Musk May Be Tesla’s Biggest Fate Risk
What makes Tesla strong is the same thing that makes it weak.
As the California-based automaker purposefully whirrs down the straight and narrow, Elon-Pilot keeps it glued to the center of its lane. Not much ping-ponging here. Mileposts erected in CEO Musk’s master plan have clicked by with such regularity, many early critics have been lulled to silence. His strategy of constant expansion and long-term vision can be credited for Tesla’s enjoyment of a stunning $59.78 billion market capitalization. But what happens if, due to human frailty, Musk is no more?
That’s the question that’s been posed by CNBC. And, being the helpful sorts of folks they are, they’ve laid out a number of steps Tesla can take, along with some criticisms, in preparation for the inevitable. It seems mostly like common sense stuff, though we’ve no way of knowing which of the concerns have been already addressed. Hopefully all of them.
Number one on the list is “Have a succession plan.” Suggested (probably) by Captain Obvious, this is a call to have, in writing, a plan to follow in the case of catastrophe. While we assume the board would quickly name a successive chairperson, who, exactly, would wear each of the hats currently occupied by the expertly coiffed head of Mr. Musk? If the worst case scenario were to occur, the various Tesla factories wouldn’t coming to a shuddering halt, of course. But, if some amount of confusion were allowed to creep in, productivity would certainly fall off, and there could be some drifting from the course set by its long-time leader.
The second item on the list — “Have key-executive insurance” — is hardly worth bringing up and they pretty much discard it themselves. Mentioning Musk’s immense worth to the company, and his special-case status, they go on to say it’s a preparation more relevant to “closely held partnerships.” Fine.
Finally, we get to the third item: “Put in place a well-rounded executive team.” Now, here is something worth mulling. While Tesla does have some top-notch people, there’s an argument to be made for expansion of the executive suite. As previously mentioned, Musk wears a lot of hats. He’s part product designer, marketing and sales manager, quality control inspector; the list goes on. If he had people doing their jobs well enough in these positions, he wouldn’t need to spread himself so thin, leaving him time to concentrate on what he does best.
Presently, as CNBC points out, Tesla only lists three corporate officers on its investor website: CEO Elon Musk, CFO Deepak Ahuja, and CTO JB Straubel. Of course it has other high-level executives, but if the CEO is sleeping in the factory, if fit and finish of final product is still uneven, if workplace safety isn’t equal to others in the industry, if customer care is spotty, than perhaps top-level corporate structure needs to be reassessed. Better to take care of that business when all is well, then have to muddle through without a key player.
The last item on the list is, “Communicate the plan to everyone on your team — employees, customers, investors and lenders.” This is another thing that, if they aren’t working on, they should be, regardless of the risk of fate stepping onto the scene in an unwanted way. If you haunt Tesla customer and fan forums, then likely you know of many discussions revolving around communications. As production ramps up, so does the need for more responsiveness. Ideally, a reservation holder should never be left wondering for weeks whether someone will call or send an email. A customer with service issues should not have repeated correspondence go unanswered. An investor should have a clear and accurate representation of what to expect in the short and medium term.
Even if Elon stays in perfect health for another hundred years, which we hope is the case (come on, longevity science!), the areas highlighted here could probably use some amount of attention. With the fate of the company so closely tied to the one person who tightly controls it, the onus is on him to figure out how to effectively share the work load and distribute the risk.