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Inside the slow, strange collapse of electric delivery startup Chanje

Inside the slow, strange collapse of electric delivery startup Chanje

Gaia. Mother Earth. God herself. Ask the former employees of electric vehicle startup Chanje and they recall slightly different versions of what exactly CEO and founder Bryan Hansel said he saw during an ayahuasca trip in the Amazon rainforest in 2015.

What they know for sure is Hansel repeatedly referred to this experience as a touchstone. It was his reason for founding the startup, which was premised on importing electric delivery vans from China and selling them to companies like FedEx, Ryder, even Amazon. He also recommended employees take ayahuasca to change their perspective at difficult moments, like when some bucked against the meditation quotas — part of a sweeping, mandatory “personal and professional development” program he installed — or when the paychecks stopped coming.

Chanje quietly folded earlier this year, The Verge has learned. The Chinese company Hansel partnered with went bankrupt after its chairman sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into an unsuccessful toll road in Mongolia. Hansel spent months trying to rally investors to buy pieces of that parent company to keep Chanje alive. His effort failed, though, and so he fired the remaining Chanje employees the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

Six of those former employees, who spoke to The Verge on the condition of anonymity throughout the year, describe Hansel as “charismatic” and a natural pitchman, but also a “narcissist,” “manipulative,” a “snake oil salesman and a con man.” Hansel, during an interview with The Verge in November, said he was simply too optimistic about the financial — and geopolitical — challenges Chanje faced the last four years.

Chanje caused real collateral damage for such a small startup. It still owes many of its former employees months of back pay and promised bonuses; at least four have sued the startup. Ryder also sued for more than $3 million after Chanje failed to deliver most of the vans it promised to the fleet company.

The startup’s collapse left FedEx in the lurch, too. Chanje promised the shipping giant 1,000 electric delivery vans, but never delivered them. It also abandoned a project to build out charging infrastructure at FedEx depots across California — infrastructure that was meant to be the groundwork for the company’s $2 billion push to become carbon neutral.

FedEx is now suing Chanje in an attempt to recover some of the millions of dollars it paid for that charging infrastructure. But as Ryder has already found out, there may not be anything left — and Hansel has already moved on to his next big pitch.

Chanje wasn’t Bryan Hansel’s first foray into electric vehicles. In fact, the startup’s origins are more complicated than an inspirational drug trip.

Before Chanje, Hansel worked at a company called Smith Electric Vehicles. It’s the oldest electric vehicle company in the world, founded in 1920 in the United Kingdom. Smith spent much of the 20th century building short-range electric delivery vehicles and, at one point, held the exclusive rights to make electric Mister Softee ice cream vans in the UK.

In 2007, Smith was looking for a way to establish a presence in the United States, which was home to more big fleet companies and was starting to see much larger investments in the clean energy space. Hansel had spent years working in product development and had previously bought a company from the investment firm that owned Smith. That firm tapped Hansel to become the CEO of a new Smith US subsidiary in early 2009 — despite his lack of experience in the auto industry.

“I knew nothing about electric vehicles, but it was just another product, and I felt the timing was right,” Hansel says.

The US had become such a hot spot for early electric vehicle hype that, in March 2010, Hansel made a bold pitch: he wanted the US subsidiary to buy out the parent company in the UK. Smith’s owners accepted.

Smith became an American company as the world was reeling from the financial crisis. But the US government started investing in green tech companies as it tried to rescue the economy, and the Obama administration believed it found a darling in Smith.

Standing in front of a bright green-and-white Smith Electric van in July 2010, then-President Barack Obama stumped for his administration’s decision to toss the company a $32 million Recovery Act loan. (Smith also received a $10 million Department of Energy grant.)

Smith’s employees were helping the US fight through a “vicious recession” and “building the economy of America’s future,” Obama said. Investments in clean energy were going to inspire a wave of new jobs “year after year after year, decade after decade after decade, as companies like Smith, that start small, begin to expand,” he said.

Then, Obama revealed Hansel had pitched him something big: “I was just talking to your CEO, and he says he wants to open up 20 of these [factories] all across the country, so that in each region … Smith is able to service its customers, and they’re going to have a reliable sense that Smith is always going to be there for them.”

Hansel and Smith tried to ride the White House’s support to an initial public offering in late 2011. But by the time the deal was ready, the market had soured on clean tech startups. Hybrid sports car startup Fisker Automotive recalled its cars after problems with the batteries, and the Department of Energy froze its credit line. Solar car startup Aptera folded at the end of 2011 after failing to meet the requirements for a loan from the same DOE program. Most notoriously, solar panel company Solyndra went out of business after Chinese companies flooded the market with cheaper products.

