The coronavirus and the test of a career

Industry

Jerry Lavine is quick to agree that the challenges of a fledgling Chinese electric vehicle maker don’t merit much sympathy amid a global health crisis.

Still, as president of Bordrin North America, the 51-year-old former Ford engineer is responsible for the livelihoods of some 80 r&d employees in Oak Park, Mich., just north of Detroit. And they and their co-workers in China started this year with a landmark achievement within reach: production of Bordrin’s first vehicle, a two-row crossover called the iV6.

For Lavine, the year had begun routinely enough, with trips to Las Vegas for CES and to Shanghai. He returned to Detroit on Jan. 21, as his Chinese colleagues were about to begin their 10-day New Year’s holiday.

Before long, news of the spreading coronavirus made it clear that Bordrin’s fifth year of existence would be marked early by a big detour.

Seven weeks later, things are still off-course. Some employees who traveled to their hometowns for the holiday haven’t been allowed to return to Shanghai. Others had to scramble from Shanghai back to their hometowns after their apartments wouldn’t let them in.

The bulk of them had to have their temperatures checked and had to monitor their own health for 14 days before getting the OK to go to the office.

From there, more hurdles: There are quotas on how many people can reenter the building, Lavine explained over lunch last week. Bordrin’s 10-story Shanghai headquarters has space for about 100 workers on each floor.

As of late last week, local officials, wary of packing people too close to one another, had allowed only about 150 out of 1,000 headquarters employees back to work.

“It’s been a slow restart for us,” said Lavine, who is also the company’s chief technology officer. “I never thought that the work force would be stuck at home for a month.”

His Oak Park crew has picked up some of the slack, including some advanced engineering work on the iV6 and an upcoming small sedan.

But 80 people can only do so much, no matter how much overtime they log. And even then, there’s a lot beyond their control.

The suppliers and tool shops Bordrin relies on have their own challenges. As they get back up to speed, there’s a customer pecking order. Bordrin, an upstart EV maker with lifetime vehicle output of zero, doesn’t rank high.

There have been other disruptions.

Lavine sent 600 masks along with the last group of Chinese employees returning from Michigan to Shanghai, to bolster dwindling supplies of a scarce resource. Since then, the usual monthly employee exchanges — fewer than 10 each way — have been scrapped.

Lavine himself had expected to make a dozen or so trips to China this year; he hasn’t been back since January. Even if he were to find a way there, he’d have to quarantine himself for two weeks upon return.

A year ago, Bordrin was getting ready to introduce the iV6 in advance of the Shanghai auto show.

This year’s big spring show, in Beijing, has been postponed. So have Bordrin’s plans to show off the iV6 and iV7, a three-row SUV, in conjunction with the event.

Questions galore hang over the home market, where new-vehicle sales in February plunged 80 percent. How much will consumers’ savings be consumed to get through the crisis? How much will be left to spend on new cars? Will government subsidies for EV purchases, reduced in 2019, get a lift?

These are big enough issues for the giants to grapple with, let alone Bordrin and its fellow EV startups.

As for 2020 production of the iV6? “It’s going to be tight,” Lavine says.

He’s holding out hope and is prepared to pivot.

In the meantime, he’s chalking up blessings where he can find them: stuck-at-home employees who have signed up for online training; go-getters who have gotten creative in a time of crisis; time for long, daily phone calls with his boss, CEO Ximing Huang; a chance to draw up contingency plans should the virus ever hit metro Detroit.

And the biggest of them all: the fact that no Bordrin employees have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

All of it adds up to the test of a career for the Syracuse-bred, Cornell-educated New Yorker with roots at Ford (15 years) as well as suppliers Henkel, Dura and Magna.

“It’s going to be an interesting year,” he says.

“The amount of uncertainty is huge. For some people, it’s a really hard thing to handle.”

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