The ‘Ra­tio­nal’ Per­son Picked to Tem­per Tesla’s Mer­cu­rial Musk

‘Her strengths are not his and vice versa’

The Economic Times - - Around The World - Dana Hull & An­ders Melin

San Fran­cisco: In pick­ing Robyn Den­holm to keep Elon Musk in check, Tesla’s board went with a num­bers-first ex­ec­u­tive who climbed up the ranks of multi­na­tion­als’ fi­nance de­part­ments. Those who know her say her nonon­sense 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 for mer chai r man of Sun Mi­crosys­tems, said in a phone in­ter­view. “If Elon lis­tens to her, he’ll be way more suc­cess­ful.” As Tesla’s chair­man, 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 at au­dit and ac­count­ing ser­vices at Arthur An­der­sen, and lef t the firm for a po­si­tion in the fi­nance de­part­ment of Toy­ota’s Aust r a l i a n s ub s i d i a r y. S he 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 Si li­con Val­ley founder type, an ec­cen­tric vi­sion­ary who is very much fo­cused on prod­ucts. The chair­men that 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 Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion over the mat­ter stip­u­lated that Tesla should strengthen a board long 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 over­the-air soft­ware up­dates, and the com­pany’s bat­ter­ies are in­creas­ingly be­ing sold to util­ity com­pa­nies. Den­holm also served on the board of ABB. “Robyn is very smart, tough­minded and eth­i­cal,” said Wil­liam F Mee­han, a lect urer i n st r at e - gic man­age­ment at t he St a n ford 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 Oc­to­ber 1.

“Robyn is fear­less but very prac­ti­cal. If she be­lieves in some­thing she fights for it—she’s not a pushover,” said Joe Pol­lard, the for­mer chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer of Tel­stra, in an in­ter­view. “She is al­ways fo­cused on ‘how are we go­ing to fix this prob­lem’. Noth­ing is ever left un­said and she will al­ways speak up for cus­tomers, the busi­ness and em­ploy­ees.”

“She’s not part of the bro cul­ture, and yet is not some­one naive parachut­ing in from the out­side,” Yale’s Son­nen­feld said. “It’s a rare ray of good gov­er­nance news.”

Den­holm will be re­spon­si­ble for hold­ing back celebrity CEO Musk while guid­ing the com­pany that’s still in a vol­ume ex­pan­sion phase and vul­ner­a­ble to fi­nan­cial setbacks

Robyn Den­holm

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