Smith pulled the IPO in 2012. The following year, it stopped production at the Kansas City factory and abandoned plans for two other locations — meaning the country would never see the 20 factories Hansel had promised to Obama.

Smith was saved in 2014 by a $42 million investment from Chinese battery supplier Sinopoly, and Hansel once again tried to turn it into a public company — this time by acquiring a business that was already listed on the over-the-counter markets with no revenue and only one employee. But that deal ultimately fell apart, too.


President Obama talks with a Smith employee as Bryan Hansel (in orange) watches.
Photo by David Eulitt / Kansas City Star / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

With Smith limping, Hansel joined his daughter on a 10-day trip to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador in early 2015. They stayed with an indigenous tribe, and while there, Hansel took ayahuasca.

The drug “floored him,” a person with knowledge of the excursion said. Hansel rolled in the nearby river mud until Gaia appeared, he explained to the group the next day. “[She] tells him he needs to get his shit together and start being part of the solution and stop being part of the problem,” this person said.

Hansel’s daughter blogged about the trip: a photo of her and her father, adorned with tribal face paint, sits atop the post. While there are no explicit references to ayahuasca, she quotes her father describing the experience. “One of the most important elements is the exposure to the existence of the Amazon and understanding the delicate reality of its existence, being immersed in it,” Hansel said about the trip.

Looking back now, Hansel tells The Verge it was “a transformational trip.”

“There’s no question it changed my life forever,” he says.

After Hansel returned from the rainforest, he pushed to create a new electric vehicle startup to be jointly run by Smith and Five Dragons Group — the Chinese electric vehicle maker that owned Sinopoly. Five Dragons was already designing what Hansel says was the “[Tesla] Model S” in the commercial EV space in China. He felt the best opportunity was to create a new company that would primarily focus on selling FDG’s vehicle stateside. Smith agreed to do engineering work on Five Dragons’ vans so they could be legally sold in the US.

“If we can have this product in the US, we win,” Hansel says he remembers thinking at the time.

After cycling through a few initial names, Hansel at one point settled on “Nohm” — the given reason at the time being that “an ohm is the measure of electric resistance. Our vision is a world in which there is no resistance to positive energy.”

In 2016, Hansel would ditch Nohm for another name: Chanje.

That’s when things got contentious. Smith sued Five Dragons Group in 2016 (PDF), and accused Hansel of conspiring with a Five Dragons executive named Jaime Che to create Chanje as a way to rob Smith of its intellectual property. Hansel, acting as an “undisclosed agent” for Five Dragons, “improperly exploit[ed]” his role as CEO of Smith to bait the board into what was ultimately a trap, according to the lawsuit.

Hansel dragged his feet sourcing orders for Smith’s electric vans, which were ready to go and which Chanje was also supposed to sell, according to the suit. This cut off Smith’s only possible source of revenue and “backed [it] into a financial corner.” So Hansel and Che offered Smith a $2 million loan from Five Dragons — which, crucially, was secured by 50 percent of Smith’s stock in Chanje.

After Smith took the loan, Five Dragons demanded the Kansas City company make “deep personnel cuts,” stop development of its electric van, and close its engineering center, among other concessions. Five Dragons also refused to pay Smith for the engineering work it did on the Chinese vans. At this point, it was “apparent that the financing agreements … were a ruse designed to close the financial vice in which [Five Dragons] had placed Smith,” the company wrote in its lawsuit.

Hansel said in an interview that the lawsuit was “literally fantasy.” Five Dragons denied the claims in court. Che told The Verge in a message that he “[did] not know what went on between Bryan and Smith but [Five Dragons] has no commercial reasons to purposely sabotage Chanje’s sales effort when we are the largest shareholder and beneficiary of any such sales.”

Smith was never able to repay the $2 million loan. So Five Dragons foreclosed on Smith’s ownership stake in Chanje in early 2016. The suit was ultimately settled in 2018. Smith got its IP back, as well as some Five Dragons shares in exchange for completely cutting ties with Chanje.

Hansel pushed forward with Chanje. The business plan was simple: the startup would import nearly finished electric delivery vans made by Five Dragons, assemble them at a facility in the United States, and market and sell them to the myriad companies looking to go green.

Chinese vehicles have a limited track record of success in the United States. But in 2016, Chanje was so far ahead of the curve of commercial electric vehicles — a market that Ford, General Motors, and a number of startups are only getting into now — that potential customers were willing to listen.

Plus, former employees say the van was good. It was longer than most vans in its class, so there was more room for cargo. It had a massive 100kWh battery pack — something Tesla had only just started offering — that was good for around 150 miles of range. It was pretty much the only van designed to be electric from the beginning; other options on the market were internal combustion vehicles retrofitted to run on batteries, which meant compromises.

