* Fisker executives still searching for strategic investor
* Company furloughed U.S. workforce this week to save cash
* Ray Lane, Leonardo DiCaprio among Fisker’s investors
By Nick Brown and Deepa Seetharaman
NEW YORK/DETROIT, March 28 (Reuters) - Fisker Automotive, the U.S.-backed maker of luxury plug-in hybrid sports cars, has hired law firm Kirkland & Ellis to advise it on a possible bankruptcy filing, a source said on Thursday, while executives continue their search for a strategic investor.
The company, based in Anaheim, California, furloughed its U.S. work force this week to preserve cash.
Anup Sathy, a bankruptcy lawyer at Kirkland who handled the Chapter 11 filings of General Growth Properties and Innkeepers USA Trust, is advising Fisker, the source said.
On Wednesday, two sources said the company was considering bankruptcy while it pursued alternatives.
All of the sources declined to be named because the matter is not public.
A Fisker spokesman declined to comment. Neither Kirkland & Ellis nor Sathy were immediately available to comment.
Fisker, which makes the $100,000-plus Karma plug-in hybrid, has not produced a car since July and is seeking a financial backer to help finish the development of a second plug-in hybrid, the Atlantic, and produce it at a Delaware plant.
The company’s cash crunch comes less than a month before it must make a payment on a U.S. Department of Energy loan that Fisker received in 2009. Fisker declined to divulge the amount of the payment, which is due April 22.
Fisker has faced many challenges this month, including the abrupt resignation of its founder, Henrik Fisker, over “several major disagreements” with top management.
Its efforts to find an investor in China also stalled. The company had been in talks with Chinese automakers Dongfeng Motor Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to gauge their interest in acquiring a majority stake in Fisker.
Both Geely and Dongfeng balked at the terms of Fisker’s loan agreement with the DOE. Fisker’s chief executive, Tony Posawatz, visited China this week to try to rekindle those deals, sources said this week.
‘OVERLY AMBITIOUS’ PLAN
Fisker was founded by Henrik Fisker and his partner Barny Koehler in 2007 shortly before a deep recession in the United States sapped consumer demand for vehicles.
Fisker has raised $1.2 billion since it was founded and has the backing of Ray Lane, a managing partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who is also a Fisker director.
The Karma quickly won accolades for its styling and cache with celebrities, including pop star Justin Bieber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also an investor in the company.
In 2009, the DOE awarded Fisker a $529 million loan as part of an Obama administration program to finance advanced vehicle development. Fisker used $193 million of the loan and earmarked the bulk of the funding for the Atlantic.
But the DOE froze its credit line partly due to Fisker’s delays in launching the Karma. The last payment from the DOE came in May 2011, government records show.
The resulting cash crunch made it tough for Fisker to meet what Posawatz described last year as an “overly ambitious and aggressive” business plan.
Fisker has been flagging its interest in a strategic partner since at least April 2012, when then-CEO Tom LaSorda unveiled a concept version of the Atlantic at the New York auto show. LaSorda later left the company and was succeeded by Posawatz.
Sources said this week that Fisker now is open to selling off pieces of the company, including intellectual property rights for its plug-in electric hybrid technology.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the hiring of Kirkland & Ellis.