Rivian’s Tesla Alums lead charge as debut of first three electric vehicles nears

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Rivian Automotive Inc. will soon embark on an aggressive sprint to shake up the electric vehicle industry, with plans to start selling three models – a pickup truck, an SUV, and a delivery van – in a matter of months. For this ambitious effort, he harnessed powerful weapons: former engineers at Tesla Inc. who launched the company’s Model 3 sedan.

Rivian Chief Manufacturing Officer Charly Mwangi and Engineering Chief Nick Kalayjian were instrumental in bringing Tesla’s cheapest car to market in 2018. Each has briefly worked in others. startups before being drawn to Rivian by the unique thrill of launching new vehicles, including the R1T, a truck aimed at outdoor enthusiasts, which goes on sale in June.

They are not alone. Bloomberg has identified more than 50 high-level positions at Rivian occupied by former Tesla employees, from director to executive vice president. Including senior executives, that number rises to over 100. By sprinkling his leadership ranks with veterans of the industry’s preeminent incumbent, Rivian has acted to improve his chances of becoming the most credible challenger. from Elon Musk’s electric car empire.

Rivian, an Amazon.com Inc.-backed automaker that has raised more than $ 8 billion, now has more than 5,100 employees worldwide and adds around 150 people per week. It has attracted talent from a wide range of employers, including General Motors Co., Apple Inc. and Ford Motor Co., an investor in Rivian.

But Tesla’s hires stand out. The automaker’s alumni are more concentrated in Rivian’s middle and senior management, giving CEO RJ Scaringe invaluable experience to tap into as he takes on Musk and seeks to avoid repeating his mistakes.

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Tesla clearly sees Rivian as a threat. In July, he sued Rivian and accused the company of poaching its employees, including its recruiting team. Cindy Nicola, Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Rivian, served as Tesla’s Vice President of Global Recruitment for approximately four years.

In response, Rivian claimed Tesla was using the lawsuit to intimidate its employees, preventing them from leaving the company, and asked a judge to dismiss the complaint. The court did not oblige. In March, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge William Monahan allowed Tesla to continue his action. Rivian is headquartered in Irvine, California, and its factory is located in Normal, Illinois.

“The people moving from one auto company to another are no shock. I don’t think this has ever been a problem, ”said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of Edmunds Insights. “The difference now is that a lot of these emerging technologies: it’s not something that looks like the basic engineering of a car that’s been around for decades.”

Hiring Spree

Unique Tesla employees can be found across a wide range of teams at Rivian. In December, Vidya Rajagopalan joined Rivian as vice president of engineering and hardware, under the leadership of Kalayjian, who is 48 years old. Rajagopalan led automotive electronics development teams at Tesla before leaving in July 2019. Jimmy Knauf, Executive Vice President of Facilities at Rivian, gave a similar keynote Role of Facilities at Tesla until 2018. There is also has former Tesla managers at the director or vice president level of human resources, talent acquisition, supply chain and operations. Rivian refused to make employees available for interviews for this story.

Rivian hiring officials have asked Tesla alumni in their ranks to recommend two or three people they hold in high regard for their former employer, according to people familiar with the matter. Mwangi, 41, has been particularly active in securing former teammates, people said.


Rivian’s R1S SUV. (Jeff Johnson / Rivian Automotive Inc.)

Specific recruitments have been made to deal with specific problems. Shawn Hensen, for example, was hired by Rivian as senior manufacturing manager to tackle issues with the body line – where the car’s structural shell is fitted and welded together, according to people familiar with the matter. Prior to Rivian, Hensen worked at Tesla for over six years, most notably as Director of Body Manufacturing Engineering.

“Like most fast-growing businesses, Rivian encourages every new hire to recommend the smartest, most motivated problem solutions they’ve ever interacted with; it could be a former classmate, friend or former colleagues from their entire career. We don’t have – and never had – a recruiting program around a specific company, ”said Helen Russell, director of human resources.

