In picking Robyn Denholm to keep Elon Musk in check, Tesla Inc.’s board went with a numbers-first executive who climbed up the ranks of multinationals’ finance departments. Those who know her say her no-nonsense methods may be exactly what Tesla needs.
“Everything about her is rational, reasonable, and warm. I’m not surprised she got the job,” Scott McNealy, the co-founder and former chairman of Sun Microsystems Inc., said in a phone interview. “If Elon listens to her, he’ll be way more successful.”
As Tesla’s chairman, Denholm, 55, will be responsible for holding back celebrity CEO Musk while guiding an electric-vehicle maker that’s still in a volume expansion phase and vulnerable to financial setbacks. While Tesla just celebrated a blowout quarter -- posting a rare profit -- many analysts expect further capital increases are needed before the company is on firm footing.
Denholm began her career at audit and accounting services at Arthur Andersen, and left the firm for a position in the finance department at Toyota Motor Corp.’s Australian subsidiary. She joined Sun in 1996 and was there for 11 years, including a position in the pioneering computer company’s top leadership group. She declined to be interviewed.
Musk, 47, is a classic Silicon Valley founder type, an eccentric visionary who is very much focused on products. The chairmen that oversee them often have been CEOs themselves, or led companies in other strategic roles. A chairman with a finance background isn’t as common -- though in Tesla’s case that actually could be a strength: rapport with the financial community is precisely what the carmaker is seeking to improve.
“She seems to be supremely competent in financial communications,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an expert on leadership who teaches at the Yale School of Management. “Of the likely choices, I think they made the best pick. Her strengths are not his and vice versa.”