What does it mean for Tom Zhu to be the VP of Tesla's automotive business? Musk will go?

In a regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on April 6, local time, Tesla disclosed that Tom Zhu has served as senior vice president of the company's automotive business since April 2023, joining CEO Elon Musk, CFO Zachary Kirkhorn and powertrain and energy engineering senior Vice President Andrew Baglino (Andrew Baglino), divided into Tesla's four global executives.

According to Tesla's latest documents, Tom Zhu has been the senior vice president of Tesla Motors since April this year.

According to Tesla, Tom Zhu joined Tesla in April 2014 and held various operational roles leading the construction and operations of the Shanghai Giga before being named regional vice president for China. tom Zhu holds a bachelor's degree in information technology business from Auckland University of Technology and a master's degree in business administration from Duke University.

In Tesla's filings, the company records the names, ages and positions of only four executives in the same table. At the top of the list is, of course, Tesla CEO Musk, who is 51 years old, and in second and third place are Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn and Senior Vice President Andrew Bagliano, who are 38 and 42 years old, respectively, not far from Tom Zhu.

Tom Zhu was on hand at Tesla's Investor Day in March, when he was publicly identified as "Tesla's Global Vice President. At the event, Zhu announced that the 4 millionth Tesla had rolled off the production line from the Texas super plant, which means Tesla is one step closer to reaching its goal of 20 million units of annual production capacity by 2030.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Tom Zhu graduated from Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand with a bachelor's degree in information technology in 2004. This school was founded in 1895, one of the eight national comprehensive research universities in New Zealand.

Four years after graduating from college, Tom Zhu went on to Duke University in the United States in 2008, where he earned his MBA in 2010. According to Bloomberg Businessweek's previously published ranking of the nation's best full-time MBA programs, Duke University's Fuqua School of Business is in the top tier of U.S. business schools, alongside Harvard Business School.

In LinkedIn, Tom Zhu documents his work experience while attending school: In his second year at Duke, in May 2009, Tom Zhu joined Kaplan International Engineering Consulting. He then rose through the ranks like a rocket. After seven months as Director of Corporate Strategy, Tom Zhu was promoted to Associate Project Manager and then to Project Manager a year later. By the time he became project manager, Tom Zhu had graduated from Duke University, and soon after he was promoted to vice president at the firm, where he worked on property management and engineering implementation.

Kaplan International Engineering Consultants was the only firm Tom Zhu worked for before joining Tesla. In media interviews, Tom Zhu has also shared his experience with this company with employees - he once flew to North Africa to manage local workers.

In April 2014, Tom Zhu joined Tesla as a supercharger project manager in China, and in December 2014, he became general manager of Tesla China.

The man speaks fast and hardly needs to sleep.

Tom Zhu has a low-key personality and no social accounts in China, and rarely gives interviews. There was a face-to-face roundtable interview with Tom Zhu, and I was impressed with him.

In the fall of 2018, Tom Zhu, then president of Tesla China, once visited the Tesla Dongpo Road showroom in Hangzhou to communicate with the media.

The exchange was held in a restaurant behind the Apple Store in Yintai, a small place, surrounded by a long table, crowded with seven or eight media, Tom Zhu sat in the middle in a plain suit, just face to face with the reporters.

As far as the reporter could remember, Tom Zhu was a native Chinese, lean, with standard Mandarin and very clear logic, but later he learned that he was a New Zealand national. During the interview, he was not a general car executive, but a very fast and informative speaker, who talked about many details that were not known to the outside world, appearing to be simple and very sincere, making people feel very high credibility. Before the interview I heard that the president is super energetic and hardly needs to sleep, during the interview he was asked, "Really don't need to sleep?" He seriously replied, "Will sleep for two hours, but sometimes I'm so stressed that I don't have time to sleep."

Shortly after the Hangzhou trip, on Oct. 17, 2018, Tesla officially signed a Land Grant Contract with the Shanghai Planning and Land Resources Administration. Here was built the Shanghai mega-factory that later helped Tesla grow into a "behemoth".

Prior to that, "quick-witted" and "strong in execution" were the comments of many Tesla employees to Tom Zhu.

In the impression of the employees, Tom Zhu is a simple man, not too fussy about food and housing, and in the company, employees call him "Lao Zhu" or "Tom". Tom Zhu does not have a separate office or even a separate workstation in the company. He rents a room near Lingang, with a monthly rent of less than 2,000 yuan, a ten-minute drive from the company, and sometimes he lives in the factory when he works overtime. Last year, affected by the epidemic, Tesla Shanghai factory shut down, Zhu Xiaotong lived in the factory for two months, personally watching the resumption of work and production. "Practical pragmatist, result-oriented. You can't see fatigue in him." A Tesla employee told reporters that Tom Zhu is a person who especially implements the "Musk first principle", and he personally takes care of many small things that people don't think of, for example, Tesla's opinion mailbox, he will personally read it, and each customer sent him to forward to the corresponding department to solve. Once at a car show, he spent a day collecting feedback from 100 consumers. "It's hard to imagine how he could have so much energy."

