Howes: Musk's 'epitome of instability' challenges Tesla's directors

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Ramping up Model 3 production is critical to generating cash for Tesla Inc. But CEO Elon Musk's automaker is what one would-be investor calls an 'epitome of instability.'

If Elon Musk headed a traditional automaker, he'd be out of a job by now.

Maybe it'd be because of his rash tweet announcing his "plan" to take Tesla Inc. private with "funding secured" from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund — but there was no such thing. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating, and it should.

Maybe it'd be because a new chief accounting officer, Dave Morton, bolted almost as soon as he arrived, along with the company's top HR exec, continuing the c-suite exodus atop the electric-car maker. Or because of Musk's astonishingly poor judgment  in his toke-and-sip escapade last week with comedian Joe Rogan.

Maybe it'd be because of Musk's chronic inability to deliver on Tesla's promises, chiefly with the troubled launch of the compact Model 3 that was supposed to ensure the Silicon Valley automaker would be spared from asking investors for a fresh capital infusion. Not likely.

This much is certain: fiduciary responsibility is weighing heavier on Tesla's independent directions, and their options ain't good. With each passing week, the visionary founder and CEO looks more like a man out of control, rattled by the pressure of meeting expectations amid a revolving door in his executive offices that suggests Musk repels more talent than he attracts.

Tesla's directors look more like potted plants than independent overseers safeguarding the interests of shareholders. Musk's go-private with oil money riff took them by surprise; his continuing stream of tweets don't help; and his cavalier dismissal of serious concerns among analysts and investors is not encouraging. 

Investor confidence is flagging. Since Musk's "funding secured" tweet on Aug 7, Tesla shares are off more than 18 percent to close Monday at $285.50. And its $1.8 billion in bonds with an interest payment due next February closed trading at 83.91 cents on the dollar, down from more than 98 cents a year ago.

Yes, Musk is Tesla. He's the man behind the vision. He's the implementer-in-chief who helped deliver a new industry standard for electric cars now being matched in more segments by traditional automakers from Detroit and Britain to Germany and Japan.

He's also the chief reason Tesla's market value outstripped Ford Motor Co. and briefly topped General Motors Co.: investors bet a Model 3 for the masses would cement Tesla's leadership in the electric-car space, not slog its way through the "production hell" of Musk's own telling.

Sidelining Musk — as chairman, chief innovation officer, whatever — risks knocking out a cornerstone supporting Tesla's lofty market valuation. Allowing Musk to continue being Musk risks another incendiary incident that sooner or later will expose the company and its directors themselves to liability for their CEO's erratic behavior.

"I wouldn't touch this thing with a 10-foot pole," Mark Tepper, CEO of Strategic Wealth Partners, told CNBC. "Right now this company is the absolute epitome of instability. We like buying companies with a good growth story, strong management team, that are reasonably priced and Tesla doesn't get a check in any of those boxes."

Amid Friday's market swoon over Musk's Rogan-gate and the abrupt departure of its chief accounting officer, the company confirmed the elevation of eight-year veteran Jerome Guillen to the newly created post of "automotive president," reporting directly to Musk.

The move suggests the automaker is trying to answer concerns that Musk get some help running the company, presumably from an industry gray beard who can execute strategy and deliver promises on time — you know, just like traditional auto executives are expected to do, or else.  

We stodgy scolds just don't get it: limits and expectations are no longer cool for the gifted among us. Not for a Republican president who wields social media like an electronic scythe, even as he complains continually about "unfairness." Not in Washington, where Democrats and the news media use Trumpian outrages to justify their own actions.

And not for geniuses like Musk. A bet against Tesla is considered a bet against Musk. Maybe so. But the accumulating evidence says that may be a lot wiser than it would have been just a year ago. His quasi-monopoly in the electric-car space is coming to an end, and so is a mystique gilded by true believers and lots of Silicon Valley money.

A new automotive era is coming. It will be electrified, at least in part, but it won't belong solely to Musk's Tesla — not so long as the industry's "epitome of instability" stays that way.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.