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Hydrogen Promoters Bide Time While Demand Is Low


Today's business segment focuses on management and the challenge of turning a business around.

We start with an energy company that's betting on the next big thing. Ballard Power Systems makes hydrogen-powered fuel cells. It was once Wall Street darling, but the hydrogen economy has so far failed to materialize, and impatient investors have pushed the company's stock price down by 90 percent from its peak.

Three years ago, Chief Executive Dennis Campbell was hired to get the company back on track. We asked him about the challenge of keeping a company afloat when its market has yet to develop.

Mr. DENNIS CAMPBELL (Ballard Power Systems): With our investors--you mentioned the share price over the last several years. Wall Street has a bit turned its back on fuel cell technology, and that's because they're looking at it as a much longer-term play than they may have originally thought. And so fuel cell stocks are not as much in favor as they were a few years ago. We think that's unfortunate. We think the company is probably undervalued today, given our strong cash position, our leading technology and the strong partnerships that we have. But, you know, the market determines the price, and that's it. We have to focus on our technology, and we believe the share price will take care of itself if we can demonstrate our technical readiness to introduce commercial fuel cells.

MONTAGNE: But if you had to sit down with an investor--you, you know, Dennis Campbell--what would you say to that investor right now?

Mr. CAMPBELL: What I say to investors when I meet with them--and I do this regularly--is I talk about our progress, our technical progress. I try to present evidence of our readiness and the progress that we're making towards commercial vehicles. We have more vehicles on the road today, in the hands of customers, than all of the other fuel cell makers combined. We've got over 120 vehicles today. We've got buses in Europe, in 10 cities in Europe, 30 buses that have carried more than three million passengers in the last two years. By presenting this data, and again, trying to stay away from the hype and the promotional aspects, we believe the best approach is to be very fact-based, provide the evidence, provide the data, let the data speak for itself.

MONTAGNE: Ballard is a Canadian company, but in this case, you know, President Bush has talked a lot about supporting alternative fuels like hydrogen, but the big infrastructure investment has yet to be made. Can companies like yours succeed, and how do you do it if the government doesn't follow through?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, absolutely we can succeed. Government support is essential. Government has a vital role to play in stimulating innovative new technologies like fuel cells, because in the early days, the costs tend to be very high, and as volume growth occurs, those costs can come down to a very reasonable and competitive level. So the role of government is to help stimulate that early development and provide some subsidies or incentives to get those cars on the road and let the competitive forces take over and drive cost improvement and reliability improvement and all the things that build a commercially competitive product.

MONTAGNE: Dennis Campbell is chief executive of Ballard Power Systems, and he's speaking to us from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you, Renee, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeremy Rifkin