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Elon Musk’s rumored Tesla successor keeps a low profile: Here’s what we know

Elon Musk was grilled on Tesla's price cuts during the company's earnings call



Board members have considered making the company’s chief financial officer, Zach Kirkhorn, the next CEO of
Tesla, the Journal reported, citing a person familiar with the issue.
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  • Tesla board members have considered making CFO Zach Kirkhorn Elon Musk’s successor, WSJ reports.
  • Ex-staffers said the CFO is a mediator and one exec said he’s careful to stay out of the limelight.
  • Tesla cofounder JB Straubel said Kirkhorn gained Musk’s favor by sharing “bad news.”

Tesla may have found a potential successor to Elon Musk after all, according to a recent report from The Wall Street Journal.

Board members have considered making the company’s chief financial officer, Zach Kirkhorn, the next CEO of Tesla, the Journal reported, citing a person familiar with the issue. The publication said that Kirkhorn’s name was mentioned before a trial last year over Musk’s $44 billion Tesla pay package. 

The lawsuit from a Tesla shareholder claimed that Musk’s 2018 compensation plan was “beyond the bounds of reasonable judgment” and alleged that the funds had enabled the billionaire to focus on his other companies — including his recent Twitter acquisition, which has spurred concern from other Tesla investors. The lawsuit has yet to be resolved.

During the trial, Tesla board member James Murdoch said that Musk had identified a potential successor within the months leading up to the trial, but the board member did not specify who Musk had suggested.

The Journal compared Musk’s relationship with Kirkhorn to the connection between Apple cofounder Steve Jobs and the company’s current CEO, Tim Cook, inasmuch as both Jobs and Musk have been willing to take “risky bets” in order to build their companies, while Cook and Kirkhorn appear to have taken a more cautious approach and have helped keep the companies in balance. 

Tesla staff who worked with Kirkhorn told the Journal that the CFO is adept at responding to Musk’s requests and taking on the role as a mediator between the billionaire and other workers. In the past, former executives have said the billionaire can be a difficult person to work for, prone to bouts of anger and even instances of rage-firing employees — allegations Musk has adamantly denied, calling them  “false” on Twitter and saying he gives “clear and frank” feedback to employees. Former SpaceX executive Jim Cantrell previously told Insider that Musk can be “vicious” when his expectations aren’t met.

Tesla cofounder J. B. Straubel told the publication that Kirkhorn works well with Musk because he is careful to “share the bad news even louder and faster than the good news.” Straubel was nominated to Tesla’s board in April.

Kurt Kelty, a former senior director of battery technology at Tesla, told the Journal that the CFO “doesn’t take the limelight from Elon.”

Over the years Musk’s persona has become virtually synonymous with Tesla’s brand. Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard previously told Insider that his relationship with Musk went sour when he became the face of Tesla in its early days, adding that Musk would call him and “scream” at him when he wasn’t mentioned in a news article about the company.

Some former executives told the publication that Kirkhorn addresses many everyday operations even outside of company finances. Meanwhile, the executive has kept a low profile on social media and in the news.

Musk and Kirkhorn did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication. A spokesperson for Tesla also did not respond to a request for comment.

Kirkhorn has worked at Tesla for over a decade. He first started out at as senior analyst at the car company in 2010, per his LinkedIn profile. He took over as CFO from Deepak Ahuja in 2019 and over the past four years Tesla’s value has surged. Prior to joining Tesla he worked as an analyst at McKinsey & Company, as well as interned at Microsoft, his profile shows. 

Kirkhorn is not the only Tesla executive who is rumored to be a potential successor to Musk. Earlier this year, several news outlets speculated that the carmaker’s chief in China, Tom Zhu, could be Musk’s successor after he took over leadership of Tesla’s US assembly plants and sales in both North America and Europe in January, per a report from Reuters.

Read the Journal’s full story on its website.

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