5 years of Rivian: From ‘stealth mode’ to one of the biggest IPOs in American history
It’s been five years — almost to the day — since the word “Rivian” was first uttered publicly in Bloomington-Normal. Now, the electric automaker is the community’s third-largest employer — with 3,700 workers — and just wrapped up one of the largest initial public offerings in American history. WGLT’s Sound Ideas has this look back at the last five years, from small meetings with taxing bodies … to stealth mode … to the Nasdaq.
Technically this story begins six years ago, the end of 2015. That’s when Mitsubishi finally stopped production at its Normal manufacturing plant.
The old Diamond Star facility once had 3,000 workers. The final 1,200 lost their jobs when Mitsubishi left town.
Jerry Harcharik spent 27 years at the plant. He spoke then with WGLT about the job hunt AND the grieving process with his co-workers.
“There is life outside Mitsubishi. You have to look for it. You have to work for it. There is opportunity out there for you, but you have to go out there and grab it,” Harcharik said.
Bloomington-Normal’s economy is notoriously stable, thanks to stalwarts like State Farm and Illinois State University. But Mitsibushi’s closure was a reminder that manufacturing is very, very different. After all, just a few years earlier, then-Gov. Pat Quinn gave Mitsubishi tax incentives to retool the plant to make a new crossover SUV. At the time Mitsubishi said it was fully committed to Normal. Turns out, not so much.
2016: Hello, Normal
Around this time, a young entrepreneur and car geek from MIT named RJ Scaringe was looking to take the next step with his business, now called Rivian.
A liquidator owned the old Mitsubishi plant by now, and Scaringe was looking to see what Rivian could get on the cheap.
“It became very clear that there was a real opportunity for us to not just buy some equipment, but to buy the entire facility,” Scaringe told WGLT’s Sound Ideas in 2016.
So they did, for $16 million dollars. A relative bargain.
In the community, Scaringe saw a potential partner. After all, Normal had dubbed itself EV Town during a short-lived campaign years earlier, as Mitsubishi was trying to inch into the EV business itself.
“The community that surrounds this facility is really something special. If you look at other plants in the Midwest, and areas affected by their plants shutting down or manufacturing moving out of the area, you don’t have this level of energy. You don’t have this level of progressive thinking,” Scaringe said.
Rivian wanted the plant, but also wanted financial incentives from local governments. Hundred of thousands of dollars in annual property tax breaks, plus a $1 million grant from the Town of Normal. In turn, they were promising 500 full-time workers within five years and a multimillion dollar investment into the plant.
And many community members were like, wait, who the heck is Rivian?
“They’re a technology company that’s developing a portfolio of vehicles as well as services to advance a larger shift in sustainable mobility,” said Kyle Ham, who at the time was the head of the local Economic Development Council.
Scaringe came on WGLT during the hunt for tax breaks to explain his vision, although it was still vague. Few specifics on the vehicles themselves. More talk about remaking vehicle ownership and shared use.
He told WGLT’s Mike McCurdy production would begin in 2019 and sales would begin in early 2020.
“This is like 1992 in the internet days. We are at the very, very beginning of a major transformation in how we look at the customer model with regards to the vehicle,” Scaringe said.
Scaringe then made the rounds to city council and school board meetings, trading his now-famous Patagonia look for a suit and tie. He made the pitch to local officials like Rob Widmer, who was then president at Heartland Community College in Normal.
“We look forward to opportunities to partner with Rivian over the years to come, for opportunities for our students to learn and experience what the manufacturing industry is all about — and research and development in what’s going to be a high-tech industry,” Widmer said.
The tax breaks were approved. But there was still skepticism around the community. Normal Mayor Chris Koos stressed the hiring and investment benchmarks that Rivian needed to hit to get its money.
“There is a certain amount of risk with any startup operation. Capitalizing the manufacturing of an automobile is a pretty tall order. What people need to realize in terms of the incentives package is that there are no incentives without performance,” Koos said.
