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Staggering Smith Electric may be next Solyndra-like clean energy flop

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Photo - President Barack Obama gestures during a tour of Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo. Smith Electric Vehicles is an all-electric, zero emissions commercial truck manufacturer that received a $32 million Recovery Act grant to build all-electric trucks July 8, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
President Barack Obama gestures during a tour of Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo. Smith Electric Vehicles is an all-electric, zero emissions commercial truck manufacturer that received a $32 million Recovery Act grant to build all-electric trucks July 8, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

Another company that got millions of federal tax dollars in clean energy economic stimulus funds and a promotional visit by President Obama appears to be in jeopardy of going out of business.

Smith Electric Vehicles, a British company now based in Kansas City, canceled its scheduled Sept. 21 initial public offering listing, and now faces an uncertain future reminiscent of the last days of the Solyndra solar energy firm before it went banktupt.

It is an astonishing disaster and it is likely the next step might be a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. - Eric Meltzer, a Philadelphia-based manager of distressed firms.

Smith makes electric powered trucks favored by the Obama administration, yet has never turned a profit and is heavily in debt. Smith originally scheduled its IPO to seek $125 million in new investment, but cut that back to only $75 million, then cancelled the offering outright.

"It is an astonishing disaster and it is likely the next step might be a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing," said Eric Meltzer, a Philadelphia-based manager of distressed companies.

The failed IPO is being compared to Solyndra because it also cancelled an IPO just before filing for bankruptcy. Solyndra cancelled its public offering just before filing for bankruptcy.

The U.S. Department of Energy fast tracked $10 million in stimulus money to Smith only eight months after the British firm acquired a building in Kansas City and was without any production capability. The administration eventually awarded the firm $32 million in grants.

The latest setback comes as the firm admitted it would fail to meet its projected 620 trucks this year. It cut back its goal to 380 trucks, a 40 percent reduction. But as of June it was off that modest projection, producing only a claimed total of 79.

The U.S. company was founded by its British parent company, the Tanfield Group, a week before Obama's inauguration in January 2009.

Visiting the plant on July 8, 2010, Obama hailed Smith Electric as a "promising, innovative" green business. Democratic Senatorial candidate Robin Carnahan, a member of Missouri's powerful Carnahan political dynasty, accompanied Obama to the plant. Carnahan lost her Senate bid that year. (See video of Obama's speech at Smith Electric's plant embedded below this story.)

Smith's net losses are accelerating, and this year it recorded a record $52.5 million loss, according to the firm's filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In its SEC filing, Smith Electric stated, "we have never been profitable and as of June 30, 2012 have an accumulated deficit of $132.8 million."

The company was down to its last $800,000 when it received a $16.5 million bridge loan from Tanfield. Most of that money has been spent.

Smith CEO Bryan Hansel said of the IPO cancellation that "we were unable to complete a transaction at a valuation or size that would be in the best interests of our company and its existing shareholders." He said they would pursue unnamed private investors.

In its SEC filing, the company conceded that it faced many financial and operational problems.

The company has very limited customer base of only eight companies, and "the loss of any of these customers could materially harm our business."

The SEC filing contained other damaging revelations. The firm said that its truck's lithium-ion battery cells "have been observed to catch fire or vent smoke and flames," and their warranty reserves may be insufficient to cover future warranty claims.

The company's top management has limited or no experience in the automobile or truck business. Hansel previously led Evo Medical Solutions, which sold portable oxygen concentrators.

Tanfield Group, Smith's British parent company, has encountered its own financial troubles. In 2008, it saw its value plunge from £700 million to just £18 million, according to the British financial publication The Journal.

That's when Tanfield spun off failing Smith Electric Vehicles UK and re-established it in the United States, where it got its start with federal stimulus funds.

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. He can be reached at rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com.

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