Tesla names Australian Robyn Denholm as new chair – and “Elon Musk overseer”

Tesla has named Australian telecoms and finance executive Robyn Denholm as its new chair, replacing Elon Musk at the helm of the EV and battery maker's board of directors as it gears up to drive a new era of transport, and perhaps even profitability for the company.
In an announcement on Thursday, Tesla said it had appointed Denholm – who was just last month appointed chief financial officer at Australian telecommunications giant, Telstra – as chair of the Tesla Board, “effective immediately.”
Denholm, in accepting the role, has quit her role as Telstra CFO, but her attention will remain split between the two companies over a six-month notice period.
The move is the result of actions by US financial regulators, triggered in response to Musk's increasingly erratic Tweeting habits. And based on Denholm's impressive business credentials, and her four years' experience as chair of Tesla's audit committee, it seems like a good fit.
Notably, she spent seven years at Toyota Motor Corp. in Australia, where she was a senior financial manager. She had been serving on the board of Swiss robotics, power and automation technology company ABB when she joined Telstra.
Certainly, Australian Twitterati are loving it – one of our own who has worked her way up (the CV includes Sun Microsystems, Juniper Networks, Arthur Anderson, Toyota) to become – at the age of 55 – chair of one of the most exciting, cutting edge, closely watched and highly valued companies in the world.
Congrats to Robyn Denholm! Commerce degree from @unsw to Chair of @Tesla ???????? What. Fantastic Aussie achievement. Go change the world! ???? https://t.co/x5NYvDtfZk
— Mike Cannon-Brookes ????????? (@mcannonbrookes) November 8, 2018
Notably, she spent seven years at Toyota in Australia, where she was a senior financial manager. She had been serving on the board of Swiss robotics, power and automation technology company ABB when she joined Telstra.
“I believe in this company, I believe in its mission and I look forward to helping Elon and the Tesla team achieve sustainable profitability and drive long-term shareholder value,” Denholm said in comments on Thursday.
And from Musk: “Robyn has extensive experience in both the tech and auto industries, and she has made significant contributions as a Tesla board member over the past four years in helping us become a profitable company.”
But the response from the US press has been mixed.
“This isn't an optimal outcome,” said Bloomberg's Liam Denning, who says the appointment of Denholm represents a missed chance to appoint a true outsider, and signal real change.
Denning notes that Denholm was part of the board that didn't manage to rein in Musk's Twitter habits, which approved his “gargantuan new pay package,” and which approved the higly questionable SolarCity takeover.
“None of this means Denholm can't somehow assume a more forceful position as chair and inject some accountability into Tesla's governance,” he writes. “It just means we haven't seen much evidence of it thus far. Which rather undermines the whole point of this appointment in the first place.”
The Wall Street Journal, which concedes that Denholm's new role of “overseeing the maverick billionaire” will be difficult, sees it as much more of a positive appointment.
At the very least, it says, “it puts another leader at the top of Tesla for the first time since its earliest days when Mr. Musk was named chairman in 2004 after becoming the largest investor.”
And as “the person who has to oversee Elon Musk,” the WSJ notes that Denholm has some impressive credentials.
Ms. Denholm holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Sydney and a master's degree in commerce from the University of New South Wales, and she is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants ANZ.
“She has been on the California National Diversity council list of Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology, was named a 'Woman to Watch' by Global Telecoms Business magazine in 2017 and was awarded the Distinguished Citizen Award in 2016 by Australia's Commonwealth Club.”
All that aside, Denholm takes on the new role at an exciting time for the company, having last month delivered a profit per share (US2.90/share) where most analysts were expecting a loss.
As we reported here, Tesla also posted free cashflow of $US881million, ending years of outflows;  produced as many cars (84,000) as it did in the whole of 2016, and produced higher than expected margins (more than 20 per cent) on its 'mainstream' Model 3.
As Dieter Waizenegger – executive director of CtW Investment Group, which represents union-sponsored pension funds that own Tesla shares – put it in an email to WSJ: proof of Denholm's 'independent leadership will be whether she can transform the board into a functional entity that can guide the CEO.”
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