I spoke yesterday with Martin Tobias, who late last month quit as chairman and CEO of Seattle-based biodiesel producer Imperium Renewables. He was at his condo in Hawaii, and seemed to be nursing a cold (too much surfing, perhaps?). Tobias said that he and the Imperium board had been in discussions for several months about his transitioning into a senior advisor role, because his “career is to get into a company at inception, attract early capital, grow the company to a good size and then hand it off – I’m not the guy who operates a large multinational.”
He added that now was the right time to leave, as Imperium had decided to cancel a $345 million IPO that it had filed for back in May. The blame goes to market conditions for biofuel offerings, which is legit given the lousy reception for ethanol plays like Aventine and VersaSun.
But something still doesn’t quite wash. Tobias went from CEO to unemployed immediately, without any sort of transition period. The company then promoted its president to interim CEO, and named one of its VCs as chairman. Moreover, Imperium announced the move on the Friday before Christmas, with a terse statement that didn’t say anything like: “We thank Martin Tobias for his valuable contributions…?”
A lot of folks – me included – had expected that Tobias would eventually turn over the leadership reins, but this comes across as anything but an ordered process. Instead, it reads like a major blowup – which could be either strategic or personal. I put the question to Tobias, who would only say: “Your job as the press is to make those kind of speculations, but I don’t comment on speculation.”
Tobias said he does not plan to remain on the Imperium board, but will stay around as an advisor (not to mention significant shareholder). He does not have any plans to launch a new company himself, but has helped to launch an angel investing group focused on clean energy companies in the Pacific Northwest. He also has a private foundation and is a venture partner with Ignition Partners.