Jetpack-maker Martin Aircraft has let go nearly all its staff, a person close to the company tells the Herald.
The Christchurch-based company had around 100 staff this time last year. Belt-tightening in late 2017 saw around a third of staff let go. Now, after two more rounds of restructuring, just 12 to 14 staff remain.
Martin Aircraft (which trades as Martin Jetpack) gave up its Civil Aviation Authority aircraft certification, meaning it can no longer conduct test flights. A spokeswoman for the CAA says the company voluntarily surrendered its certification but plans to reapply. A Martin Aircraft insider tells the Herald that the deep staff cuts necessitated the temporary surrender. Numbers had fallen under CAA requirements.
And its latest chief executive, Ben Taylor has walked after less than three months on the job.
The Herald understands that Taylor, and former chief executive James West, who quit on July 3, both left after disagreements with majority shareholder KuangChi Science (KCS). Both thought cuts went too deep.
"James fell on his sword out of principle," the insider says. "He built a team and an organisation and didn't want to dismantle it."
The source worries that institutional knowledge is being lost. Head of engineering Simon Topping and head of flight testing Tim Dutton are among the departed.
Frustrated investor Ralf Rodl wants answers about the company's poor performance and also who's in charge.
The helicopter paramedic invested his life savings of around $1.2m in the Christchurch-based jetpack maker, only to see his money all but disappear as its share price dived.
The latest twist has seen Rodl complain to the Financial Markets Authority and Companies Office that Martin Aircraft has - apparently over the past few days - removed all of its management team profiles from its website, bar one Prospero Uybarreta, who is billed as a test pilot - not as a position customarily associated with the executive suite.
Taylor, who now describes himself as a freelancer on LinkedIn, declined to comment, other than to confirm his departure. He cited a non-disclosure agreement.
Another staffer told the Herald that Melbourne-based Martin Aircraft director Ran Elias has been made managing director and is currently in charge of the company. Elias declined the opportunity to comment.
Martin Aircraft listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in February 2015, raising A$27m in an over-subscribed IPO that valued the company at A$103m.
But things started to sour June that year when founder Glenn Martin abruptly quit, citing differences with management over commercialisation strategy (at the time, the chief executive was Peter Coker; Coker left in August 2016). "Deliver the dream that people want, not the product that is easiest to build," the founder said as he left.
Its shares, which initially performed well, began to struggle as the company failed to gain commercial flight certification and missed its targets to launch a jetpack in 2016 and an un-manned ariel vehicle (a UAV or drone) in 2017.
And its stock went into a tailspin after the June 2017 revelation by then-chief executive James West that the Martin Jetpack Rotron RT1200 engine needed a complete stripdown and maintenance after just 10 hours of flight - well short of the 1500 hours that is standard for small aircraft.
That meant the jetpack was not commercially viable in its current form, West said. Around $50m would be needed to develop a better engine over two to three years.
However, the revenue-less Martin Aircraft (which reports - or reported - its results in New Zealand currency) had less than $12m in the bank, and was burning cash at around $4m a quarter.
On August 31 2017, the company was suspended from the ASX for failing to file its annual accounts on time for its financial year ending June 30 amid belt-tightening as it laid off around a third of the 100 or so staff at its Wigram plant.
In September of that year, Martin Aircraft announced it had secured a 12-month $HK57.28m ($10m) loan from KCS, which had built up a 52 per cent stake (making it the largest investor ahead of Glenn Martin on 8 per cent and the Crown-backed NZ Venture Investment Fund on 5 per cent). The loan was convertible to shares if Martin Aircraft failed to meet a quarterly repayment schedule.
The same day, the company finally reported its annual result, revealing a $24.4m loss including a $17.3m impairment.
Trading resumed on the ASX, but with very low volume. In March this year, Martin Aircraft announced plans to de-list from the Australian exchange and move to Unlisted, the NZ platform for private equity investors to exchange shares.
It moved to Unlisted in May.
On Unlisted (where West is still listed as the company's chief executive), Martin Aircraft has a nominal market cap of $7.9m, but its stock is essentially illiquid (shares have seen almost no trading recently; the total value of stock traded so far in September is $760).
West departed as chief executive on July 3 and head of operations Taylor began his fleeting tenure at the top via an internal promotion.
Rodl says he's frustrated by the lack of communication from Martin Aircraft since December 2017. Among other things, he notes that (according to Martin Aircraft's 2017 annual report), West could give one month's notice as chief executive and receive a $200,000 plus GST exit payment if KCS's shareholding fell below 50 per cent. The angry investor describes the potential payment as a "golden parachute". Rodl wants to know if any payout was made (the Herald understands no payment was made).
Punakaiki Fund manager Lance Wiggs said that "early stage investing is an advanced form of the art".
"And it's particularly treacherous when investing in companies with no revenue," he said.
"While the stories of the winners may be exciting, investors in pre-revenue companies should always plan for the possibility of losing all of their investment."
Wiggs said that even if Martin Aircraft's jetpack had gained commercial certification on its original timeline, it was tricky to see its market. There would only be so many wealthy individuals willing to buy it for recreation, and it faced challenges in search and rescue, were it could not operate in high winds, and for military applications (once hyped by the company) where un-manned drones had become the pervasive technology.
As for Rodl, the Sydney small investor probably faces more frustration. The Companies Office (in an email he forwarded to the Herald told him Martin Aircraft did not fall under its jurisdiction and referred him to the Financial Markets Authority.
But his complaint to the FMA is also likely to go nowhere as the Unlisted platform on which Martin Aircraft now listed is exempt from key provisions of the Financial Markets Conduct Act covering insider trading, market manipulation, continuous disclosure, substantial holding disclosure, relevant interest disclosures, and the monitoring of market obligations by the FMA.
The Herald's source inside Martin Aircraft says the company has enough cash for another six months or so in its scaled-down state. Beyond that, its future depends on attracting a new investor or KCS - whose Hong Kong-listed shares have been under pressure - tipping in more money.