Tom Zhu: who is Tesla’s new second in command after Elon Musk?

Promoted China chief believed to have been given new role close to the top of the electric car maker's command chain

Tesla's China chief Tom Zhu at the Shanghai Gigafactory in 2019. Reuters
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Whether you like it or not, it is hard to dispute that Elon Musk will be a tough act to follow as leader of Tesla, should he stand down as the company's chief executive.

The world's second-richest person has overseen Tesla growth to become the world's most valuable car maker.

But while Mr Musk is arguably most widely known for his role at Tesla, he has in recent months been spending much of his time involved with Twitter, which he acquired in October for $44 billion.

This has led to questions over his focus on Tesla, and whether the company needs someone new at the top of its hierarchy.

Tesla has in recent days made a change very close to the top, with China chief Tom Zhu promoted to take charge of the US assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe, according to an internal posting of reporting lines reviewed by Reuters.

But who is Mr Zhu, and will the change affect Tesla?

Where does Mr Zhu rank at Tesla?

The posting showed that Mr Zhu's title of vice president for Greater China had not changed and that he also retained his responsibilities as Tesla's most senior executive for sales in the rest of Asia.

This makes him the highest-profile executive at Tesla after Mr Musk, overseeing deliveries in all of its major markets.

In December, Reuters reported that Mr Zhu and a team of people who report to him had been brought in to troubleshoot production issues in the US.

How long has he been at Tesla?

Mr Zhu, an MBA from Duke University in North Carolina, joined Tesla in 2014, having previously overseen projects for Kaibo Engineering in Libya and Sudan.

Mr Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, took over as China country manager for Tesla at the end of 2014 and helped the company's revenue triple from 2015 to 2016.

It was widely reported that he slept at the Shanghai factory during Covid-19 lockdowns last year, in a move seen as similar to actions by Mr Musk, who was embroiled in controversy over whether he and Twitter staff were staying at the company headquarters in San Francisco, and effectively using it as a hotel, which was against building permissions.

In November, during court proceedings over Mr Musk's pay package, Tesla board member James Murdoch said that Mr Musk had discussed a search for his successor at Tesla, although no names were mentioned.

Mr Zhu is "clearly taking on a bigger role at Tesla", Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said on Twitter.

He, however, added that Mr Musk "must take a more hands-on approach in 2023 at the company as the Twitter distraction along with this current demand situation is creating a perfect storm for the stock".

How has Tesla been performing?

The company set another record for annual deliveries as it shipped 1.31 million cars in 2022, up more than 40 per cent year on year.

Deliveries for the three-month period ended December 31, 2022 were up by about a third to 405,278, from 308,600 a year earlier, and about 18 per cent higher from 180,570 in the third quarter, Tesla said on Tuesday.

But, Tesla's deliveries missed Wall Street estimates and the company's own growth projection of 50 per cent, despite opening two new factories last year.

The company is scheduled to report its full-year financial results on January 25. It is battling inflation, high interest rates, supply chain issues and other economic headwinds.

The company's shares ended down 69 per cent for all of 2022.

Tesla is readying the launch of the Cybertruck and a revamped version of its Model 3 sedan. It has also said it is developing a cheaper electric vehicle but has not provided details of that plan.

What has Elon Musk said?

He has so far remained silent on Mr Zhu.

But he has already showed his willingness to stand down from one company — Twitter.

Mr Musk, who is now the first person in the world to lose more than $200 billion, posted a poll on Twitter, in which he asked: “Should I step down as head of Twitter? I will abide by the results of this poll.”

Almost 58 per cent, or about 9.86 million from more than 17.5 million users voted yes, after which Mr Musk said: "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job! After that, I will just run the software and servers teams."

Updated: January 05, 2023, 3:30 AM