Busi­ness­woman cho­sen to tem­per Tesla’s mer­cu­rial Musk


IN pick­ing Robyn Den­holm to keep Elon Musk in check, Tesla Inc.’s board went with a num­bers-first ex­ec­u­tive who climbed up the ranks of multi­na­tion­als’ fi­nance de­part­ments. Those who know her say her no-non­sense meth­ods may be ex­actly what Tesla needs.

“Ev­ery­thing about her is ra­tio­nal, rea­son­able and warm. I’m not sur­prised she got the job,” Scott McNealy, the co-founder and for­mer chair­man of Sun Mi­crosys­tems, said in a phone in­ter­view. “If Elon lis­tens to her, he’ll be way more suc­cess­ful.”

As Tesla’s chair­woman, Den­holm, 55, will be re­spon­si­ble for hold­ing back celebrity CEO Musk while guid­ing an elec­tric-car maker that’s still in a vol­ume ex­pan­sion phase and vul­ner­a­ble to fi­nan­cial set­backs. While Tesla just cel­e­brated a blowout quar­ter — post­ing a rare profit — many an­a­lysts ex­pect fur­ther cap­i­tal in­creases are needed be­fore the com­pany is on firm foot­ing.

Den­holm be­gan her ca­reer in au­dit and ac­count­ing ser­vices at Arthur An­der­sen, and left the firm for a po­si­tion in the fi­nance de­part­ment of Toy­ota’s Aus­tralian sub­sidiary. She joined Sun in 1996 and was there for 11 years, in­clud­ing a po­si­tion in the pi­o­neer­ing com­puter com­pany’s top lead­er­ship group. She de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

Musk, 47, is a clas­sic Sil­i­con Val­ley founder type, an ec­cen­tric vi­sion­ary who is very much fo­cused on prod­ucts. The chair­men who over­see them of­ten have been CEOs them­selves, or led com­pa­nies in other strate­gic roles. A chair­man with a fi­nance back­ground isn’t as com­mon — though in Tesla’s case that ac­tu­ally could be a strength; rap­port with the fi­nan­cial com­mu­nity is pre­cisely what the car­maker is seek­ing to im­prove.

“She seems to be supremely com­pe­tent in fi­nan­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” said Jef­frey Son­nen­feld, an ex­pert on lead­er­ship who teaches at the Yale School of Man­age­ment. “Of the likely choices, I think they made the best pick. Her strengths are not his and vice versa.”

Still, some see Den­holm as be­ing too close to Musk. A Tesla in­de­pen­dent direc­tor since 2014, she was part of a board that failed to pre­vent the CEO’s er­ratic ac­tions this year, in­clud­ing his prob­lem­atic Au­gust tweets about try­ing to take the com­pany pri­vate. A set­tle­ment with the U.S. Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion over the mat­ter stip­u­lated that Tesla should strengthen a board crit­i­cized for be­ing too closely aligned with its bil­lion­aire leader.

Den­holm “pro­vides a po­ten­tial spark for change,” Loup Ven­tures’ Gene Mun­ster said in a note. But Tesla needs to fol­low through with other ac­tions, in­clud­ing turn­ing over half of the board to bring in direc­tors with man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, he said.

Af­ter Sun, Den­holm worked at net­work-equip­ment maker Ju­niper Net­works, where she was an ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent and chief of fi­nance and op­er­a­tions. Her tech­nol­ogy back­ground is an as­set: Tesla’s cars con­stantly re­ceive new fea­tures via over-the-air soft­ware up­dates, and the com­pany’s bat­ter­ies are in­creas­ingly be­ing sold to util­ity com­pa­nies. Den­holm also served on the board of ABB Ltd., the SwedishSwiss multi­na­tional that works closely with util­i­ties.

“Robyn is very smart, tough-minded and eth­i­cal,” said Wil­liam F. Meehan, a lec­turer in strate­gic man­age­ment at the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness who was a direc­tor of Ju­niper while she worked there.

Den­holm joined Tel­stra, Aus­tralia’s largest phone com­pany, in Jan­uary 2017 as chief of op­er­a­tions, and took on the role of CFO on Oct. 1. Her de­ci­sion to step down from the CFO role so quickly sur­prised many; just last month, she told Aus­tralian me­dia through a spokesper­son that she wasn’t in con­tention for the Tesla chair­man’s job. Den­holm, who is mar­ried and has adult chil­dren, lives in Syd­ney, and it’s not clear if she will move back to Cal­i­for­nia for the chair­man job.

Robyn Den­holm, Tesla’s first fe­male board direc­tor, is the com­pany’s new chair­woman.

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