Robyn Denholm Named New Chair at Tesla


Robyn Denholm Tesla

Talk about grabbing a tiger by the tail: In her new job as Tesla board chair, Robyn Denholm must “oversee” CEO Elon Musk.

Donald Trump may be about the only person who’s more powerful and less tamable than Musk, but Tesla’s new chairman has taken on the task of guiding the brilliant, erratic, peripatetic billionaire and technological visionary in his effort to mainstream the electric-vehicle maker into a profit-making, long-term force in the auto industry.

Denholm has served on Tesla’s board since 2014 but has fewer ties to Musk than most of the company’s directors, the Wall Street Journal reported. It remains to be seen whether that relative detachment is a good thing or a bad thing as Denholm helps Musk fulfill the terms of a settlement he made with the SEC to end claims he misled investors by tweeting in August that he had arranged a deal to take Tesla private.

She will ease out of her role as the chief financial officer of Telstra Corp., an Australian telcom company. The 55-year-old Denholm will be the first leader at the top of Tesla since its earliest days, after which Musk became chairman and its largest investor. She also had financial management roles at the former Arthur Andersen in Australia and with Toyota, as well as two decades at Silicon Valley companies Sun Microsystems and Juniper Networks.

Whether all of that experience and wherewithal will help Denholm effectively channel Musk is the multi-billion-dollar question. Clearly, Musk is the heart and soul of Tesla, responsible for its business model, most of its big product ideas and other significant features. So have other game-changing ideas, such as the reusable rocket engines that are the basis of another one of his companies, SpaceX.

Tesla Elon Musk

The challenge for Denholm, of course, will be in attempting to curb Musk’s excesses while not interfering with his prodigious vision. His excesses—nasty tweet binges, self-described depression, sleeping for days on end in his office, promising Wall Street production and financial deadlines that Tesla misses ad infinitum—are legendary.

But no one has threatened the status quo of the global auto business for decades as Musk has with his premium-priced, highly coveted Tesla automobiles, his pioneering attempts at autonomous driving, and his initiative with the new Model X to bring all-electric automobiles down to a more reasonable price point.

The Tesla board and Denholm “have to manage Mr. Musk while allowing him to operate in the unconventional way that has enabled its success,” as the Journal put it. “Tesla acknowledges as much in its filings with the SEC, noting the company is ‘highly dependent on the services’ of Mr. Musk.”