2017: Stealth mode
After winning those tax breaks, Rivian largely went silent. It spent much of 2017 in what was dubbed “Stealth Mode.” That left reporters digging through patent and trademark applications — anything, really — looking for clues.
Scaringe says this silent period was deliberate, dating back to when he was working on a sports car. Then they pivoted to something else.
“Because of frankly some of the things we talked too much about in the early days, we made the decision to go deep into stealth mode, and to avoid the distraction of committing to things and making statements that were highly likely to change,” Scaringe said.
“They’re supportive, but they really want to know what’s going on out there.”
Normal City Manager Mark Peterson in 2017
A few bits of information trickled out. Rivian picked up smaller investment from Sumitomo Corp., a Japanese company with a U.S. operation based in New York. Abdul Latif Jameel, a global leader in auto distribution, became Rivian’s largest shareholder early on, thanks in part to a connection Scaringe made at MIT.
But the public was clamoring for more. Mark Peterson was Normal’s city manager at the time.
“People are just curious,” said Mark Peterson, who was Normal’s city manager in 2017. “They’re supportive, but they really want to know what’s going on out there. There’s a lot to talk about, because they’ve been working very hard the past 12 months, and I think some of the results of that hard work will become apparent fairly soon.”
Chemberly Cummings was elected to the Normal Town Council after the initial Rivian vote. In early 2018, she was concerned by the minimal amount of information Rivian shared with the public and the elected bodies.
“Everything seems very secretive and convoluted at this point,” she said in 2018. “I’m just so nervous we’ll be an episode of ‘American Greed’ one day.”
2018: Opening up
And slowly but surely, Rivian began to open up. In early 2018, Scaringe came back on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. They were now talking openly about electric vehicles: a pickup truck and an SUV specifically.
“That brand promise has to transcend all the changes we’re going to see over the next 20, 30, 40 years. So the shift away from steering wheels and traditional ownership. The first product is really our handshake with the world to say, We’re a brand here to help you engage with life’s adventures,” said Scaringe.
A few months later, a delegation of local elected and appointed officials — the same ones that lined up and approved those tax breaks — made a day trip to Michigan to see Rivian’s vehicle and engineering facility firsthand.
Several attendees came back more optimistic, more assured about the company’s trajectory.
Among them was then-Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel. He went in cautiously but came home hopeful about Rivian’s ability to impact STEM education in his district.
“It’s not a facade. It’s happening. It’s just a matter of how fortunate they’ll be when they launch. I’m looking forward to seeing that time,” Daniel said.
Scaringe also did some relationship-building as the star attraction at the EDC’s Community Leaders dinner in October 2018. EDC moderator Mike O’Grady asked him who was getting the first Rivian off the assembly line.
“The very first vehicle goes to our largest shareholder. I’m actually fairly far down on the list. Maybe in the first year I’ll get one,” Scaringe joked with O’Grady.
All of this led to the LA Auto Show just after Thanksgiving 2018. Rivian stole the show with a big reveal of its R1T truck and R1S SUV. Rivian’s long battery range and skateboard chassis earned a lot of praise.
WGLT was there to capture the moment, as were celebrity guests like pop star Rihanna, who was dating a Rivian investor at the time and made an appearance at the Griffith Observatory rollout.
The LA Auto Show splash led to real pre-order customers and countless stories in national media about Rivian, many of whom sent reporters to Bloomington-Normal to cover the company’s debut.
Scaringe’s profile began to grow. He was compared and contrasted over and over again to Tesla’s founder Elon Musk. Reporters noted (accurately) how he’s a spitting image of Clark Kent.
Scaringe’s approach to the spotlight was very different than Musk’s. No bluster. Barely used Twitter. Literally just spent years in stealth mode.
He also surrounded himself with auto manufacturing veterans, like Jim Womack, an early advisor and a leading voice on lean business principles.
“He’s a real contrast to the kind of predominant model of entrepreneur, which…