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Amid weed-smoking row, Musk elevates Tesla insider to head auto operations

New automotive president Jerome Guillen has decorated resume

Dana Hull | Bloomberg 

Jerome Guillen
Jerome Guillen, Tesla, automotive president

Outside of Tesla Inc., is hardly a household name.

But to some of the earliest, die-hard customers who bought Tesla’s first Model S sedans, a fixer is getting the promotion he deserves, and chief executive officer is getting help he desperately needs.

On Friday, Musk announced that Guillen, the brains behind the Model 3 assembly line built, against all odds, under a tent outside Tesla’s car factory, had been elevated to the new position of automotive president. The cobbled-together line was instrumental to the company finally delivering on a production target this summer -- a feat that faded from the headlines largely due to Musk’s questionable antics. Almost a month to the day after publicly starting a short-lived effort to take Tesla private, he smoked marijuana with a comedian on a live-streamed podcast.

In Guillen, 46, Tesla has promoted a skilled multitasker who’s proven able to operate at the breakneck speed his abrasive boss demands. Some investors have called for the carmaker to find a Musk whisperer along the lines of -- the chief operating officer who helps him run Corp. -- so that the CEO can navigate his way back from a dramatic period that’s raised questions about his well-being.

“Jerome is great,” Musk wrote in an email to Bloomberg News, weeks before he announced the promotion. “He has made a huge difference to Tesla many times over.”

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Tesla could use a difference maker to rebound from a chaotic period that’s sent its stock tumbling to end last week at the lowest closing price since April 2. The shares have plunged 31 percent since Aug. 7, the day of Musk’s initial take-private tweets.

Musk’s Fixer

joined Tesla in the fall of 2010 as the program director for the Model S, the Tesla’s breakthrough electric vehicle that laid the groundwork for the crossover and more mass market Model 3 that followed. For some early customers who bought the Model S, became their go-to as the company struggled with growing pains.

Tesla lacked sufficient sales and service centers, meaning the company was delivering brand new electric cars directly to people’s homes. It was a process that worked well for the first few hundred deliveries in California, but became a huge logistical headache once customers in remote pockets of the country were left waiting. Musk had Guillen add sales, service and deliveries to his portfolio.

Andrew Wolfe of Los Gatos, California, bought a Model S in the fall of 2012 and met Guillen at a meeting of Tesla owners in Fremont, where the company has its factory. Wolfe began regularly emailing Guillen, sending suggestions such as where in Silicon Valley the carmaker should consider opening additional service centers. He also aired frustrations with issues like the lack of a Tesla loaner vehicle.


ALSO READ: Why Elon Musk reversed course on taking Tesla private

Wolfe still has the emails in which Guillen responded with polite appreciation for the feedback.

“Jerome has been around for a long time and is clearly trusted by Elon,” Wolfe said Sunday in a phone interview. “He has a history of being the guy they send in to deal with stuff going wrong.”

Impressed Desk Mate

Former Tesla employee Neil Joseph, who lead the Model S delivery program, reported to Guillen and sat at the desk immediately to the left of him for a roughly yearlong period ending in 2013. Joseph recalls that Guillen typically arrived at the office by 6 a.m. and worked late into the evening.

“What rocked my mind every single day for that year I sat next to him was his ability to multitask,” Joseph said in a phone interview Sunday. “He would be on a Webex call, he’d be working on these detailed spreadsheets, he’d be sending emails, and it would all be extremely precise.”

After holding early-day calls with Tesla’s service, delivery, and sales teams, Guillen would follow up throughout the day on their progress and to check on what help was needed. “The spreadsheets would become data that he would pass up to Elon every night,” Joseph said.

Daimler Days

Tesla has struggled with executive turnover for years, in part due to Musk being a demanding boss and the pace of work being hectic even by Silicon Valley standards. Guillen took a several-months-long leave of absence from the company in 2015 but returned in 2016 to lead the company’s Semi truck program. Shortly after Guillen’s return, Musk lauded his track record at Daimler AG’s truck division, where he oversaw development of the Cascadia heavy duty semi trailer.

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When Tesla first unveiled the Semi at a late-night party in November 2017, Guillen briefly spoke on stage before Musk rolled in with the trucks and stole the show with the unexpected next-generation Roadster. Tesla has said the Semi will begin production in 2019, but has yet to announce where it’ll be produced.

Guillen’s promotion was announced along with a series of other personnel moves Friday after Tesla’s shares were battered by the fallout from Musk’s marijuana smoking and the exodus of two more major executives. Chief Accounting Officer Dave Morton gave notice last week that he was resigning less than a month into the job, and the company also lost its head of human resources.

Can’t Do It All

“Elon recognizes that he can’t do everything himself,” Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, said by phone. “Promoting Jerome is a small step in what is a much bigger problem, which is retaining existing talent and recruiting new talent.”

Tesla’s board has been on the lookout for senior talent but not actively searching for a chief operating officer, a person familiar with the board’s thinking told Bloomberg News in August. Though Guillen is not a COO, auto operations remain the bulk of Tesla’s business, meaning his new role will loom large.

“It’s no secret that Musk has been overstressed and overworked, by his own admission, and certainly his erratic behavior as of late would seem to reflect that,” Ed Kim, an analyst at car-consulting firm AutoPacific, said in an email.

“Guillen, as an eight-year veteran of Tesla, knows the company’s operations inside and out and should be more than able to oversee the company’s day to day activities. This should give Musk more bandwidth,” Kim said, as well as time to “regroup himself.”

First Published: Mon, September 10 2018. 11:42 IST
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