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Elon Musk’s Surprise Pick for Tesla CFO Is a Relative Unknown (wsj.com)
47 points by theBashShell 22 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments



He seems pretty well-known within the company.

First joined Tesla 9 years ago, Wharton undergrad, Harvard MBA.

He’s obviously qualified, what’s with all the ageist comments? 34 years old is a “kid” now? On HN of all places?

Who cares if he’s a “relative unknown” according to WSJ. Is notoriety an important qualification for CFO?


When the last CFO left in under 2 years, and many other senior execs seem to be fleeing, the worrisome implication is that TSLA has trouble attracting and retaining senior talent given the work pressure and thin financial margin, so they are instead turning to a relatively green home-bred 34 yo.

At the end of the day, I'm not personally worried about this and think this guy will likely do just fine, but this is sufficiently unusual that I don't think the WSJ article is odd.


I think you called it... was thinking similar thoughts, that they can't get anyone from the outside and this kid on the inside is hungry, with perceived though not yet proven externally, capability. I like it.


Do you think they have difficulty retaining senior talent because they are underpaying or that Tesla is a shit-show to work for?

Either way, it's extremely difficult for younger people to be in CxO positions unless they start a company. I'm extremely doubtful that most can't do the job, it's just that they can't get hired.

I'm sure this person will do just as good of a job as any 50+ yo with an extra decade or two of experience. Typically people that require 10+ years of experience to perform a job are worse off than someone that is capable after only 4-5years. Lots of dumb-fuck boomers out there that had to be spoon fed every iota of information before they could perform at a high level.


> Do you think they have difficulty retaining senior talent because they are underpaying or that Tesla is a shit-show to work for?

The latter; I can't imagine exec compensation at Tesla is bad. That said, the CFO role is going to be very tough when they have major financial obligations coming due this year.

And seeing as how the boss is a guy who proselytizes ideas straight out of science fiction comics, I'm guessing he won't be very understanding when the CFO says "I can't just move these numbers around".


Finance isn't like programming. Programming is skill-based, so it's easy to become good at a quickly.

Finance is knowledge-based, and a lot of that knowledge can only be learned by actual on-the-job experience. So, years of experience in a knowledge-based field is simply a shortcut/rubric for measuring a person's knowledge of their craft.

Typically, people in knowledge-based fields who think that they're as good at their jobs after 4-5 years as someone who has been practicing 10+ years are full of $$$$ and tend to create more problems for their clients/employers than they solve.


What the difference between skills and knowlegde in performing these two very intelectual jobs?


The narrative that Tesla has a 'fleeing execs' is mostly false. For years every-time somebody lefts there are articles claiming that managers a fleeing. Overall however the turnover rate is not very exceptional and somehow Tesla still has highly performing managers after years of 'fleeing execs'.

Tesla is continuing to grow at a high rate threw all that so its really hard for me to see this as anything other then narrative.


https://twitter.com/IsFunkyMonkey/status/1090778355664805891

“To be fair, finance positions typically are the hardest to fill.

With it being a new science, the lack of codified rules/schools, & the propensity for finance people to want to spend time with their families at every waking moment.

Tesla's doing better than usual w/ retention.”


This is a joke, right? It's hard to tell because online Musk fans often give off the air of a new cult member, where everything the leader says is true, and any criticism is false.

Finance is a 'new science'? Maybe if you're building trading algorithms, but that's not what a CFO does. And the thing about not wanting to work long hours is ridiculous when that's what every CPA is doing during tax, audit and earnings seasons.


Most of that persons tweets are anti Musk/Tesla


>the worrisome implication is that TSLA has trouble attracting and retaining senior talent given the work pressure and thin financial margin

A lot of "senior talent" are probably entitled, slow, and pedestrian. A lot of companies like these people because they are good at maintaining a caste system and shaking hands.

I think Tesla, as a disruptor, both needs and hates these employees. They need someone who has "done it before" so they can get out ahead of rookie mistakes. But they also need someone who will work hard, fast, and not get caught up thinking that they know everything.

I have never been bothered by high churn for execs at Tesla. Have any of you ever even met or worked for/with "senior talent?"

I bet Musk would rather be in the room with engineers who hate having reports than people-people.


Yes, I work with senior talent all the time.

Musk is precisely the bad kind of senior talent--imperious, oblivious, and completely unwilling to listen to advice from others even when he's been shown to be wrong.

