Tesla has a new second-in-command.
Zhu Xiaotong, who is called Tom Zhu, is currently Tesla’s vice president for Greater China. He will assume responsibility for Tesla’s US assembly plants and sales operations in North America and Europe. The promotion comes amidst much trepidation over CEO Elon Musk’s divided attention between Tesla and Twitter. (Note: Bloomberg Hyperdrive notes that Tesla hasn’t made any formal announcement about Zhu’s promotion and has yet to officially name him as an executive officer.)
What do we know at this point about Tom Zhu? What might his influence look like for Tesla moving forward?
What is Zhu’s role in the Tesla organization? Tom Zhu is now the highest profile executive at Tesla after Elon Musk. He will be taking on the additional responsibilities on top of his current role. Zhu was brought over to Austin late last year to help run the company’s newest plant.
What does Zhu’s resume look like? He holds a 2004 bachelor’s degree of commerce in information technology from the Auckland University of Technology and an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In an interview with Duke’s Fuqua School, Zhu described himself as “tenacious.” His career experience prior to Tesla, according to Forbes, included running a project management consulting firm where he advised Chinese contractors looking to expand overseas. Zhu rose through Tesla’s ranks quickly, becoming manager of China operations by the end of his first year. Before mass production began at Tesla Shanghai at the end of 2019, Zhu had been promoted to global vice president and president of Greater China.
Who will be within Zhu’s chain of command? Tesla’s country managers in China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand will continue to report to Zhu, as well as some North American ones. Here are the big names:
- Jason Shawhan, director of manufacturing at the Texas Gigafactory;
- Hrushikesh Sagar, senior director of manufacturing from Tesla’s Fremont factory;
- Joe Ward, vice president of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; and,
- Troy Jones, vice president of North America sales and service.
Tesla's China chief Tom Zhu has been promoted to take direct oversight of the electric car maker's U.S. assembly plants as well as sales operations in North America and Europe. https://t.co/wO4tF2h7PR
— Automotive News (@Automotive_News) January 3, 2023
What makes Zhu a good fit for the new second-in-command position? Zhu has been credited for how strongly the Shanghai plant was able to rebound after Covid lockdowns in China halted production for many companies.
What areas of Tesla will come under Zhu’s purview? Zhu will supervise Tesla’s production plans for the Cybertruck launch, an updated version of the Model 3 sedan, and the likely emergence of a smaller, cheaper model (we’ll call it the “Model C” for now).
What kind of person is Zhu? Zhu seems to pride himself on loyalty to company — he’s frequently seen dressed in a Tesla-branded fleece — and on a minimalist approach to manufacturing. “The company’s culture is not to waste resources and time on those fancy and nonsense things,” Zhu said in a recent and rare video interview with PCAuto, a local car-review website. “Focus your main energy and resources into what really matters. We don’t have a huge administrative organization here to service the management. Book tickets by yourself, grab your food by yourself. Everybody is very used to it. This is an expression of true equality, right?” It has been said that during the two-month Covid lockdown in Shanghai, Zhu was one of the first employees to begin sleeping in the factory so things could continue running smoothly.
— Investing.com (@Investingcom) January 3, 2023
How do Musk and Zhu get along? They seem to have an amiable relationship. During an April 2019 earnings call, Musk complimented Zhu, acknowledging that progress at the Shanghai factory was “testament to the outstanding execution of our team on the ground there. I get daily emails with a dozen pictures from one day to the next from Tom Zhu, who leads the Gigafactory program.” The Shanghai Gigafactory was built in 10 months. Eventually, this became the biggest EV production plant in the world. For his part, Zhu said in an interview that Musk “is the smartest person on the planet.”
Tom Zhu on Tesla China developing a China-specific model car: “This is a very important opportunity in China“ pic.twitter.com/1DCL6JTx3X
— Yashu Sharma 🍊 (@heyitsyashu) January 5, 2023
How do Musk and Zhu approach their positions differently? The two execs have distinct methods of leadership. Zhu, who joined Tesla in 2014 to help build out the company’s Supercharger network, has influenced the all-electric car company primarily from behind the scenes, away from the media glare. Zhu has made very few public appearances. Musk, on the other hand, is a media showman with an uneven record of product reveals — the Model 3 reveal was record shattering, and others were influential milestones as well, but some splashy events — like the unveiling of solar roofs, Cybertruck glass, and a humanoid robot — were met with only partial success.
Tom Zhu is the Tim Cook of Tesla pic.twitter.com/mIXHAlGxf2
— Big Tesla (@hikingskiing) January 3, 2023
What additional details have yet to be disclosed about Zhu? Little is known about Zhu’s family life, his age, or his country of citizenship. He was born in China, but he does hold a passport from New Zealand. Most of his family reportedly lives in Beijing, some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) away.
The CleanTechnica Takeaway
The first reaction to the news that Musk would be gaining a second-in-command Mini-Me was a collective sigh of relief around the globe from Tesla fans. Musk has been the target of a whole lot of criticism since his 2022 purchase of Twitter, and there have been growing calls to bring in a “Tim Cook” or “Gwynne Shotwell” for Tesla. Is the reveal of Tom Zhu’s extended umbrella of responsibilities the result of Musk’s mercurial actions elsewhere and their direct correlation to Tesla’s “market craziness?” Has the Tesla Board of Directors finally acquiesced to pressures to live up to its fiduciary responsibilities?
Isn’t it time to get a dose of stability and calm for a change at Tesla?
Tom Zhu seems to be a foil to Elon Musk — pragmatic, efficient, dedicated, focused on the Tesla product, resistant to the allure of media limelight.
Then again, some leadership parallels exist. Their educations prepared them for diverse and dynamic organizational stewardship. Both execs are noted for sleeping near the production line as crunch time for production numbers neared. “Getting your hands dirty” represents an entrepreneurial spirit and culture of the company, Zhu has said. Musk explained that he felt immersed in “production hell” as the company ramped up production of the Model 3.
Musk and Zhu compliment each other publicly, demonstrating professional respect and deference where appropriate. The two text regularly, discussing issues at work or plans for the future, which Zhu said made him “feel extremely excited.”
As the two settle into their newly defined roles, it will be interesting to watch their relationship evolve and to see the effects that Zhu has on Tesla.
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