Chanje came out of stealth in 2017 and immediately announced a deal to provide 125 vans to trucking and rental company Ryder. Ryder soon helped orchestrate a deal where it would buy and then lease around 900 Chanje vans to one of the biggest shipping companies in the world: FedEx. And FedEx agreed to purchase another 100 directly from Chanje. Behind the scenes, Chanje was talking to other Fortune 500 companies, including potential deals with Walmart and Ikea, The Verge learned.

The biggest, though, was Amazon, which was on the hunt for an electric option for its growing logistics fleet. The commerce giant was so interested in Chanje’s vans that it made real-world deliveries with them during a small trial in 2018. Hansel told The Verge that Amazon wanted to order more, but that he was unwilling to let the conglomerate skip FedEx’s place in line.

Amazon confirmed the trial in an email to The Verge but declined to comment further. The conglomerate ultimately made a big investment in EV startup Rivian and tapped it to build a custom fleet of light-duty electric vans instead.

“Obviously looking back on it, [I] could have maybe played that differently,” Hansel says now. “But at the same time, we always had a confidence that we were going to be fine until things really went sideways.”

Most of these companies didn’t have the kind of charging infrastructure that could handle a new fleet of electric vans, so Chanje planned to sell them that tech as well.

It all made for an attractive pitch, for investors and prospective employees. When Chanje hired Credit Suisse in 2019 to find investors, the bank projected the startup would sell 3,500 vans in 2020 for around $377 million in revenue and as many as 28,000 vans in 2024 for $2.1 billion in revenue, according to internal documents obtained by The Verge. Credit Suisse also projected Chanje could make $44 million providing charging infrastructure to its customers in 2020 and as much as $270 million in 2024.

Hansel’s pitchman qualities made joining an easy decision, former employees said. “He is good at selling the story of Chanje, which, the story [was] good and the product is phenomenal,” one longtime employee explained.

But Chanje’s culture was unusual. Hansel insisted that employees participate in a personal and professional development program he had designed with his personal executive coach. Employees were told to spend 20 percent of their time working on this program. There was a curriculum based in part around “The Work” by Byron Katie, a motivational speaker popular in Goop circles, which included required readings, mindfulness exercises, and practicing giving and receiving honest feedback.

This created a split between younger employees and a few older ones who had come from the automotive world, including some who Hansel brought from Smith. Most of the former employees who spoke to The Verge say they were able to find some good in these activities. But the program was also a reason some people quit in Chanje’s early years. In fact, Hansel boasted about those departures in a 2018 interview with Entrepreneur magazine titled, “Everyone Quit — and This CEO Is Better Off Because of It.”

Even the employees who liked the program soured on it when Chanje’s funding started to dry up. The company started missing payrolls in 2017 and cut off deliveries to Ryder after just 22 vans, court documents show. It would quietly spend most of the next four years in survival mode, in large part because the Five Dragons Group had run into a very big problem.

A earth globe that’s fallen out of a plastic bag, laying on the floor.

In 2011, Five Dragons Group chairman and CEO Cao Zhong wanted to build a road connecting coal mines in Inner Mongolia to processing plants in northeast China. Such a road would be expensive; the project ended up costing some $2 billion, and Cao himself pledged around $100 million of his Five Dragons Group stock as collateral for a loan to help build the road. He also raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Li Ka-Shing, the richest man in Hong Kong.

But when it opened in 2013, China was trying harder than ever to diversify away from coal. In 2015, Cao’s road-building company (which was separate from Five Dragons) admitted in Hong Kong Stock Exchange filings that the highway would be in an “incubation stage” where it would bleed money for the first few years. (In its most recent annual report, Cao’s highway company lost nearly $200 million and said it’s evaluating ways to sell the highway.)

Five Dragons started to struggle as the Chinese government began cutting subsidies for electric vehicles in 2017, and the country’s booming economy cooled. Cao’s failing highway only increased the burden on Five Dragons. The company was losing money, defaulting on bank loan payments, and the subsidiary that built Chanje’s vans wasn’t paying employees and eventually stopped work at its factory.

Li, the Hong Kong billionaire, had also invested at least $50 million into Five Dragons in 2015 after helping Cao fund the Inner Mongolia highway. But by 2019, his stake in the company was worth less than half the original amount. Cao had also personally guaranteed the bonds his highway company had sold to Li to fund that project — borrowings on which Cao’s company defaulted. So in September 2019, Li sued to put Cao into bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Cao’s one-time translator (and a young executive at Five Dragons) Jaime Che led a charge to usurp the CEO. Che convinced the Five Dragons board to remove Cao from the CEO post. The decision was voted on at Five Dragons’ annual shareholder meeting in September of that year.

