Summarized by Kent Larsen
Mormon Henry Ford Tries to Change the World (Quebec's Henry Ford?)
Montreal Canada Gazette 11Dec99 B2
By Francois Shalom: The Gazette
MONTREAL, CANADA -- The "bearded Mormon preacher" Robert Menard has a
vision - to provide cheap, reliable cars to the developing world. He
believes that his firm, Microvel Technologies, will be the Henry Ford
for the third world.
Menard has produced a prototype of a basic, stripped-down, low-cost,
non-polluting, aluminum mini-car aimed at high-density population
countries trying to develop a modern infrastructure. The MX-4 is an
electric/steam-turbine powered car that would retail for about $10,000.
Not much bigger than a golf cart, the car is designed for hotter
climates -- it has no air conditioning, no heating and no other
energy-consuming systems that don't propel the car.
If Menard's talks this week with Carl Cloutier, an adviser to Deputy
Premier Bernard Landry, are successful, his firm will build the first
plant to produce the MX-4 in Jonquiere, Canada. Menard says that
Jonquiere is a logical place to build the cars because Alcan Aluminium
Ltd. has an smelter there and is building another, larger, smelter just
18 miles away, giving Microvel a ready supply of Aluminum.
The company believes that there is a huge, pent-up demand for a low-cost
vehicle in developing nations. "The MX-4 is custom-made for the Third
World,. There, performance is not the point. And down the road, there
will be a need for bigger passenger cars, minibuses, buses and trucks."
Most trips in the third world are just a few miles, needing only a very
basic vehicle like the MX-4. The low-pollution design would also
alleviate growing pollution problems in those countries.
If successful, Menard sees Microvel building the hybrid vehicles in
eight different plants around the world within the next 10 years. Menard
says that he doesn't expect serious competition from mainstream car
makers, who are oriented toward more expensive vehicles for the
developed world. "Well, Toyota (which makes the Prius hybrid model)
sells its cars for $40,000, four times what our's costs," says Menard
(but the Gazette points out that the Prius actually retails for about
$23,000 in Japan, still more than twice what Menard plans).
Menard is looking for $4.5 million (Canadian) to get started, followed
by $160 million (Canadian) after getting listed on the Nasdaq stock
market, where he plans to raise most of the cash the company needs.
But not everyone believes in Menard's ability to produce his vision. The
Societe Generale de Financement, the Canadian government's financing
arm, and Investissement Quebec, which bankrolls business investments,
both passed on Menard's project. SGF spokesperson Jean-Yves Duthel said
that SGF "had lengthy talks [with Menard], and we would have required
wholesale changes to go ahead with the project." Duthel says the
negotiations collapsed when Menard refused to set up a formal company
structure. "We would have wanted a proper board of directors, and a
formal management structure and organization. He was rather ambitious
from the start and simply refused to give up any control. But we parted
as good friends."
This might sound like an indication of a project doomed to fail, but
Duthel isn't so sure, "The product itself is an excellent one. No one is
questioning the value of the concept and the prototypes they've come out
with." Menard is, of course, more enthusiastic. He says the MX-4 "will
change the world."
But Tom Lewinson president of the Ottawa-based Electric Vehicles
Association of Canada says that the execution is very important also.
"It's entirely feasible to design something, even if you can't bring it
to market. . . . Microvel makes sense to me in theory. But whether
it's realistic, I really don't know."