Some key hires coincided with a larger change in strategy at Rivian. Last year, with the company in a crucial pre-production phase in the midst of a global pandemic, it reset its manufacturing planning and organizational structure, according to people familiar with the matter. Rivian has also revised some of its operating methods and made some leadership changes, people said, including the addition of Kalayjian. He just had the right CV at the moment.

“The ideal scenario is to find someone who can increase, decrease, and then increase again. Find someone who’s seen this movie before, ”said Ian Bolin, who heads the North American automotive practice at industry headhunter Egon Zehnder.

In the dorm

In the past 12 months or so, Rivian has hired over 3,000 people. Of this group, around 130 are former Tesla employees, so the total number of Tesla alumni is small. Some came directly from Tesla’s operations in Fremont or Reno, Nevada; others have taken detours to other startups.

Battle-scarred veterans but proud of Musk’s singular engineering and manufacturing training camp can be found across Silicon Valley, from established companies like Apple to newbies like Lucid and Proterra. Those who jump from Tesla to Rivian will find that Scaringe is viewed by staff as less of a micromanager than Musk. They say he’s more willing to allow his top generals to act on issues, but he’s just as prone to being in the engineering trenches as Musk is known to be. Last year, on a cold-weather test trip to put the car’s handling and systems to the test in extreme temperatures, Scaringe opted to stay in the dorm with his engineers, a move that pleased the team. Last year, he moved his family from California to be with him on a daily basis closer to the company’s factory in Normal. Where Musk and Tesla executives had animosity toward traditional processes and procedures, Rivian fosters open discussion and collaborative work similar to the practices of traditional automakers, company employees said. asked not to be identified by discussing private information.

Rivian has taken a cautious and deliberate approach to pre-production and has a reluctance to cut corners. Employees say this is an attempt to learn from Tesla, which had to take extraordinary steps in 2018 to get Model 3 across the finish line. Tesla nearly went bankrupt by launching this vehicle, a wagering effort by the company that included building a giant tent adjacent to the Fremont plant to add production capacity after Musk realized late in the game that Tesla had relied too much on automation. In the dramatic year defined by this notorious “production hell” and Musk’s failed attempt to privatize the company, dozens of executives left Tesla.

Scaringe doesn’t try to emulate the corporate culture of its biggest rival.

Rivian remains a minnow compared to Tesla, and his leader is an unproven leader. Scaringe holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but has no previous experience leading or growing businesses, and Rivian has yet to produce vehicles in volume. When Scaringe’s trucks hit the market, they’ll be vying for customers alongside the Musk giant, which has 80,000 employees and a market value of around $ 556 billion as of Monday’s close. Part of investor confidence in Tesla reflects a cult of personality around Musk that has garnered him 50 million Twitter followers and a recent turn as host of “Saturday Night Live.”

Optimism about Tesla leads to a high pressure product launch for Rivian. The newcomer, at least, has a significant buffer built into their business model. Rivian has an order from Amazon for 100,000 electric pickup trucks. The e-commerce giant has said it expects 10,000 of the vans to be on the roads for deliveries by 2022, with the rest of the order due by the end of the decade.

Anticipation of the IPO

With its imminent entry into the US market, Rivian already has its eye on its next phase of growth. It will also be based on the know-how of a former Tesla manager. The company hired Justin Hickel to help with its European manufacturing plans, according to people familiar with the matter. Hickel was a construction manager overseeing the construction of Tesla’s gigafactory on the outskirts of Berlin.

Rivian competes with several startups, including Lucid and Fisker Inc., in a race to hire from a limited pool of talent with experience building electric vehicles, as each prepares to challenge Tesla. and planned offerings from legacy players like GM and Ford.

To attract these workers, the company is offering shares as part of the compensation and a four-year vesting period, according to people familiar with the matter. These are typical terms for auto startups, but Rivian is also suspending the prospect of an initial public offering to potential new hires, people said. It could be a powerful seduction.

“When people have experienced it, they want to experience it again,” said Bolin, the headhunter. “If they haven’t experienced it, it’s a new world.”

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