaris with its electric drivetrain needs. While there are varying shades of how this would work, the biggest kibosh on the notion is that Zero’s drivetrain technology isn’t terribly compelling compared to some of the other firms currently circulating in the EV field, making their candidacy for a partnership dubious for a company like Polaris.

Then again with Blackwell quoted as saying, “I am delighted to join the Board of Zero Motorcycles. I have tracked the progress of the company from afar and been impressed with its growing product line and its increasingly well-established brand, channel, and supply chain,” the Polaris executive may not have taken a close look at Zero Motorcycles before joining up with them, as the Scotts Valley company’s biggest weakness are its sales channels and supply chain, which have had detrimental affects on the company’s brand.

The third possible purpose for this announcement is that it generates paper. Sometimes companies appoint members to its Board of Directors purely for marketing reason, an act we wouldn’t be surprised to see Zero try at this point. Time will tell what this announcement truly means for Invus, Polaris, and of course Zero Motorcycles. Until the augurs become more clear, we’ll leave you with the obligatory press release quote from Invus Group Managing Director Aflalo Guimaraes.

“My colleagues and I have known Mark for a while and we greatly value his industry insight, knowledge of motorcycles, and years of managerial expertise. We are excited Mark has elected to join the Board of the company and we know his contributions and talents will make an enormous impact on our business moving forward. We look forward to a close and productive relationship with him.”

Source: Zero Motorcycles

  • ohio

    Great article. It’s nice to see some actual investigative journalism and harsh editorial in the motorcycle industry. There’s only so many articles I can read about the joy of the open road, the storied history of two wheels, and/or how awesome all current companies are.

  • I think it’s fairly clear that EV investors as a group are realizing that EVs aren’t like iPads, where there’s both strong pent-up demand and the distribution network to fill that demand, and once they’re made available the floodgates open and cash pours in. They’re also realizing that America’s interest is fickle as hell, and in this case it’s blowing in the wind of fluctuating oil prices.

    I was one of the first journalists to interview Neal Saiki in Zero’s early days (a friend of a friend was something like the fifth employee there, and he got me in.) After talking to Neal for some time, I found myself asking, “What’s your exit strategy?” because it didn’t seem as if there was even a plan – or a clue – as far as ramping up and becoming a real motorcycle company. That made sense, given the Silicon Valley proximity — most entrepreneurs around there aren’t in the business of being in business long-term. That’s potentially a huge cultural problem they’d have taking in old European money.

    We know, just from direct observation, that few EV motorcycles have actually reached consumers. I mean, when was the last time you saw one on the street or at your local off-road area? IE, actual sales are few and far between. For Zero to be laying off rank and file workers — well, if they’re getting rid of assembly staff it’s safe to say they’re not really even trying to sell bikes any more. So, maybe you’re right and this is all about selling Zero, not selling Zeros.

    My thinking is that soon — within a year or two — we’ll see the first ‘real’ motorcycle company seriously enter the EV market, and when that happens they’ll come in with a fully resolved solution, priced right, that will do to the existing players what the arrival of the Honda Elsinore did to Bultaco.

    Polaris may feel that acquiring a stake in Zero will give it a head start in a new market. But I don’t. The moto-industry talent Zero’s been recruiting — those positions are filled at Polaris. And while some reject Polaris’ motorcycle offerings as derivative, Polaris has plenty of engineering smarts, as displayed by some of their other product lines. I’m not saying they couldn’t extract some value out of Zero’s IP — they could, and more than Zero could get out of it. But in my opinion, Polaris could also go it alone and be in the same place in a couple of years’ time.

    Ironically, the guy they could have got some real value out of was probably Saiki…

  • I too asked Saiki what the exit was, long before I knew Invus was involved (I got a similar answer as you did as well). The only thing I’d comment on there Mark is that Invus is not an “exit strategy” group, which is to say they don’t sit there with a plan to sell the company in a specified time with a specified multiple, which is more the case in Silicon Valley.

    There’s a subtle difference between VC and PE, and Invus is surely the latter. They’re perfectly content to own large portions of a company, or be the outright owner of a company that makes continual annual returns in profits, as we’ve seen with their handling of WeightWatchers.

    As or Polaris, should things turn into an acquisition situation, they’d be wise to learn a lesson from Harley-Davidson, and leave Zero as an autonomous business unit — free to be outside of the ICE box.

  • emotofreak

    Couple of things.

    Love how everyone seems to miss the fact that Zero has more bikes in the field than anyone. Way more. You can actually buy and receive a bike from them. This is not trivial. Designing the bikes is easy compared to the rest of the stuff you have to do to actually get a bike to market. A couple of hot prototypes does not a company make.

    None of the existing Motorcycle companies have substantial EV experience. To say they could just pick it up and be where Zero is now, is pretty optimistic. Certainly they have gobs of engineering talent, but there really just aren’t that many people who truly understand bleeding edge battery and motor design. Lot’s of smoke and mirrors here, lots of wanna-be’s, and not enough people with enough engineering or industry experience to vet them out.

    Lastly, Zero has a top-level ex-triumph guy, two motorcycle hall-of-famers, a Polaris exec, a very experienced ex-BUELL guy heading up engineering, and big money backing. I don’t see anyone else with those kinds of credentials. Certainly Zero has had it’s growing pains, but you didn’t think this would be easy did you?

  • A-nonny-mus

    Investigative journalism? If by investigate you mean read a Zero public press release and infer a bunch of nonsense than you must be right. Zero has laid off like three people. They hired like 50 last year. A couple of execs who must not have been doing a very good job get the can and that becomes “laying off rank and file workers”? I’ve been following Zero and it’s competitors for the last couple years waiting for a product that’s worth my $$$. Zero is by far the closest to bringing truly compelling electric motorcycles to market, and I wish them all the best.

    Are you guys on the payroll at Brammo or something?

  • Zero has laid off more than three people in the past 365 days. They have not hired 50 additional people in that same time frame.

    Time will tell on the inference of what’s going on between Polaris & Zero.

    Yes, Brammo pays A&R a bunch of money for good press…I mean it’s a ridiculous amount. That’s why they got their knickers in a knot over my last two articles on them: &

  • hsghs

    “Zero has laid off more than three people in the past 365 days. They have not hired 50 additional people in that same time frame.”

    Apparently Mr. Beeler has a mole in the Zero HR dept.

  • no longer a zero, now at least a one


    Speaking as one of the Zero laid-off, there have been way more than 3. Oh, and the HR lady, Deborah, got laid-off last year, too, so I doubt that is the A&R source. ;)

  • When did they hire 50 people? I worked there and only good people being fired by incompetent upper management went down. Place was/is run like it was a software start up in the dotcom era.Spending cash on upper execs and cutting pay on production floor. Thats a fact, Zero Production staff took a 20% pay cut during 2010 if you were a lucky one not to go.
    There is also good employees leaving voluntarily currently.
    But to state they hired 50 people is a lie.

    emotofreak seems like he is “selling” something here……

  • Too Little, Too Late

    I agree with Bozo. I also have been employed by Zero in 2011, and the company is circling the drain with the main concern of upper management being to put good things on paper which is all smoke and mirrors. I blame the leadership. The rank and file employees are among the best I have ever worked with.