GM exec on Tesla value: ‘We look at... delivering’

Ian Thibodeau

New York — In the battle for the title of America’s most valuable automaker, the companies that put Detroit on the map have a lot more to prove than the newbies on the West Coast, where the balance sheets and bottom lines don’t matter.

That’s the viewpoint of Mark Reuss, General Motors Co.’s executive vice president. At a financial auto summit in New York on Wednesday, Reuss was asked what justifies the valuation of Silicon Valley electric-vehicle startup Tesla Inc. when compared to GM’s value. GM’s market capitalization – the number of outstanding shares multiplied by the stock price – was eclipsed briefly in value Monday when Tesla shares hit $313.39 per share, and its outstanding shares were valued at $51 billion – close to $2 billion more than GM at that time.

“What we look at here is delivering,” he said. “I’m a big, big proponent of that. And doing or saying or explaining things that may or may not come true, we don’t have the luxury of doing that in General Motors. I think other people may have that luxury. We do not.”

During midday trading Wednesday, GM still reigned supreme outstanding shares valued at $51.11 billion to Tesla’s $50.35 billion, according to Dow Jones and Co.’s MarketWatch. Last week, Tesla jumped Ford Motor Co. in the valuation of outstanding shares.

Market capitalization shows investors’ confidence in a company. The number is one metric that investors use to evaluate a company. But financial analysts, industry analysts and leaders at GM and Ford contend Tesla is valued solely on potential, and Tesla Chairman Elon Musk is good at generating buzz that contributes to a highly speculative valuation while the businessman continues to follow his “Secret Master Plan” to introduce his vision of electric vehicles to the market.

Industry analysts have said Tesla’s true test will come later this year when the company launches its Model 3 sedan, which will be its first midmarket vehicle. Tesla has said that by the end of next year, it will build 500,000 new Model 3 compacts, expected to sell for around $40,000. Analysts have questioned whether Tesla will be able to meet those sales goals, as the company hasn’t yet made more than 100,000 vehicles in a year.

“When we come out and talk about what we’re going to do, we’re going to do it,” said Reuss, who never mentioned Musk or Tesla by name Wednesday. “And that is the single-mindedly focused belief and culture in the company. And so anything that doesn’t fit into that category, we just don’t have the luxury of doing.”

Reuss pointed to GM’s Volt and the recently announced Super Cruise semi-automated driving system as evidence of the company’s competitive innovation. Currently, Tesla cheerleaders point to the company’s work in the autonomous and alternative fuel fields as justification of the company’s projected value.

“We’re going to be the best at semi-autonomous, or Super Cruise-like, execution,” said Reuss. “We will be the only true hands-free driving experience safely in the market here very shortly.”

Critics have accused Tesla of misleading drivers into believing its Autopilot-equipped cars are fully capable of driving themselves, although the company has said it warns drivers that they must be ready to take over in an emergency. Last year, a 2015 Tesla Model S that was operating in semi-autonomous mode was involved in a fatal crash, which the U.S. government found was not due to a defect in the company’s system, but user error.

Musk during a press event March 31 to debut the Model 3 said Tesla values safety, and the Model 3 will be an “incredibly safe car.”

Ford President and CEO Mark Fields at the New York Auto Show on Wednesday also downplayed Tesla’s recent jump in market cap while taking questions from reporters at the company’s Lincoln Navigator reveal.

“We don’t manage our company on day-to-day stock,” he said. “We’re just going to stay laser-focused... I’m confident that over time, we’re going to create value for our shareholders.”

Tesla declined requests for comment from The Detroit News.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed