GM heavy-hitter battery hire to remain California-based

Ex-Tesla and Panasonic man will stay on the West Coast, rather than Michigan

GM heavy-hitter battery hire to remain California-based
Kelty will remain in the Bay Area, and might be able to build a team there

Detroit automaker GM has hired Kurt Kelty, whom it describes as a “globally recognised battery expert”, to become its vice-president of batteries, reporting to GM president Mark Reuss. And the new man will be staying in California, rather than relocating to GM headquarters.

“Kurt will continue to be based in the Bay Area with frequent trips to Detroit,” GM says. “Structure and other specifics will be finalised in the coming weeks,” the firm continues, leaving the door open for Kelty to build a team in California, rather than Detroit.

This represents something of a departure from a previous view within GM that senior personnel should be Michigan-based. “While a student at the University of Michigan, I once asked [Kelty’s new boss] Mark Reuss if they would consider opening satellite offices on the coasts to avoid losing ambitious students who consistently moved away from the Detroit area,” says San-Francisco-based EV entrepreneur Andrew Krulewitz.

“He told me, verbatim, ‘No. Detroit is not for quitters.’”

There is also the curious recent case of Gil Golan. According to business networking site LinkedIn, the 22-year GM veteran took on the CTO role in August last year.

In late September, he gave an interview to EV news site The Electric. In it, he advocated aggressively recruiting outside hires and working with, or even investing in start-ups, all with the goal of GM being able to build its own batteries. By the end of the year, he was gone.

Attitude shift

So the firm’s decision to hire an outsider and allow him to remain California-based may be a significant shift. In particular, if he is allowed to build his own team, it may help to overcome another concern observers have about the hire, namely culture clash. “I am certain the main challenge for Kurt and others making similar journeys out of start-ups and into big Incumbents will be cultural not technical,” says EV consultant and commentator Roger Atkins.

“His challenge will be the OEM culture,” says Ken Zemack, an independent battery consultant who worked for Kelty at Tesla and describes him as “one of the most amazing leaders I have ever had the pleasure to work under”. “Nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday will not allow for competitive EV excellence.

“Luckily, he is super inspiring, so if he can use his leadership ability, deep skills in vendor negotiations and knowledge of what is important from a safety/liability standpoint, he could have some positive turnaround impact,” Zemack foresees.

“The success of Kurt Kelty at Tesla is due to the team he had under him. If he has to replicate that success [at GM], it will be challenge as he has to deal with new people whom he has to align to his way. Immediate or near-term success is not to be expected,” warns Viswanathan Ramesh, vice-president of manufacturing at Indian micro-mobility firm Ola Electric.

Big responsibilities

In the newly created role, Kelty will be charged with GM’s battery cell strategy and a new end-to-end approach that will include raw materials, research, developing and investing in new technology, commercialisation of cells and packs, and end-of-life opportunities.

The firm says its existing battery development infrastructure is “already robust”, but is backing Kelty’s industry expertise “to more quickly deliver profitable, lower-cost, higher performing electric vehicles to customers at scale”.

“The foundation that GM has established — coupled with Kurt’s exceptional battery expertise in leading battery chemistry development, establishing partnerships, building out supply chains and partnering closely with teams that have developed leading battery systems — will help us achieve our electrification goals and position GM as a leader in EV technology,” Reuss says.

Kelty’s most recent role was as vice-president at battery challenger Sila, where he was responsible for sales, business development, battery cell manufacturing partnerships and battery engineering. Prior to Sila, Kelty led Tesla’s battery development team for 11 years.

At Tesla he was responsible for technical exchanges and commercial negotiations with battery cell suppliers and early-stage battery cell developers. According to GM, he was “a key driver” in the creation of Tesla’s first gigafactory. Kelty began work in lithium-ion batteries in 1993, working for Japan’s Panasonic.

“For more than 30 years, I have been focused on helping develop and commercialise battery technologies that will aid in the transition to electric transportation. Joining GM creates an even bigger opportunity to help the industry make the switch,” Kelty says.

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