Tom Zhu's diligence is recognized by Tesla and Musk. Tesla officials say Tom Zhu has been instrumental in the rapid development of Tesla's Supercharger stations in China. Tesla has built nearly 40 Supercharger stations in China and over 600 destination charging pads in more than 60 cities across the country. Musk has praised Tom Zhu's China team on several occasions, saying they "are still working late at 3am".

Replicating the "miracle" of the Chinese market

Under Tom Zhu's leadership, Tesla Giga Shanghai has not only become Tesla's highest capacity vehicle factory in the world, but also the world's largest vehicle export center. China has also become Tesla's second largest market after the U.S. In 2022, Tesla will achieve revenue of $18.145 billion in the Chinese market, accounting for 22.27%, and revenue of $40.553 billion in the U.S. market, accounting for 49.78%.

And Tesla's latest delivery data shows that Tesla delivered 422,900 electric vehicles worldwide in the first quarter of 2023, a record high. And the data of the Passenger Association shows that Tesla China's total sales in the first quarter was 229,300 units. 2022, Tesla's total global deliveries of 1.31 million units, of which, the Shanghai Super Factory delivered 710,000 units, accounting for 54% of global deliveries.

In August last year, the 1 millionth vehicle rolled off the production line of Shanghai Super Factory, and it took less than 3 years from the delivery of the first Chinese-made model to achieve this milestone, knowing that it took nearly 20 years for Tesla to go from 0 to 3 million units worldwide. The Shanghai Super Factory has become a "phenomenal" record in the history of the automotive industry. The super high production efficiency allows the Shanghai Super Factory to roll out a Model Y body-in-white in less than 40 seconds, which is much faster than the fuel car companies.

It was because of his outstanding achievements leading Tesla in China that Tom Zhu was asked by Musk last year to help run the Texas Superfacility in the U.S. to achieve capacity expansion. At the end of that year, Tesla's Texas superfactory hit a new milestone of 3,000 Model Y's per week. And it took less than seven months for Tesla to go from 3 million to 4 million units at the Texas superfacility. It's safe to say that Zhu is credited with "replicating" the productivity of Tesla's Shanghai superplant on a global scale.

What happens when a spiritual leader leaves Tesla?

But according to previous rumors, Tom Zhu may not stop there, but he may succeed Musk as CEO of Tesla, but behind the rumors, there are still countless questions waiting to be answered: What does it mean to be a Chinese executive at Tesla? Will Zhu really be the successor? What would be the impact if Musk, the spiritual leader, really left Tesla?

It's worth noting that if Tom Zhu does become Tesla's CEO, it would mean that Musk would step down from the role. Musk's "Iron Man" image has long been tied to Tesla during his years in office. It can be said that Musk is not only a Tesla executive, but also the spiritual leader of Tesla.

However, in our opinion, Tesla has now entered the cycle of normalized development, and where Musk can play a role in the future, it is more reflected in his strategic goals as chairman of Tesla, while the specific management level, perhaps Musk has no time to care.

After the private acquisition of Twitter, Musk has to simultaneously juggle the day-to-day affairs of Tesla, Twitter, Space X, Brainiac and many other companies, which has triggered a number of lawsuits with the dissatisfaction of Tesla shareholders.

On November 15, 2022, the case of Tesla shareholders suing Musk started in the U.S. court in Delaware.

The shareholders are suing Musk because, on the one hand, they believe that Musk's energy has been greatly distracted by other companies and could affect Tesla's operations, and on the other hand, they believe that Musk previously used his influence on the board of directors to create an equity incentive plan that was too easy to reach in 2018.

At the previously held Business of Twenty (B20) summit, Musk, who participated in the meeting by video, said he had too much work to do every day and that he was working as hard as he could, seven days a week, from morning to night.

And his busy schedule is mainly due to Twitter. Not long ago, Musk also tweeted that he would work overnight at Twitter.

This has happened before with Tesla and Space X. At least 2017 to 2019 will be a hellish three years for Musk.

In the TED2022 interview, he repeated the word "pain" several times, refusing to be interrupted by the host. 2017-2019, Tesla was on the verge of bankruptcy, he lived in the Tesla factory and even slept on the floor, he called these three years "the longest period of pain in my life. He called these three years "the longest period of pain in my life.

However, assuming Musk really stepped down as CEO of Tesla sometime in the future, he will not leave Tesla alone, and his character will certainly continue to manage Tesla, while Zhu's role has always been to coordinate, communicate and support Musk, after which it is likely to maintain the previous role distribution between the two, except that Tom Zhu will appear more in the foreground.

About Author
John Murphy

John Murphy is the founder of TOPCARS Tesla Aftermarket Accessories, as well as an investor in Tesla and owner of the Model Y. He posts about Tesla news while running the site on a daily basis.

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