French Billionaire Bollore Backs Off Electric-Car Ambitions

  • Industrialist acknowledges he won’t compete with VW or Renault
  • Blue Solutions focuses on car-sharing, buses, storage

Vincent Bollore, the French billionaire who helped build Paris’s auto-sharing network, is backing off on ambitions for his electric cars to compete with models from Volkswagen AG or Renault SA.

“With individual cars, it’s going to be complicated,” said Bollore, as he presented a rare customer win for his autos while preparing to offer investors in his struggling battery venture an exit. “We are competitive on services, on safety, but not on prices when it comes to mass production.”

Vincent Bollore

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Instead, Bollore is focusing his battery business, Blue Solutions SA, on buses, services and stationary storage rather than autos for individuals. Its lithium metal polymer batteries have proved impractical for private cars because they consume electricity even when the vehicles aren’t running -- meaning they have to stay plugged in for long periods.

Four years after Blue Solutions began trading on the stock market, investors have become increasingly skeptical about its technology. Last month, Bollore offered to buy back the stock, which had lost more than three-quarters of its value since July 2014. Investors will be able to sell their shares this year, and in three years, at 17 euros apiece. Blue Solutions is 90 percent-owned by the billionaire’s holding company, Bollore SA.

Crowded Market

“When we started we were almost alone,” Bollore told reporters Friday. “Now, everyone makes electric cars and we aren’t competitive compared to immense brands.”

Blue Solutions is on track to miss targets, including a goal to produce about 6,000 batteries a year for buses, cars and storage by the end of this year. It sold fewer than 2,500 batteries last year, and operating losses reached about 250 million euros ($272 million), including expenses for research and development on buses and tramways, Bollore said.

Bollore, who invested more than 2 billion euros to develop the technology, says the company is working on improvements to the batteries. But even so, reaching the mass market would be a long shot. Last year, Bollore sold 944 Bluecars to individuals in France, down 19 percent from a year earlier, according to CCFA, a French auto trade group.

Blue Solutions and French automaker PSA Group also sold 725 Citroen e-Mehari electric convertibles, a rebranded Bollore car. Blue Solutions will “undoubtedly” strike another agreement with a major carmaker at some point, he said. The company plans to sell a few hundred vehicles a year to companies such as Elior Group, a French caterer that bought 10 electric cars and plans to switch its entire fleet to Bollore’s cars.

Still, Bollore is not one to back down from a challenge. Over 30 years, he transformed his family’s business from a struggling paper-mill into a holding company with a market value of 10.6 billion euros and interests in banking, media and shipping.

He remains confident in the batteries, which have some advantages. They have a high energy density, don’t suffer the risk of overheating or explosion and the lithium they contain can be recycled. “We first thought the batteries would last four or five years -- now we think it will be 10, or even 15 years,” he said.

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