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Posted: April 01, 2011

Executive Edge: Eric Ridenour

Former Chrysler COO sees electric future for UQM Technologies

Lynn Bronikowski

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Since he was a young boy growing up in Detroit's western suburbs, Eric Ridenour has had a passion for cars.

"My dad always had engines and transmissions lying around the garage, and we were constantly doing things - building cars, painting them, rebuilding them," said Ridenour, president and chief operating officer of Longmont-based UQM Technologies, an electric motor manufacturer.

Ridenour would pull midnight shifts on the railroad to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, join General Motors as a powertrain engineer and ultimately spend 21 years with Chrysler, rising to the No. 2 position as chief operating officer.

"My first car at 15 was a '68 Firebird with a blown motor, so we put in a new engine and later a four-speed transmission," recalls Ridenour, 52, whose father was a railroad man. "I always knew I'd somehow be involved in the auto industry."

He left Chrysler in 2007 when Cerberus Capital Management LLC took over Chrysler from Daimler AG. He spent three years consulting and working on what he calls "deficit reduction with my children," finally getting to spend time with his two sons and daughter, attending their soccer and hockey games and other activities.

But when a friend called about UQM's top job opening up following the retirement of longtime CEO William Rankin, Ridenour was intrigued. With annual revenues of $8 million and 76 employees, the UQM job was a far cry from Chrysler's $10 billion operating budget and 65,000 employees.

"A lot of people try to go back and re-create where they were, but I wanted to do something different. I call this ‘the second act,'" said Ridenour, who holds an MBA from the University of Michigan. "There's a very robust opportunity here that could take this company from an $8 million company to a hundreds of millions company. You could do that over the next several years and then look back and say, ‘I had a part in that.'"

UQM, which builds electric motors for everything from buses and vans to trucks, early this year landed a contract to supply electric motors for Audi and Saab's test fleets.

"That announcement was the kind that makes everyone stand up and say ‘Wow,'" Ridenour said. "Here's two outstanding firms with long histories that could go anywhere in the world, and they turn to Colorado to utilize what they think are the best motors for their products. It signified that we are the kind of quality company that we've said we are, now being validated by a third party."

UQM in January won the attention of the White House, getting a mention in a White House blog for supplying the propulsion systems for Golden-based Proterra Inc., an electric bus company.

"As we go out and look for new customers, we can tell them we have the production capability to build units for them right now," said Ridenour, whose office is just outside the plant. "I personally am absolutely sure that electrification is real. The question is how far and where, but we're absolutely ready for success."

He said the company has openings for at least five engineers and will hire more production staff as UQM wins more contracts.

"The company is small enough that it's sort of like a family when I go through the place. I know almost everyone now," said Ridenour, who joined UQM last fall. "Some of the things I learned at Chrysler, I'm doing here. I used to have a lot of town hall meetings and had a lot of communication including writing a memo to employees every month and asking them what their thoughts are. I'm doing all that here now."
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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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