The senior talent that's spent the last 3 years leaving Tesla? They've got documented success at other companies within their respective niches. With Finance, especially, you want someone with experience and knowledge because Finance is quite literally the heart of your company. The CFOs and other CxOs that have left Tesla have done good jobs at other companies, so the fact that so many of them are leaving Tesla, especially within such a short window and without replacement positions lined up, is good evidence that Tesla's books are in bad shape. No CFO of a publicly traded company leaves the job voluntarily if everything's fine.


>Musk is precisely the bad kind of senior talent--imperious, oblivious, and completely unwilling to listen to advice from others even when he's been shown to be wrong.

That's just like, your opinion, man. Steve Jobs was an awful boss to some, but a visionary to others. Same with others throughout history.

>They've got documented success at other companies within their respective niches...The CFOs and other CxOs that have left Tesla have done good jobs at other companies

And the CFO before them was doing a good job too. And the CFO after them will do a good job too. I think manning the helm of a big self-steering monolith is a different game than running a disruptor.

>No CFO of a publicly traded company leaves the job voluntarily if everything's fine.

This is a common trope that never gets called out when it ends up not being true. It only sounds good when a CFO leaves, never when the company they left doesn't go bankrupt or die off because they left.


And the CFO before them was doing a good job too. And the CFO after them will do a good job too. I think manning the helm of a big self-steering monolith is a different game than running a disruptor.

It's really not different at all. Same rules apply. Only minor differences related to industry-specific practices, most of which effect lower-level (non-CFO) finance functions. Internal corporate finance/compliance is one of those areas where disruption is not a good thing.

This is a common trope that never gets called out when it ends up not being true. It only sounds good when a CFO leaves, never when the company they left doesn't go bankrupt or die off because they left.

You are missing a few words so it's not clear what you're trying to say. Being a CFO of a well-run publicly traded company is a very cushy job, so CFO's rarely leave voluntarily unless it's for an even cushier job or the company has serious financial issues.

Also, CFOs aren't responsible for the company's commercial success, so it's not their fault if a company goes bankrupt--that's on the CEO and COO. CFOs are responsible for tracking the finances of a company and managing cash flow, but they don't make the business decisions of how a company's resources are used. For a poorly run company like Tesla, the CFO's job would generally also entail juggling debt payments and incoming income to make sure their is always sufficient cash flow to keep the lights on.


> Musk is precisely the bad kind of senior talent

Tell that to the investors. He has made them a fortune in every enterprise he has ever run. What kind of senior talent would you want? You talk about documented success, but who has more of that than Elon Musk? It's a short list. If you don't like him, just say it, but don't make ridiculous claims.


Well, not SolarCity. They were about to go bankrupt and were saved only because Elon used Tesla to acquire them. Not BoringCo, which has yet to make money and is privately owned. Not SpaceX, which just announced massive layoffs (and which is also privately owned).

Not even Paypal, where the technology stack came from Thiel, and the business decisions that led it to becoming the payment gateway for a generation of Internet companies...also came from Thiel. Elon's reign as CEO was a disaster and he was unceromoniously fired.


If SpaceX doesn't count as a success, I, and everyone I have ever met is a complete failure. Success does not mean perfection.


SpaceX hasn't succeeded yet. It's close, but it's like a wedding ceremony in progress: you can't call it a success until it's actually a success.


Who deserves more credit for SpaceX's current success, Musk or Gwynne Shotwell?

This is a serious question.


SpaceX's incredible success would have been impossible without Gwynne Shotwell at the helm. Tesla needs someone of this caliber on the board


Right /S

Paypal, Tesla, SolarCity, SpaceX and still other companies in startup modes.

WE NEED MORE BAD TALENT LIKE THIS!


1) Paypal was built on Thiel's tech and business acumen. Almost nothing of Elon's startup survived the merger that formed Paypal. Elon's reign as CEO was so disastrous he was fired returning from a business trip following an emergency board meeting scheduled while he was in the air.

2) Jury's still out on Tesla. All of their misfires can be traced to Musk, including their billion-dollar assembly line that couldn't actually assemble anything.

3) Gwynne Shotwell wants a word with you. SpaceX was nothing until she took over day-to-day and it's quite offensive to think that Musk has anything to do with SpaceX's success. SpaceX, noticeably, is the only one of Musk's current ventures where he isn't in charge of day-to-day operations and it's the only one that isn't a comedy of errors.

