Phil Murtaugh Exits CEO Position at Coda Holdings

By · July 21, 2013

Phil Murtaugh with Coda Sedan />

Phil Murtaugh with Coda Sedan

Phil Murtaugh, chief executive of Coda Holdings Inc., spent his last day on the job on Saturday. Murtaugh’s last words as he left the company’s office in Santa Monica, Calif. were, according to a knowledgeable source, “The last one out, please turn out the lights.”

Murtaugh was hired in January 2011 to make a success of the struggling manufacturer of pure electric vehicles, that were primarily sourced from China. It had previously been run by investment bankers with a lot of enthusiasm for electric cars, but with little experience managing a car company—much less an automotive start-up. Although Coda Automotive produced pure electric vehicles, they were nonetheless selling cars. That was the thinking, so bringing in someone with Murtaugh’s extensive industry background was viewed as a shrewd move.

The former head of General Motors China, Murtaugh resigned from that position when G.M. made Shanghai, where Murtaugh was based, the headquarters of its Asia Pacific operations. It also removed full responsibility for the China operations from Murtaugh and installed a management organization that divided the responsibility among several management levels.

Besides being a “car guy,” Murtaugh has a deep understanding of the automotive market and industry in China. Coda sourced the body of its electric vehicle from China’s Hafei Motors and had a battery-producing joint venture with another Chinese company, Tianjin Lishen.

But Murtaugh’s time at Coda was marked by stumbles. He brought in executives that, according to Coda employees, were not a good fit. And, said one, “Phil strengthened a General Motors orientation that was already present at Coda, specifically a strategy of tight control of suppliers and (presumed) market dominance.” For a small company such as Coda, that was problematic. It lacked the resources, and burned though cash.

“The core problem within the company is they didn’t want to listen to people that had a different opinion,” an anonymous inside source told earlier this year, prior to the demise of its car business. “You couldn’t disagree with the senior organization and be held in good standing.” The source also said the company had a “spend mentality,” explaining that executives were lured to the company with salaries above industry norms, made frequent flights to China in business-class, and despite low sales had at least a few more vice-presidents in the sales department than Coda required.

In interviews, Murtaugh barely contained his views that the Coda sedan was an unimpressive model—a view that became the consensus of auto reviewers. Under his direction, the company embarked on the development of a second electric vehicle—presumably with a more distinct design and more attractive amenities. In June, 2012, Coda announced it would work with another China automaker Great Wall Motors to develop an electric vehicle for China, European, and U.S. market. That fell through after, according to sources in China, Great Wall backed out because it already had EV technology.

Coda Holdings filed for bankruptcy in May of this year.

Coda is now focusing on its energy storage business, spokesman Matt Sloustcher told Coda Energy was previously a division of Coda Holdings. In June, the energy storage assets were acquired by a group of investors led by Fortress Holdings Investment Group. It kept the brand name Coda Energy.

The new Coda Energy is co-managed by Ed Solar, previously the head of the energy storage division at Coda Holdings; and Pete Norman, who led the core technology engineering team. “It is a new company. It is not the same company,” Sloustcher told PluginCars.

Coda Automotive sold at most a couple hundred electric vehicles. Those can be serviced at the handful of Coda dealers, said Sloustcher.

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