Elon Musk, the elder statesman of the auto industry?
Ah, the callow and cocksure Elon Musk, the bad boy gamer from Silicon Valley, the brash, iconoclastic upstart who dares to challenge the time-tested titans of transportation! Would that be the same Elon Musk who recently became the longest-serving CEO in the global auto industry?
Above: Artwork depicting Tesla's CEO Elon Musk (Flickr: thierry ehrmann)
As Simon Alvarez writes in Teslarati (drawing on reporting from Benzinga), Elon Musk, who took office as Tesla’s CEO in 2008 (he joined the company as Chairman of the Board in 2004), became the elder statesman of the automotive world in May, when Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, who had held the top job at the German automaker since 2006, announced his retirement.
This was the latest of several recent transfers of power in the metal-bending game: Carlos Ghosn, the longtime CEO of the Renault-Nissan alliance, was forced to resign in January, due to his alleged connection with a financial scandal (some suspicious minds speculate that he was forced out because he was a champion of electric vehicles). Mitsubishi and Hyundai also saw turnover in their executive suites earlier this year. BMW’s Harald Krüger recently announced that he will soon be stepping down (his successor, Oliver Zipse, is seen as a bit more of an EV advocate).
Above: A look back at Elon Musk in the early days of Tesla when he was profiled in the 'Revenge of the Electric Car' film (Youtube: PBS)
Volkswagen’s Herbert Diess has held the reins only since 2018, when the Dirty Diesel Debacle wrought havoc in the German giant’s executive suite. Fiat Chrysler head Michael Manley followed the late Sergio Marchionne, a long-serving CEO (and an outspoken EV skeptic) in 2018.
The second-longest tenure in the car biz is held by Akio Toyoda, who has been the boss at Toyota since 2009. No other head of a major automaker has been on the job more than a few years. Ford’s Jim Hackett took the con in 2017, and GM’s Mary Barra, the only woman with a corner office, has served since 2014.
Above: Before Model S was introduced, GM's Bob Lutz was trying to stymie Tesla's rise with Chevy's now-defunct Volt (Source: Revenge of the Electric Car)
The anti-Tesla herd seems to crow every time an employee leaves the company, but Elon Musk is far from the only exec who’s held on through the ups and downs. CTO JB Straubel has been with Tesla since the beginning, Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen joined the company in 2008, and President of Automotive Jerome Guillen came on board in 2010. Numerous other execs, including CFO Zach Kirkhorn, have been with the company since the days of the Roadster.
Those who imagine that competition from the legacy automakers will sink Tesla can’t seem to understand the fundamental difference between the California company and its curmudgeonly counterparts: Tesla exists to build electric vehicles, and it won’t stray from that quest. Other automakers follow the winds of fashion, and will build whatever’s profitable (or required by regulations) at any given moment. Elon Musk’s personal story reflects this difference of mission: other CEOs are hired guns who may decide to go to another company for a better pay package (after all, a hundred million bucks doesn’t buy what it used to). Elon Musk is Tesla. It’s his ship, and he’ll guide it to its ultimate destination, or go down with it.