By Deepa Seetharaman and Norihiko Shirouzu
DETROIT/BEIJING (Reuters) - Henrik Fisker is working with an investor group to salvage Fisker Automotive, the "green" car company he co-founded nearly six years ago that is now struggling to stave off bankruptcy, people familiar with the matter said this week.
The discussions follow Henrik Fisker's resignation from the company in March after finding himself increasingly at odds with other top executives over strategy.
The well-regarded car designer is now teamed up with an investor group led by Hong Kong billionaire and Fisker investor Richard Li. The group is looking to buy the U.S. Department of Energy's loan to Fisker without making the car company resort to bankruptcy.
The Henrik Fisker-Richard Li team is one of at least two groups seeking to revive the automaker. A separate group including former General Motors Co executive Bob Lutz is looking to buy Fisker for $20 million, sources said on Wednesday.
Southern California-based Fisker Automotive is known for its plug-in hybrid sports car, the Karma, which starts at $103,000. The company has not built a car since last July.
Fisker must repay $171 million in DOE loans extended in 2009 under a program intended to promote advanced vehicles. The loans have been one source of pressure on Fisker, which hired bankruptcy advisers this year and has been looking for a buyer.
The DOE is examining the legal ramifications of selling the loan, a person familiar with the DOE's thinking said Thursday.
Such a step would not resolve any outstanding debt owed to suppliers. The company faces a steep challenge to regain credibility after a string of financial and quality setbacks.
But wresting free of its federal loan obligations could make Fisker more attractive to potential buyers. Under that scenario, backers of the company also might be able to recoup their investment, unlike a bankruptcy where they would most likely be wiped out.
Tom LaSorda, who briefly led Fisker last year and has personally invested in the company, said he hoped Fisker could find a buyer outside the bankruptcy process.
"If it goes the other way, you get nothing," LaSorda said in an interview on Thursday. He said buying the U.S. loan would be a "very smart, strategic move," but declined to comment further on investor efforts to salvage the company.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. Fisker Automotive, Henrik Fisker, the DOE and Pacific Century Group, the private investment group chaired by Richard Li, could not be reached for comment.
It was unclear what role Henrik Fisker would take with the company and whether he would further invest in the automaker.
17 CENTS ON THE DOLLAR
Since his exit, Henrik Fisker has been in touch with investors about a potential new role at the company if a new owner can be found, sources have said.
There are at least two investor groups interested in reviving Fisker. In both cases, the DOE is likely to recover just pennies on the dollar for its $171 million loan.
The group led by Li is proposing to buy the U.S. loan for between $25 million and $30 million, or up to 17.5 cents on the dollar, people familiar with the talks said.
Separately, Chinese auto parts maker Wanxiang Group and former GM executive Lutz have teamed up in a bid to buy Fisker in a prearranged bankruptcy for $20 million.
Sources cautioned that the discussions are ongoing and that the figures involved could rise.
Selling the loan would be a rare step for the DOE, but the program gives officials the latitude to help recover the largest amount of taxpayer money possible, experts said.
"The bottom line is, what is in the best interest of having the taxpayer investment repaid?" said Salo Zelermyer, who was senior counsel at the DOE under the Bush administration and helped create the auto loan program.
The talents of Henrik Fisker, who has designed for Aston Martin and BMW, helped attract $1.2 billion in private funds to Fisker Automotive since 2007.
In 2009, the DOE awarded the company a $529 million loan. Fisker received about $192 million before the DOE stopped payments in mid-2011 after the company missed performance targets.
Last month, the DOE seized $21 million from Fisker's bank account to apply against the loan, which is secured by a first priority interest in Fisker's assets, including intellectual property and inventory.
(Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; editing by Matthew Lewis)