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Wired also ran the major points of the story by a PR consultant working for the company, but ZAP again declined to address most of the issues raised here.
Schneider will only say that he and Starr never knowingly committed any illegal acts. While "mistakes have been made," he admits, "it's all been based on trying to make the company work. In , McGreen, then 38, was looking to start a business that would be "both green and profitable. A short, wiry fellow with bushy brown hair and a habit of giggling at awkward moments, Starr had founded the electric vehicle division of Solar Electric Engineering, a struggling solar cell company based in Sonoma County, California, in Soon thereafter Starr was asked to leave, according to a former company executive.
McGreen knew only that Starr had departed US Electricar with a pile of cash and was looking for investment opportunities. On September 21, , ZAP filed incorporation papers. In , McGreen invented the Zappy, a two-wheeled stand-up scooter with a top speed of 15 mph. It quickly became a national sensation. But the company still wasn't making a profit, and tensions started to grow between Starr and McGreen. Starr wanted to relocate manufacturing to Asia to cut costs, but McGreen worried quality would suffer. Starr, who had persuaded investors to support the expansion of ZAP's board to seven members, decided to push McGreen out.
Gary Starr was now in charge.
Under starr, ZAP all but collapsed. This fall was fueled in part by the company's botched attempt to purchase a North Dakota-based electric cart maker named Global Electric Motorcars. To repair the damage, ZAP's new board brought in electric-vehicle veteran John Dabels to manage operations with Starr. Dabels, who was appointed president in June , made rapid progress: In just seven months, year-on-year sales more than doubled. But Dabels, like McGreen before him, fought with Starr over moving manufacturing to China and resigned in January As always, Starr was hungry for more money.
But a deal he started shortly before Dabels left ZAP would soon make raising capital almost impossible. The plan, Starr said, was for Union Atlantic to quickly sell the shares if the price increased. Starr assured the board, however — according to both Cronk and Dabels — that Union Atlantic couldn't sell below a certain price. By the summer of , with Dabels gone and the threat of Zappy knockoffs hurting ZAP's share price, Union Atlantic had started unloading its investment. In September, the share price fell below 50 cents, but the sell-off continued.
By , the company had laid off 80 of its workers and moved the bulk of manufacturing to Taiwan. Cheap Zappy copies from Asia soon flooded the market. Operating expenses, on the other hand, continued to rise. With its stock price decimated and its sales sinking, ZAP filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization on March 1, The company's stock was suspended by Nasdaq with a final share price of 21 cents. Convinced that Starr had destroyed the value of the options he and other employees had taken in lieu of higher salaries, Cronk contacted the SEC in May , faxing a detailed summary of concerns to the agency's San Francisco office.
Cronk also provided the SEC with a chart correlating the decline of ZAP's stock price with the Global Electric and Union Atlantic deals, which he said were promoted with false or misleading press releases. Cronk says an SEC rep told him that the agency was swamped with complaints against small-cap companies and might not be able to take immediate action.
Pat Huddleston, a former enforcement branch chief with the Atlanta office of the SEC, isn't surprised. This position would permit him to bring in a new partner, Steve Schneider, a used-car dealer with stable cash flow and his own grandiose ambitions. Their new direction would drastically reshape ZAP, enrich both men, and leave a new round of green believers feeling burned.
Schneider is handsome and charming , though he can come across as the used-car salesman that he is. In the late s, he made his living as owner of the Repo Outlet, a lot specializing in automobiles that had been seized for nonpayment. The business is a quarter-acre of asphalt just beyond the city limits of Santa Rosa in a neighborhood inhabited primarily by working-class Latino immigrants. Repo Outlet did well, but Schneider's methods were sometimes questionable.
According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat , in the Sonoma County District Attorney sued Schneider's enterprise for selling unsafe vehicles and engaging in misleading advertising. Schneider joined ZAP while it was going through bankruptcy proceedings. The idea was that Schneider, as a car guy with steady income, would help the company move from electric scooters and bikes to selling full-blown electric cars.
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ZAP purchased Schneider's business with stock which it also used to pay off its creditors , giving him 39 percent of the company and making him the largest single shareholder. Since Starr held on to 16 percent of ZAP, the pair were now in control of the company. In fact, according to SEC filings, after the bankruptcy ZAP began using stock to cover a range of expenses, from legal fees and advertising to "janitorial services.
Schneider's holdings of stock, warrants, and options ballooned from the 2,, shares he received after the bankruptcy deal to more than 14 million in Starr's holdings rose from around 1 million shares to more than 5 million during this period. Such massive issuances of purchase rights dilute the stock, of course. In fact, even as their holdings increased, the percentage of Starr and Schneider's stake in the company had actually slightly declined.
And all those warrants and options weren't worth very much at the beginning of , when ZAP stock was trading at a mere 60 cents a share. But soon a wave of press releases promised new business connections and potential acquisitions. Kim was so impressed that he decided to take a pay cut of more than 50 percent and relocate to become ZAP's director of investor relations.
He was convinced that the stock options he received as a signing bonus would more than make up the difference in his salary. For the first few months, the news was good. ZAP had managed to purchase roughly imported Smart cars from a US dealer and reported that they were being converted to meet US emissions standards at a plant in Southern California. The only sour note, Kim says, came when several institutional investors he knew refused to buy ZAP stock, citing the company's history of promising things it couldn't deliver.
In January , Schneider created a sensation at the annual convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Though ZAP still hadn't sold any Smart cars, Schneider was styling himself as an auto industry big shot. And under Schneider's leadership, ZAP started recruiting a team of attractive young women. Girl," urged the heading on an application asking for both a full-body photo and head shot.