When the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont shut down in April, many pronounced it dead -- a triple victim of the recession, sliding auto sales and General Motors' bankruptcy.
But NUMMI is about to be reborn. Electric-carmaker Tesla Motors, which stunned the world when it announced plans to purchase the plant in May, officially takes ownership Oct. 1.
Already, many Tesla employees call the plant the "Tesla Factory." Forty people regularly work out of a Tesla office that's been set up on the parking lot -- taking breaks under three red patio umbrellas similar to those at the company's Palo Alto headquarters. The various "shops," from body framing to paint, are being designed, and detailed diagrams and timelines paper the walls of hallways and conference rooms.
"I've been through a plant closure before, and it's heartbreaking," said Gilbert Passin, Tesla's vice president of manufacturing, as he strode through the cavernous auto plant in safety glasses and a red hard hat emblazoned with Tesla's logo. "To be able to give a second life to this facility and some of the people here -- it's thrilling for us to be in this position."
Tesla will use the Fremont factory to manufacture its Model S sedan. The all-electric car will seat five adults and have a battery range of up to 300 miles. So far, nearly 3,000 people have put down deposits to reserve the car. Tesla has promised the world that deliveries of the Model S will begin in 2012, an ambitious timeline that some say Tesla will be hard-pressed to meet.
"We know what we want to do. It's just a matter of getting it done," said Passin, who does not appear to be daunted by the work ahead of him. "That's the thrill. We'll do whatever it takes to make it happen: Work 24/7, or 25/8 if need be."
Tesla currently has 800 employees worldwide and is actively recruiting for a variety of positions as it scales operations and rallies to produce the Model S. The head count is expected to surpass 1,000 by the end of this year, and CEO Elon Musk has said Tesla could have 2,000 employees within the next few years.
Interest in Tesla from job seekers skyrocketed following its successful IPO this summer, and the company is fielding 2,000 to 3,000 résumés a month from former NUMMI workers, eager college graduates and seasoned veterans of Silicon Valley's top technology companies.
"We hire professional athletes in a sense," said Arnnon Geshuri, Tesla's vice president for human resources. "We want people who can do multiple things, who are good at working in teams and collaborating. We're looking for excellence, drive and ambition: That's the common DNA."
Geshuri led staffing at Google from 2004 to 2009, when Google seemed to double in size every quarter, and was an organizational effectiveness consultant for NUMMI in the early 1990s.
"The Tesla culture is very similar to the Google culture in 2004," said Geshuri, who has 30 people working with him on recruiting. "We've emerged from our IPO, we're a real player in the space, and people are excited to be a part of it."
To date, Tesla has hired 30 former NUMMI employees. But it expects to hire several more, and open houses and job fairs are planned at the Fremont factory later this year. Musk has said Tesla is "neutral" on the subject of workers forming a union.
Sean Coyne, who worked at NUMMI for three years, joined Tesla in March as a paint process engineer, which means he'll be responsible for the paint quality on the Model S. The colors of the Model S have not been finalized but are the subject of rabid speculation.
"I really wanted to work for Tesla and be part of the revolution in the auto industry," Coyne said. "Tesla is a disruptive company -- they are willing to challenge the status quo."
NUMMI, or New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., opened in 1984 as an innovative joint venture between Toyota and GM.
In May, Tesla and Toyota sent shock waves through the auto industry when they announced that Toyota was investing in Tesla and Tesla, in turn, was buying the NUMMI plant.
Tesla bought NUMMI for $42 million, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later spent an additional $15 million to buy some manufacturing equipment and spare parts from NUMMI. It took weeks to inventory the plant; small paper signs that say "Tesla purchased assets" are taped to certain pieces of manufacturing equipment.
The entire NUMMI facility covers about 370 acres. Tesla is buying 210 acres, a parcel that contains several buildings that have approximately 5.5 million square feet of floor space.
Initially, Tesla will use just a fraction -- maybe 20 percent -- of the plant. The first shop Tesla will build is the press shop, where sheets of aluminum will be shaped by a hydraulic press line currently being disassembled in Detroit. Once the press is installed in Fremont, the aluminum will be stamped into fenders, doors and roofs. NUMMI's existing press line will be taken apart and sent to Toyota's plant in Blue Springs, Miss.
Jeffrey Liker, a Toyota expert and industrial engineering professor at the University of Michigan, says the fact that a startup like Tesla put a Toyota veteran like Passin in charge of manufacturing gives Tesla a running start because Toyota is known for having the best production system in the world. It helps that Tesla is planning to produce just 20,000 Model S cars a year -- a low volume that should allow them to focus on quality.
"It should be very easy for Tesla to make Fremont into a showcase, model plant," said Liker. "And they can build the culture the way they want from the beginning."
Passin, 49, was born in Lyon, France, and lives in the East Bay. He's been in the auto industry for two dozen years, most recently with Toyota. He was vice president of manufacturing at the Toyota Lexus plant in Ontario, Canada and then worked at NUMMI as a Toyota Production Engineering General Manager for the West Coast.
He joined Tesla's executive ranks in January and faces a triad of formidable tasks: building a factory, a manufacturing team and the Model S in just over a year.
"NUMMI is set up to do half a million cars a year, and that gives us a huge advantage," Passin said. "It's very easy for us to put up a fence and mothball the rest of the facility, or expand later if we need to. We can use a lot of the existing infrastructure. We have a tremendous manufacturing asset in our hands. This gives us an edge for the future -- the potential for growth is enormous."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.