Britishvolt became “the UK’s foremost investor in battery technologies” on the last day of 2019 when Swedish national Lars Calstrom listed it at UK Companies House with capital of 100 shares at £1 each. He was sole share-owner. In 2000 he was joined by two other directors; one, a Swedish national Mr Orral Nadjari, became CEO and a major shareholder.
The company had huge ambitions. It generated great optimism, first in Wales and then Northumberland with a promise to construct the UK’s biggest infrastructure project since the Nissan move to Sunderland. A battery production project which would generate thousands of well-paid ‘green’ local jobs.
Boris Johnson ‘powers up’ the project
In December 2020, Boris Johnson was coincidently in Blyth on a Red Wall victory tour when Britishvolt announced the selection of the old power plant site in Cambois for their new development. Also coincidentally, the project was expected to need large amounts of government support. Then within days Calstrom, the company founder, resigned from the board following revelations of a previous conviction for fraud in Sweden.
Company share-value soars from £100 to £2bn in two years
Additional allotment and re-evaluation of shares during 2020 resulted in a total shareholding of 50 million at a nominal value of 0.1 pence, a total nominal company valuation of £50,000. However, since early 2021 additional shares have been allotted on a regular basis taking the total to just under 67 million. Nadjari’s shareholding of more than 30% was estimated earlier this year to have a paper worth of some £700mn; which suggests a company valuation of over £2bn.
Until recently, Britishvolt seemed to be leading a charmed life. There were initial concerns about such huge funding challenges for a firm with no experience in the industry and miniscule resources. But, Britishvolt has employed experienced staff, started work on the new factory, secured investment promises from respected industry sources and the UK government, and has secured partnering agreements for materials supply, research and development. Board appointments included Lord Chadlington and Sir Michael Synder (since resigned). Ruing the project’s apparent success, in January this year former Welsh secretary Alun Cairns complained that the Welsh government had failed to give the right support to ensure Britishvolt went through with initial plans to locate it in South Wales.
As yet Britishvolt has no firm customer for its untested batteries (Britishvolt plans to distribute prototype cells to seven carmakers for testing). It is spending more than £3mn a month on salaries, with no guarantee of any future income.
Dear oh dear, is Britishvolt on the way to a power cut?
These problems began to surface when in August this year the Guardian reported on leaked documents which showed that the site construction had been paused and put on ‘life support’ to try and control costs.
Perhaps doubts about newcomer Britishvolt’s viability should have arisen back in May this year when Johnson Matthey, a major UK company with many years of battery manufacturing experience and a part-completed manufacturing plant in Poland, announced it was unable to compete against more established players in this market and would therefore sell its battery business. The £50mn sale included assets at the Battery Technology Centre in Oxford, the Battery Technology Centre and pilot plant in Billingham, a research centre in Moosburg Germany, and the partly constructed site in Konin, Poland. The sale also included a minority stake in the buyer, EV Metals Group. A sale that would seem of rather contrasting value to Nadjari’s £700mn shareholding in Britishvolt, with only a muddy site as an asset.
Following the Guardian revelations, Nadjari resigned as director and CEO in August. In September another Guardian article reported on this and highlighted alleged Britishvolt’s corporate extravagances.
Worse news was to follow with multiple sources reporting in mid-October that “Troubled battery start-up Britishvolt could collapse within the next two months if emergency funding is not found”.
It seems that various options under exploration include a possible take-over by a recent Slovak start-up company Inobat Auto, born from a remarkably similar corporate trajectory to Britishvolt.
Has the game plan already worked?
The game plan seems to be repeating, with Britishvolt offering its green vision to Canada and the founder Calstrom proposing battery giga-factories in Italy and now California. If Nadjari can create a personal £700mn in two years without making a battery, then the attractions of such start-ups are obvious, at least to the promoters.
Fingers crossed for the future
We all want this industry in our area and we all want it to succeed. We can only hope that the Cambois factory plans are now so far advanced and that the UK government is sufficiently committed to ensure the facility and the jobs go ahead. The big, but as yet as yet unanswered, question is can Britishvolt eventually make technically advanced, cost-effective batteries and will anyone want to buy them?