4) SolarCity was on the verge of bankruptcy. They were saved from immediate death by the Tesla acquisition. Since then, they've gone from being #1 or #2 in the market to a non-player; SolarCity now does less business than the larger regional solar installation companies. They're business is so bad right now that Panasonic is selling almost all of the output (i.e., solar cells) of the Gigafactory 2 in NY to SolarCity's competitors because SolarCity can't handle even a fraction of the supply.

And the sad thing is that Tesla and SolarCity would be doing so much better if Musk weren't in charge...like SpaceX, where he's not.


I think it is noteworthy given the notoriety of Musk and the high pressure situation being CFO of a company whose CEO makes numerous unsubstantiated claims. If I were an investor in TSLA this would not be welcome news to me. Is this person, relatively young for CFO, in a position to stand up to Musk? Is this person going to be just a yes man so to speak?


> Is this person, relatively young for CFO, in a position to stand up to Musk? Is this person going to be just a yes man so to speak?

My guess: Musk would be more likely to listen to someone who knows the company inside and out and has been with them for years, as opposed to a qualified outsider.


A qualified outsider who in turn is really unqualified as being an outsider means they know little about how the company really works.


I don’t know Musk but from what I’ve read about him from an ex-wife of his and those who have worked for him Must is most likely not going to listen to anyone he doesn’t have to. He appears to have a Trumpian incapacity for admitting wrondoing or admitting that a decision was wrong. I would not want to invest in a company run by him if it didn’t have strong people in key positions.


> Is this person, relatively young for CFO, in a position to stand up to Musk?

Maybe not, but is that even the job of a CFO?

The CFO works for the CEO, right?


I would not want to invest in a company in which high ranking officers did not have the ability to push back against the CEO. Rarely is one person always correct. Steve Jobs famously did not want to port iTunes to Windows but angrily consented to doing so due to pushback by people who reported to him. Musk has a very strong personality and an investor ought to want equally strong personalities in key positions since TSLA ought not be a dictatorship.


Maybe we're all a bit right. Seems like it varies. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_financial_officer

> The CFO typically reports to the chief executive officer (CEO) and the board of directors and may additionally have a seat on the board


> Maybe not, but is that even the job of a CFO?

The board has to hold itself to account, and that means members of the board have to hold each other to account.


No that's not correct, they work for the shareholders and board of directors.


Because it sounds suspiciously like a battlefield promotion. The ex-CFO is 'retiring' at age 56, shortly after returning to the company? And the guy replacing him had just been appointed to a VP role mere weeks ago. Pretty big step up.


For a CFO position of a publicly traded company, 34 years old isn't a kid--it's practically a toddler.

But the bigger issue is that he simply doesn't have the experience that would be expected of a CFO of a publicly traded company, especially one that employs so many non-standard accounting metrics.


I mean, the CFO of GM is 39, Keith Cozza became CFO of Icahn at 27, David Knopf became CFO of Kraft Heinz at 29, Andrew Power of Digital Realty at 27


Those are some cherry-picked examples... definitely not the norm and half of those aren't even comparable companies


Yep, you're right - average age of a S&P 500 CFO in 2012 was 42, seems to have gone up a bit since.

Just saying, not a toddler.


The average CFO of a Fortune 500 or S&P 500 company is 52.


48, actually. Where'd you get 52?


But the claim is age means he can not be good, then when shown example of young CFO you claim cherry picking, but leave out the possibility that he could also be of the same caliber.


I'm not saying that his age means he can't be good -- David Knopf is the perfect example of a qualified young CFO.

But David Knopf is also the exception that proves the rule--before becoming CFO, he spent almost a decade earning experience doing exactly the kinds of things the CFO of a publicly traded company would do. Similarly, with the other examples cited, they all had direct experience doing the things that the CFO of a publicly traded company would do.

But no one knows anything about the new CFO of Tesla. If he had been involved in Tesla's compliance or public-facing finance functions prior to this point, someone outside of the company would have worked with him and vouched with him. The silence speaks volumes.


Isn't Knopf just a private equity lackey installed to pillage and bankrupt Heinz?


Contrary to popular belief, Private Equity shops don't make money by bankrupting firms


It's more accurate to say that Private Equity shops don't ALWAYS make money by bankrupting firms.


How does someone make money by bankrupting what they own?


> Who cares if he’s a “relative unknown” according to WSJ. Is notoriety an important qualification for CFO?

No, but experience is. Apple's CFO is 55 years old. That's about the age you'd expect the CFO of a huge public company to be.


This is what tech journalism has come too, essentially celebrity news and gossip


Would you be so cool if he was replacing Musk while he did a reconnaissance trip to Mars or something?


