Solyndra Chief Taking Fifth Boasted of Prospects Two Months Ago

Profile: Brian Harrison, Solyndra LLC CEO
Solyndra LLC Chief Executive Officer Brian Harrison told reporters in Washington on July 21, “We’re growing, doubling in size year-over-year, and on track.” Since then, the maker of solar panels fired its 1,100 workers on Aug. 31, filed for bankruptcy protection and had its Fremont, California, headquarters raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

Solyndra LLC Chief Executive Officer Brian Harrison, who plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence at a congressional hearing tomorrow, was vocal about the company’s prospects in meetings with some of the same lawmakers two months ago.

“We’re growing, doubling in size year-over-year, and on track,” Harrison, 54, told reporters in Washington on July 21 after conveying a similar message to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was investigating a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee the company was awarded in September 2009.

The maker of solar panels fired its 1,100 workers on Aug. 31, filed for bankruptcy protection and then saw its Fremont, California, headquarters raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Harrison, a former Intel Corp. executive who once pitched for Seattle Mariners baseball farm teams, has heeded the advice of lawyers that he decline to testify.

“The company is not aware of any wrongdoing by Solyndra officers, directors or employees” related to the Energy Department loan guarantees or other actions and “is cooperating fully” with the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco, according to a Sept. 20 statement on the decision by Harrison and Chief Financial Officer W.G. Stover Jr. to refuse to answer questions.

Republican lawmakers on the House energy committee have concentrated their inquiry on the Obama administration’s judgment in backing Solyndra and whether decisions were shaped by political connections of investors. Democrats led by Representative Henry Waxman of California have focused on whether they were misled by Harrison’s assurances Solyndra was turning around after early missteps.

Democrats’ Question

“Less than two months ago, Mr. Harrison met with us and other committee members to assure us that Solyndra was in a strong financial position and in no danger of failing,” Waxman and Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado wrote in a Sept. 8 letter requesting that Republicans call Harrison to testify before the House panel.

David Miller, Solyndra’s spokesman, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment from Harrison.

Harrison was hired by Solyndra in July 2010 to take over from Christian Gronet, who founded the company and invented its unconventional tubular solar device coated in a thin film of copper, indium, gallium and selenium. It was marketed as a lightweight alternative to flat solar panels made from silicon such as those from China.

His “strong understanding of sophisticated manufacturing operations” made him the right man for the job, Gronet, who stayed on as chairman, said in a statement at the time. Harrison spent most of his career at Intel Corp., the world’s biggest chipmaker.

Before Arrival

Before Harrison arrived, Solyndra obtained its loan guarantee from the administration, built a $733 million manufacturing plant on the bet that demand for its product would increase, received a warning from its auditor questioning whether it would remain a “going concern” and withdrew plans for an initial public offering.

Solyndra was producing its panels at a cost of $4 a watt and selling them for $3.24, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission before the offering was canceled.

The company reported revenue for fiscal 2009 of $100.5 million and a net loss $172.2 million, according to the filing.

“He probably got in over his head,” Dan Hutcheson, of Sunnyvale, California-based VLSI Research Inc., said in an interview. With a background in computer memory chips, “Harrison was in a space that he didn’t know much about,” Hutcheson said.

14 Innings

Harrison, who pitched a combined 14 innings in his tryout with minor-league baseball teams in San Jose, California, and Bellingham, Washington, graduated from Stanford University with a chemical engineering degree and has an MBA from Santa Clara University in California.

He served as vice president and general manager of the flash memory group at Santa Clara, California-based Intel. Harrison joined Solyndra after serving as CEO of Numonyx BV, an Intel-backed company that made flash drives and was acquired by Micron Technology Inc. of Boise, Idaho, in February 2010.

While Solyndra had said it would use both its old and new factories, Harrison decided to keep only the new one. It was a “clear, logical, obvious business choice to lower our average costs in a very competitive environment,” he told reporters during his July 21 visit to Washington to reassure lawmakers.

Lego Blocks

Harrison made a salesman’s pitch for Solyndra’s easy-to-install cylinders.

“It snaps together,” he told reporters. “No tools. No screws. Think of Lego blocks snapping together.”

With approximately 11 billion square miles of commercial-building rooftops globally, the market for its thin film panels was “huge and growing,” Harrison said.

In February, Harrison and Solyndra had talked the Energy Department into accepting a refinancing that put taxpayers behind new investors in an effort to keep the company going.

On Aug. 30, the Energy Department rejected a request by Harrison and Solyndra’s investors for another refinancing. The next day, Harrison told employees Solyndra was shutting down.

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