“I am doing the right thing for the company, my shareholders and employees but if some people think that I am the villain. For that, I say FOOK YOU!!!” Che wrote on Twitter following the meeting. “I will take the heat, I know good news will come soon.”

All this turmoil at Chanje’s parent company kneecapped the startup. Beyond building the vans, Five Dragons was supposed to be Chanje’s main source of funding until it found outside investors.

Hansel repeatedly told employees that the funding problem was close to being solved, the former workers said. “[We were] told for five years that it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s around the corner, it’s next week,” one longtime employee said. “And we all believed him.”

That is, until the paychecks stopped coming.

After skipping a few payrolls in 2017, Chanje made a habit of it in 2018 and 2019. At one point, employees weren’t paid for at least two months, multiple former workers told The Verge.

In 2019, Chanje’s employees came together for one of their usual all-hands meetings. They sat down on the polished concrete floor of the warehouse Hansel had leased around the corner from SpaceX’s headquarters. The CEO began the way meetings usually did: by having an employee lead a group meditation. The workers closed their eyes, breathed deeply. They were told to imagine a beam going through their bodies in order to discover where they may be holding tension.

At least one employee had enough, though. When the meditation ended, they asked Hansel outright: what was going on with the company’s funding, and when would they get paid?

Instead of answering, Hansel said God had come to him in a dream the previous night, and she gave him permission to share his trip in the Amazon, according to employees who were at the meeting. He told a meandering story about taking ayahuasca and seeing a plastic bag on the ground — only to later realize it was a leaf. This experience inspired him to help save the planet, he explained.

Then, he preached one of the axioms of his personal development program. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t getting paid, it was that they were angry about not being paid, he said. You can choose to be happy if you want, he told them.

“Honestly, looking back, I don’t know how all of us didn’t quit right then and there,” one of the former employees said. “But even though he said those things … he still just had a way of making everybody in the room feel connected and wanting to stay together to see this thing through.”

Hansel told The Verge he and his leadership team “told people to leave” as things got rough. “We were very, very up front about [how] this is not normal, this is not acceptable,” he said, regarding missing paychecks. “We are making, as leadership, the choice to [stay]. We’re not asking you to do the same.”

Looking back, Hansel says he and his leadership team were “extraordinarily transparent.” But, he said, “the consistent feedback that I have received and I think I have grown from is: ‘you’re too optimistic.’ I communicated what I believed to be the truth.”

Dream missives from God couldn’t shore up Chanje’s bottom line. Potential customers were bottlenecked behind the FedEx deal, which the startup couldn’t fulfill. That made investors wary, too.

The bigger problem was China. Investors “loved the story, loved the customers, loved the team, loved the culture — loved everything,” Hansel said. But they would not do a deal with Five Dragons.

From this point on, employees said it was a struggle just to keep the lights on. In addition to skipping paychecks, Chanje’s leadership team stopped paying employees’ health insurance more than once. Some employees paid for the company’s internet and electric bills out of pocket. Hiring bonuses were never paid out.

Hansel even promised a $5,000 “hardship bonus” to workers for missing payroll. That, too, was never paid.

Meanwhile, Hansel hired his daughter and gave her control of the employee development program. She closely tracked which employees completed their tasks through an online portal and chided those who didn’t in meetings.

“We were required to count our meditations, and if we didn’t do [that], it did affect our pay and our bonuses,” one former employee said.

Through all this, most employees stayed with Chanje. A big reason, some say, was that Hansel simply convinced them to — even as family and friends tried to tell them otherwise. Part of that was how Hansel wielded Chanje’s development program, one said.

“It’s a way to get people to do things and do things well, and frankly it worked, it really turned around how I behaved at work, how I took in other people’s feedback,” the former employee said. “[But] if you use it to hinder the truth, it is a way to manipulate people, to [get them to] continue doing things that you ask of them while slogging through a bunch of shit like not being paid for almost three months at a time.”

Hansel was able to keep most of Chanje’s employees around long enough to find a white knight in early 2020. J. Streicher, a 100-year-old Wall Street investment firm, signed a letter of intent to essentially buy out Chanje from Five Dragons Group for $260 million, with a $100 million payout to Five Dragons if Chanje were to go public.

The novel coronavirus sunk those plans. J. Streicher backed out.

Five Dragons was left with more than $100 million in loans that were past due, including many backed by the company’s ownership stake of Chanje. Shortly after J. Streicher walked away from the table, Five Dragons’ biggest creditor — a state-owned merchant bank — petitioned for bankruptcy in Bermuda, where the holding company was registered.