Why not? Not being famous makes you a bad CEO? Who knew about Satya Nadella except MS employee before he was named CEO?


Nadella had been for a few years the president of the servers and tools division (revenue $20bn, profits $8bn), getting a $700k salary. I’m pretty sure many people outside Microsoft had heard of him.


This is a huge red flag, in my opinion. A CFO is legally responsible for compliance to exchange regulations, SEC, etc. Reporting is based on judgement, regarding the interpretation of very complex rules.

I would have liked to see someone with external experience that has a frame of reference as to how other companies do things, in a high-pressure, regulated environment; a la Ruth Porat.

Musk is a big personality, with a my way or the highway attitude. Ultimately, I'd feel more comfortable with someone who could unequivocally walk away, and in doing so, would send a huge signal that something doesn't smell right.

In my experience, someone who grew up drinking the coolaide won't have the experience / ability to pull the company back from disaster. Think about all the folks at Uber. It's sad, but you need experienced and ethical leadership, that has an obligation beyond just to the CEO, in Legal / Compliance and Accounting. Especially given the wild ride at Tesla, this is more important now than ever.


I’m starting to get worried myself. Seeing finance people who would have to take responsibility for things like signing the financials over to audit leaving is not unlike seeing rats dive off the deck of a ship. Maybe they’re just tired of the ride, but maybe they’re aware of something the crew isn’t. Either way, ignoring that sign and making excuses because of love or Tesla is a bad move. A lot of major financial implosions in the past gave off plenty of warning signs that many people ignored. Until it all finally comes out, the naysayers expressing concern about HugePopularEndeavor X are usually shouted down as pessimists or saboteurs.

Then things fall apart and suddenly everyone wants to know how it wasn’t seen coming. A stream of people unwilling to sign on the dotted line for the audit is worrying. Replacing them with a totally inexperienced person for a $50b market cap company smells like burning sails and timbers to me.


In grad school I had a corporate finance professor that said when you see the CFO leaving it's almost always a bad sign. Finance guys don't leave when everything looks like it's going to be smooth sailing for years to come


I generally agree with that assessment, but to be fair, any qualified CFO would likely have lower-risk, comparable-reward option elsewhere.

I believe in Tesla and hope to the heavens that they succeed in what they are doing, but if I were a star CFO being headhunted for this job, I would probably see myself looking at the prospect of working brutal hours with an uncertain payout, and a possible reputational vulnerability should things go south. Only true believers need apply.


Yeah well, this CFO left, then came back, then left again. Totally different situation! Stop trying to help the short sellers!

/s


It is a red flag, but it has been going on so long at Tesla that I don't think it is hiding any kind of fraud. That would come out quick. Tesla is under too much scrutiny and its finances are too simple to hide much. I would guess that it is just high turnover because nobody wants the job. Most public company CFO's don't have to deal with what they would at Tesla.



Thank you for this!


Credentials like Wharton and Harvard mean something to the HN crowd? I'm sure this guy is fine, but Tesla - Musk - needs someone who will eat the shit on their plate.


On HN, Reddit and a number of other STEM-leaning forums, MBAs are only good if they can be used to support a position Musk takes on something.


A bazillion kids have Wharton and Harvard credentials, and let's just say not all of them are cut out for the CFO role.


A relatively young pick motivated to prove himself in a highly visible position that others have left seems perfect to me. I think he will be a stable choice and stay for a while.


There's no obvious reason he couldn't do this job. Executive roles are very culturally sensitive, and this guy knows the firm.

Given decreasing margin returns to experience, how much more experience does he need?

The guy who turned around LEGO was also in his 30s when he took over, seemed to go fine.

In case you're wondering whether I think everyone in their 30s can take a leading role, I think there's a fair chance assuming the person has been exposed to some management content.


The issue isn't that he wouldn't be great in a VP of Finance or Controller role--the issue is that he's been appointed the CFO of a publicly traded company with serious past, present, and future financial and regulatory challenges. And he has absolutely no experience dealing with the regulatory challenges, which is more than half of a CFO's job.


I don't know the details of his history, but chances are he's worked on those things under the previous CFO? I would think someone who's worked in the finance office of such a firm would know what needs to be done, even if he wasn't the head of the office.

If everyone needed to have direct experience, there'd never be anyone considered qualified.


Looks like Musk found the fall guy.


WSJ seems like they try to find every excuse possible to pick on Tesla


By providing information about the new CFO, one that the CEO didn't even bother providing a last name for?




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