Like Musk, Tesla’s new chair­man is not averse to tak­ing a few risks

An in­de­pen­dent direc­tor at the elec­tric car giant, she should know the chal­lenge ahead,

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - writes Alan Tovey

Tesla has named Robyn Denholm as its new chair­man as part of its deal with Wall Street reg­u­la­tors fol­low­ing Elon Musk’s tweeted an­nounce­ments that he was go­ing to take the elec­tric car com­pany he founded pri­vate.

In­vestors have gen­er­ally just shrugged at Musk’s provoca­tive tweets tak­ing pot­shots at crit­ics and short­ers of the com­pany, la­belling them the price to pay for be­ing on board a com­pany with such bold aims. But the US Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion didn’t agree. A tweet in Septem­ber from Musk that he in­tended to take the busi­ness, in which he owns 20pc, pri­vate at $420 a share led to a fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Musk’s so­cial me­dia as­ser­tion that he had “fund­ing se­cured” for such a deal – he didn’t – led to a set­tle­ment where he nei­ther de­nied nor ad­mit­ted fraud.

Both Musk and the com­pany paid a sep­a­rate $20m ($15m) penalty, and part of the deal was he step down as chair­man of Tesla, to be re­placed by an in­de­pen­dent per­son. This, the SEC said, was “specif­i­cally de­signed to ad­dress the mis­con­duct at is­sue by strength­en­ing Tesla’s cor­po­rate gov­er­nance and over­sight to pro­tect in­vestors”.

Yes­ter­day, the world found out who is charged with bring­ing the bil­lion­aire un­der con­trol. Ms Denholm has been an in­de­pen­dent direc­tor of Tesla for four years and pre­sum­ably the 55-yearold knows the scale of the job she’s tak­ing on, hav­ing in ef­fect had a ringside seat at the Musk cir­cus for the past few years. That in­side knowl­edge will work well for her – she knows what Musk is like – and gives her an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the chal­lenge ahead when she takes up the full-time role af­ter serv­ing out a six-month no­tice pe­riod as chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of Aus­tralian telecoms group Tel­stra.

How­ever, although she was an in­de­pen­dent at the com­pany, hav­ing sat on the board for so long will in­evitably raise eye­brows at just how in­de­pen­dent she re­ally is.

She must bear some of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for al­low­ing Musk to run free for too long, in­clud­ing Tesla’s con­tro­ver­sial ac­qui­si­tion of debt-laden sis­ter com­pany So­lar City for $2.6bn in 2016. Denholm also chaired the re­mu­ner­a­tion com­mit­tee that ap­proved the bonus scheme that could land Musk al­most $60bn if Tesla’s mar­ket value hit $650bn in a decade.

No doubt her ap­point­ment is within the terms of the SEC deal – which had given a Nov 13 dead­line for an an­nounce­ment – but many were ex­pect­ing to see some­one with fewer links to Tesla take the job. Tesla trum­peted char­tered-ac­coun­tant-by-train­ing Denholm’s ex­pe­ri­ence in both tech and au­to­mo­tive busi­nesses as a key fac­tor in her ap­point­ment. There’s no doubt about the tech back­ground – her ca­reer over the past two decades has seen her take top fi­nance and op­er­a­tions posts that in­clude net­works busi­ness Ju­niper and Sun Mi­crosys­tems, as well as Tel­stra and Ja­panese car­maker Toy­ota. She’s also been named as one of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s most in­flu­en­tial women.

How­ever, it was 22 years ago she left Toy­ota af­ter a seven-year stint at the busi­ness Down Un­der. The car in­dus­try has gone through a lot of change since then and there’s more to come: an au­to­mo­tive ax­iom is that the in­dus­try is go­ing to see more change in the next five years than it has in the past 100.

Although it’s im­prov­ing, the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try is no­to­ri­ously male-dom­i­nated – ques­tions are still asked about whether an ex­ec­u­tive is a “car guy”, or not, to de­cide whether they fit in. To have thrived in such an at­mos­phere 20 years ago, Denholm will have no doubt shown her­self to be a good op­er­a­tor.

Her de­ci­sion to quit her cur­rent post at Tel­stra just a month af­ter tak­ing it on shows her com­mit­ment to the elec­tric car busi­ness. How­ever, con­sid­er­ing her direc­tor du­ties paid al­most three times her day-job salary last year, it’s a shrewd move, es­pe­cially when Tel­stra’s chief ex­ec­u­tive was fac­ing tough ques­tions about how his chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer could jug­gle the de­mands of both roles.

Back in 2010, when she won a Women Worth Watch­ing in busi­ness award, Denholm’s pen por­trait gave sev­eral in­sights into her life and think­ing. Aside from news that her first job was “pump­ing gas at the fam­ily petrol sta­tion”, she said that her ca­reer had taught her “a will­ing­ness to take risks opens doors in ways that you never thought pos­si­ble”.

How much of a risk she is tak­ing with the Tesla job re­mains to be seen.

Robyn Denholm, 55, will take up the role af­ter a six-month no­tice pe­riod at Tel­stra

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