In the bankruptcy process, court-appointed liquidators determined some of those loans that were ostensibly from three different lenders actually all had ties to Che’s mother, a powerful investor in Hong Kong. The state-owned bank accused Che of “underhandedly siphon[ing] away Company assets into the clutches of [his] mother.”

The judge in Bermuda agreed. She decided in July 2020 (PDF) that Che had conspired to stiff Five Dragons’ many unsecured creditors in favor of his mother’s companies, which were receiving interest payments on the loans. The judge essentially reset the process. Five Dragons remained in bankruptcy, and bids were solicited for the remains.

(Che, in a message to The Verge, said he told the Five Dragons board his mother was a large shareholder of one of the lenders but that she had “no control” over that company. He also said the Chairman’s actions put the company in a position where it had no choice but to borrow money at high interest rates and that he abstained from voting on the loan.)

Ten years after he successfully bought out Smith’s parent company, Hansel was one of the first in line to buy up pieces of Five Dragons in an attempt to save Chanje. He was in talks with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) run by Magnetar — a hedge fund that was at the center of the mortgage crisis that caused the 2008 recession. The idea was for Magnetar to back him and then merge Chanje with the SPAC to take it public, according to former employees and court and stock exchange filings.

Meanwhile, Chanje was still working to build the charging infrastructure for FedEx in 2021. Chanje installed chargers at around half of the promised 42 depots in California, employees said, though it sourced the hardware and construction work from two California subcontractors.

FedEx was paying Chanje millions of dollars to do this work, though two former employees said Hansel didn’t use all of that money to fund the charging stations. In fact, Chanje stiffed the subcontractors and instead used at least some of the FedEx money to keep the lights on. They’re not sure where the rest went. (Hansel said Chanje “had a real margin in that project” and that the startup was using those earnings to pay bills.)

Those who weren’t working on the charging project were left to their own devices; some stopped coming into the office. Hansel continued to promise that a SPAC merger was coming that would save Chanje, but the deal with Magnetar fell apart. On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Hansel called the few dozen remaining Chanje employees together for their weekly team meeting. He fired them all on the spot.

Image: Chanje

Chanje never initially responded to Ryder’s lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Florida in March 2021. It was only after the court started the process in June to issue a default judgement in favor of Ryder — which is owed nearly $4 million — that lawyers for the startup filed any paperwork with the court. They haven’t followed up, though, and so Ryder has again asked the court to issue a default.

FedEx sued Chanje in Los Angeles Superior Court in July (PDF) to try and recover the nearly $4 million it says it’s owed. In the complaint, FedEx says it had to pay those contractors — BTC Power and MaxGen — more than $3 million; the contractors had placed liens on four FedEx facilities after getting stiffed by Chanje.

FedEx also claims some of the chargers Chanje installed are broken and already need repairs. It, too, is seeking a default judgement. In the meantime, as it seeks to fulfill its $2 billion promise, this year the company ordered vans from GM’s new electric delivery vehicle outfit, BrightDrop. Both Ryder and FedEx declined to comment for this story.

In China and Bermuda, Five Dragons Group is still in the process of restructuring. It has until January 2022 to figure out a solution or be delisted from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. (A Shanghai-based asset management firm submitted a restructuring plan in September that the state-owned bank is now considering, according to a recent hearing.)

At least four employees who filed complaints with California’s Labor Commission since early 2020 seeking back have subsequently sued Chanje in Los Angeles Superior Court to try and force the company to pay up. That includes Joerg Sommer, the former chief operating officer, who was owed more than $300,000 (PDF).

Bryan Hansel, meanwhile, has started a new company with his daughter called “Cohd” to sell the personal and professional development plan he implemented at Chanje to other companies. Buyers can get “full access” to a “learning portal” with weekly assignments, personal reflection, and feedback logs. In return, Cohd says customers can expect things like “increased financial results,” “enhanced accountability,” and “reduced employee downtime.”

Cohd also offers workshops and speaking engagements. But the most involved offering touted on Cohd’s website appears to be leading “offsite programming.” With those, Cohd promises to “prepare and lead multi-day offsite” trips focused on “team development” and “personal development.” Cohd’s site doesn’t mention any potential destinations, though.

In his bio section of the site, Hansel describes his career in very broad terms. He mentions that, at one point, he “realized that as the CEO, he was responsible and was forced to look into the mirror for a change.” Under a headshot of him straining a smile sits a quote that is as much a platitude as it may be a warning: “Every CEO gets the exact organization they deserve.”

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