When Walter E. Palmer arrived in Silicon Valley, the hard-charging entrepreneur revolutionized an industry after starting two car companies.
Now, he says he hopes to do the same with deep-pocketed Lucid Motors, after a failed attempt to secure investment money for Tesla Motors Inc.
Palmer walked away from a deal to buy the electric-car maker that may have been worth as much as $2 billion in the summer of 2017.
“I love Elon Musk’s company because I can identify with the challenges he had to face,” said Palmer, 63, a Yale-educated engineer who founded RC Motor Company Inc. in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1984.
Palmer sold his auto-parts company a decade ago. Now he’s trying a second time. The Silicon Valley startup is running out of cash, and the December deadline for a $50 million bridge loan is looming.
Peter Rawlinson, chief executive officer of Lucid, said the company has no current plans to hire an investment bank to raise additional money. When asked if Palmer is still pursuing Tesla, Rawlinson said, “No, he’s a fantastic investor. It’s something that we would see if things were different.”
Palmer is the primary backer of Lucid. He also serves as chairman and co-lead investor with William Tate Jr., a private equity investor in private equity and real estate who also backs Thor PAC and the political action committee One Nation PAC. Each named $5 million to One Nation in 2016.
He’s also the primary contributor to a super PAC called the Blue America Fund, which backed numerous candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The super PAC paid Palmer’s firm HKM $744,000 between 2015 and 2017. Those contributions show a populist streak in Palmer, a supporter of gun rights and many businesses that cater to the well-off and educated.
He’s also a powerful fundraiser: He was instrumental in raising about $25 million for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in the 2013 and 2014 cycle, when the Florida Republican became the youngest president in U.S. history.
For the first time since Palmer left the auto business in 2016, RC Motor Co. filed bankruptcy and is trying to reorganize. It closed its New Haven, Connecticut, plant and sold its intellectual property, corporate assets and 23 dealerships.
Palmer has been climbing the ranks at Lucid for years. In 2016, he joined Lucid as chairman of the board, contributing $5 million. In 2017, he stepped down to serve as chairman, but he was re-appointed in August to sit on the board of Lucid’s recently formed master investors.
Palmer, a father of two who describes himself as a “love-struck baby boomer” entrepreneur, moved to Silicon Valley in 1996. He worked at Apple in several capacities for more than two decades. He rose to become senior vice president and general manager of product engineering in 2000, and launched the iMac iBook G4.
In 2013, RC Motor Co. failed to raise money for its planned IPO.
Palmer moved his family to Tesla for a while. He worked at the company’s supplier, Dragon Power Solutions LLC, but left after about a year.
“This just wasn’t the right fit,” he said. “It was very true-to-market when we were going through the public offering. I just wasn’t fully comfortable in that environment, and I sort of partied a bit too much. The IPO process, I didn’t quite mesh with what I was really about.”
Palmer said he’s succeeded at other businesses, including a competitor, Motorcar America Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
“I would do that again, absolutely,” he said. “I was way ahead of my time. It’s the only time that I made money back in the auto business.”