Upstart activist Engine No. 1 takes stake in GM, supports EV transition plan

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  • Upstart activist firm Engine No. 1 has taken a stake in General Motors, which it believes is taking the necessary steps to become an automaker of the future.
  • “We think that this can become a growth company again… we think this stock could triple over the next five years,” Engine No. 1 founder Chris James said Monday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
  • The firm rose to prominence after waging a successful campaign against Exxon.

Engine No. 1, the firm that rose to prominence after waging a successful campaign against Exxon, on Monday announced an investment in General Motors. This time, the upstart activist’s stake signals support for the automaker as it transitions to electric vehicles.

Engine No. 1 pointed to the similarities between Exxon and GM, noting that each company is in an industry undergoing a transformation. But GM, unlike Exxon, is taking actionable steps in what the firm believes is an imperative for long-term success: linking ESG criteria to economic outcomes.

“GM, with the support of a really strong management team and a great board, has decided that they’re going to embrace the future. They’re going to make the investments necessary in order to be successful during this transition,” Engine No. 1 founder Chris James said Monday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

In January, GM announced plans to exclusively offer electric vehicles by 2035, which is part of a broader plan to become carbon neutral by 2040. By 2025, the company plans to release 30 new electric vehicles globally as part of a $27 billion investment in electric and autonomous vehicles.

James said that GM’s “all in, both feet in the pool approach” toward embracing EVs is rare for an incumbent company and sets the automaker up for success. Rather than looking to protect its legacy business first and foremost, which is the typical move, James said the company is embracing change.

Tesla has focused on battery electric vehicles from the start, and Wall Street has rewarded the company for its leadership in EV production. The company’s market cap is well over $700 billion, according to FactSet, significantly ahead of GM’s $77.1 billion valuation. But the latter delivers millions more cars each year than Tesla does, and James noted that this advantage of scale positions GM for future returns.

“We think that this can become a growth company again…we think this stock could triple over the next five years, and that, for us, is something that gets us pretty excited,” he said. “We think for the first time, they have the ability to gain an enormous amount of market share.”

James said that with both Exxon and GM, the goal was to zero in on what’s best for the company over the long-term. He shies away from the description of “activist investor,” preferring to call himself an active owner.

Still, the firm is coming off a high-profile campaign against Exxon. The firm began targeting the oil giant in December 2020 with just a 0.02% position. Engine No. 1 nominated its own slate of directors, and after months of back-and-forth successfully placed three of its four nominees on the board.

“We’re not going at all hostile, we think they’re doing the right thing,” James said of GM. He added that CEO Mary Barra and the automaker’s entire management team have been open to discussions about the company’s future and long-term goals.

“It was a real difference and it couldn’t have been more of a 180 than what we faced when we were talking to Exxon during the early stages,” he said.

Shares of GM are up over 30% for 2021, and have gained roughly 80% over the last year.

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