New Better Place CEO pledges to refocus company

"Israel will remain at the company’s forefront," says incoming head Evan Thornley; founder Agassi resigns from position on board.

BETTER PLACE CEO Evan Thornley 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Better Place)
BETTER PLACE CEO Evan Thornley 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Better Place)
As electric car company Better Place launched a new era with the departure of founder Shai Agassi, its new chief executive officer promised Wednesday that the company would keep Israel at its forefront while improving customer satisfaction and reaching out to larger business partners.
The company’s new global CEO, Evan Thornley, was formerly the CEO of Better Place Australia, where he has “provided a vision for what sustainable transportation looks like” in the island continent, according to company spokesman Joe Paluska.
First and foremost, Thornley’s goals are to simplify customer interactions with the company, creating “a clean line” of communication and learning from past experiences, the CEO told journalists at the company visitors’ center and showroom on Wednesday morning.
In addition to refining customer relations, Thornley said he would like to expand partnerships with large companies throughout the globe – such as those that already exist with Renault in several countries and General Motors in Australia – and also develop a strong sense of team within the company.
Meanwhile, although Better Place’s CEO is no longer Israeli, the country will continue to be a pivotal model for other states – thus far, Denmark, Australia and The Netherlands – that are developing Better Place networks, Thornley assured journalists.
“This is the first country in the world where you can drive around without using a big drop of oil,” he said.
Thornley, once a parliament member, has been at Better Place Australia since 2009, where he led the signing of Australia’s largest clean energy deal last year with the company ActewAGL, for a Better Place car charging network in Canberra. The new CEO also helped form the industry consortium EV Engineering Ltd. and previously served as chairman and CEO of one of Australia’s first companies to make it into NASDAQ.
Agassi, who founded Better Place in 2007, saw the launch of networks in both Israel and Denmark earlier this year. While he was able to raise about $800 million in capital, the company also incurred about $490m. worth of losses under his leadership.
Thornley called recent press treatment of Agassi – which largely attributed the former CEO’s departure last week to the company’s losses – nothing but “disgraceful.”
“I’m a friend of Shai Agassi, and I’m proud to be a friend of Shai Agassi, and I’m immensely proud to be working in a company that he founded,” Thornley said, noting that they were both Silicon Valley veterans.
“This is the first time I signed on for someone else’s vision. His vision was more compelling than anything I’ve ever come up with it,” he continued. “He is a giant, and his impact will be felt worldwide. I assured him we would continue that vision.”
Despite stressing upon his departure last week that he would remain a member of the Better Place board, Agassi resigned on Tuesday night from his board position as well, company representatives confirmed.
The company’s business strategy has fundamentally been correct from the beginning and really “got the big things right,” Thornley stressed, but he noted that no startup functioned without mistakes during the onset.
One detail he said he felt could use improvement was providing clarity to the customers and making sure they truly understood the economic value of driving a battery- switchable electric vehicle.
“We don’t do the best job explaining to our customers the value of what we offer,” he said.
By a few years from now, he said, he hopes to have launched an Initial Public Offering for the company, but right now he plans just to focus on expanding Better Place’s customer base. Even though the company’s car sales have not yet soared, the new CEO said he had high hopes for the future.
“I’ve been through a lot of these big technological transformations in Silicon Valley,” he said. “They usually happen a little later than you think, and they usually happen a lot bigger than you think.”
The electric vehicle will increasingly become an easy pitch to investors, according to Thornley.
“It is inevitable that electric cars will get cheaper, and driving on gasoline will get more expensive,” he said.
As far as maintaining Better Place as a clean transportation alternative, he said he felt it would be important for the company to sign long-term agreements with renewable energy developers, like the company has already done in Australia.
“I’m sure if there are generators or potential generators who are looking for long-term customers for their clean energy, that would be an attractive proposition that we would support,” he said.
Not only will Israel remain Better Place’s central location – at least for the time being – it has also become an important place to Thornley himself, who said he was converting to Judaism and had been to the country 27 times in the past four years.
“I expect I’ll spend more time in Israel than any other single location, because a large part of our team is here,” he said.
Over time, he expects the customer bases to grow in larger countries such as The Netherlands and Australia, and as such, “you have to be where your customers are,” he explained. That being said, he added, Israel will always remain at the company’s core.
“Israel is out in front, and Israel by definition will always be out in front,” he said. “We started earlier here, and we’ve learned the most from here.”