Toy Story

A retired CEO of Hughes Aircraft takes a spin as entrepreneur with electric-powered scooters

It's not often you encounter a resume like Malcolm R. Currie's. A longtime aerospace industry insider, he served as a top Defense Dept. official in the 1970s, overseeing the development of stealth aircraft. By the late 1980s, he was CEO of Hughes Aircraft Co., responsible for 85,000 employees worldwide.

And today? Currie, 73, spends his days in a cramped office in Van Nuys, Calif. He is finally finding the answer to a question that's dogged him for years: Does he have what it takes to build his own company? "You always wonder," he says. Just outside his office at Currie Technologies Inc., workers unload containers of high-tech, electric-powered mini-scooters, which are moving as fast as manufacturers in Asia can build them. The popularity of Currie's "Phat"-brand scooters has propelled sales from $600,000 in 1999 to some $10 million in 2000, giving the 17-person startup a foothold in the electric vehicle marketplace.

Currie is a fervent believer that the days of fossil fuels are numbered. At Hughes, he oversaw the development of General Motors Corp.'s (GM) electric car, the EV1. In 1995, he lost a chunk of his retirement nest egg when his first venture, the Electric Bike Co., failed.

What's different this time? Currie points to his partner, Richard A. Mayer. A self-taught engineer and former shop teacher, Mayer, 50, became a minor Hollywood celebrity by building electric cars for stars such as Tom Cruise. Currie and Mayer developed a direct-drive motor that bolts to the back axle of any bicycle, producing enough torque to lug riders up the steepest hills. They patented the technology and launched Currie Technologies Inc. in 1997.

The system is "hard to beat in terms of price and performance," says Ed Benjamin, a partner with CycleElectric International Consulting Group in Fort Myers, Fla. Ford Motor Co. thought enough of the technology to partner with Currie on a low-cost electric bike for the Asian market.

But for now, Currie is riding the scooter craze. Since July, the company has sold 20,000--priced from $370 to $599--and expects to sell 100,000 more in 2001. The company will use the cash to market its line of electric bicycles to aging baby boomers. Does Currie miss the perks of corporate life? He admits the transition from Hughes to startup was like going "from a battleship to a rowboat." But he's happy to be at the helm.

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