Thursday, March 30, 2023

Who is Tom Zhu, Tesla’s ‘Tim Cook’

My name is Tom ZhuI am now responsible for global production and sales and delivery services. I joined the company in 2014 and was in charge of the business in the Greater China and Asia Pacific region. Today I’m representing all the Gigafactories to talk about how we can make more cars, faster.. that’s how it was presented Zhu Xiaotong yesterday, when going on stage during the Investors Day 2023 of Tesla.

There, among other announcements, it was made official that the next Gigafactory of the company led by Elon Musk will be in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico.

But Tom Zhu not just any executive inside that gigantic machine that has revolutionized electric mobility worldwide called Tesla. In his almost 9 years in the company, he has managed to position himself as a fundamental piece of the expansion plans led by Elon Musk. To the point of becoming the tycoon’s main side — his right hand, we could also say — but without throwing away his low profile within the company, nor his unknown status outside of it.

If we draw a parallel, Tom Zhu is to Elon Musk what, at the time, Tim Cook was to Steve Jobs at Apple. It is the easiest way to highlight the importance of this Chinese executive, responsible for Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory today being a monster capable of producing around 20,000 electric cars per week.

“Building more factories is the starting point for making more cars, and we are certainly experts in it,” Zhu boasted during Investor Day 2023. His words were accompanied by a more than eloquent image: before and after construction from the Gigafactory Shanghai. How much time elapsed between the two images? Just 9 and a half months.

Tom Zhu explained that to build factories so quickly it is necessary to bet on a strategy that is as linear as possible. This requires challenge the ideas of the conventional automotive industry and to bet that all —or almost all— the work is carried out with their own equipment. He also referred to the possibility of increasing vehicle production within existing infrastructure, while new factories are built around the world.

It becomes clear that Xiaotong’s strategy is working perfectly. The executive announced that Tesla reached the milestone of 4 million electric cars produced, with an impressive evolution in manufacturing times. “It took us 12 years to build our first million vehicles and another 18 months to reach our second million. We got the third million eleven months later, and in less than 7 months we have reached the fourth million. So we are getting better and faster,” he highlighted.

Tom Zhu, a key piece for Tesla’s success

But Tom Zhu’s beginnings at Tesla were far from the electric car production line. When the executive joined the company, his first assignment was to help develop and expand the fledgling network of Superchargers. However, his rise to more relevant positions within the company occurred in a meteoric way. By the end of his first year of work, he was already the director of operations in China.

It is evident that Elon Musk recognized in Zhu Xiaotong an ally in whom he could trust the main responsibilities of his expansion in the Asian giant. In January 2019, in fact, he was one of those who accompanied the tycoon during the start-up ceremony at the Gigafactory Shanghai. By the end of the year, the manager had been promoted to the roles of Tesla China President and Global Vice President.

Tom Zhu |  elon musk |  TeslaTom Zhu |  elon musk |  Tesla

The responsibilities of Tom Zhu inside Tesla they increased again in July 2022. At that time, the company restructured his executive roles and appointed him as head of the Asia Pacific region. Until then, the supervision of sales in territories such as Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong was the responsibility of an executive located in the United States.

Despite his growing prominence at the electric carmaker, Tom Zhu continued to be virtually unknown outside the company. His public appearances have been rare in recent years, and the few interviews she has given have been to Chinese media. It is not illogical, then, the lack of exposure of him in the West.

It was only at the beginning of this year that his name began to generate more noise on this side of the world. In the early days of January, it was learned that Tom Zhu would take over overseeing Tesla’s US assembly plants and would also take up the challenge as Sales Manager for North America and Europe. All this, while he maintained his responsibilities with the brand in the main Asian markets.

In fact, the uproar over his new promotion fueled rumors about what could become Elon Musk’s successor as Tesla CEO. A possibility that at the time did not seem unreasonable, considering the “distractions” of the current CEO with Twitter.

His meteoric rise

Tom Zhu |  elon musk |  TeslaTom Zhu |  elon musk |  Tesla

Tom Zhu’s low profile makes it difficult to pinpoint an accurate rundown of his pre-Tesla career. Bloomberg states that, although he was born in China, He also holds a New Zealand passport.. This is due to his journey as a student, as he graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce specializing in Information Technology from Auckland University of Technology. Although part of his university life was also spent in the United States, where he obtained an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business, belonging to Duke University.

Before coming to Tesla, Tom Zhu served in Kaibo International, a firm dedicated to managing construction projects. In that company he held various roles —almost a premonition of his future at Tesla— and served as a consultant for projects in Asia, Africa and Oceania.

“Personally, I feel that I am a tenacious person. No matter how difficult the project is, I am determined to finish it. […] In addition to leading a team, it’s also important to provide enough space for that team to develop. The space for development and the space for promotion are different. Both my former and current Tesla team agree that we don’t care so much about position titles, but we value whether each individual can make an impact or not,” he said in an interview for the Fuqua Business School.

That tenacity led him to take a pivotal role for Tesla in China in 2014, when the company was making headlines for unintended reasons. By then, the output of Veronica Wu as chief of operations she caused quite a stir. the executive had come from Apple with much fanfare and resigned from office just 9 months after assuming.

At that time, Tesla was far from what it is today, and it was facing complex moments. On the one hand, he had problems with importing the Model S, which generated delays in deliveries. In addition, customs duties made its vehicles significantly more expensive in China than in the United States, and there were big disputes over the availability of charging points outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

But not only that: at that time, users were prohibited from driving their electric cars in Beijing during rush hours. Tom Zhu is considered one of the main responsible for the restriction being lifted in 2015., also making Tesla’s charger network grow exponentially in a short time. By 2016, Elon Musk’s company had delivered more than 11,000 vehicles in the Asian giant, generating income of more than 1,000 million dollars.

A relentless work ethic, just the way Elon Musk likes it

Tesla factoryTesla factory

During his time as Tesla’s top visible face in China, Tom Zhu earned a reputation as a “workaholic” and stood out for his permanent presence on the production line at the Gigafactory Shanghai. Of an accessible and expeditious nature, his attitudes have set the example on more than one occasion. Company employees told that, in 2019, with the factory just finished, a strong storm with rain caused the roof to flood due to failures in the drainage system. To prevent the structure from collapsing, Zhu and about thirty other employees went up with plastic buckets to try to drain the water under the deluge.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tesla was one of the many companies that suffered from the sanitary blockade imposed by the Xi Jinping government. Despite several setbacks, the Gigafactory Shanghai managed to reactivate its production with the implementation of a bubble system that forced employees to sleep inside the factory. Tom Zhu was no exception and also stayed to live within the Tesla facilities to closely follow the work aimed at recovering the production lost due to the stoppages.

In an interview with the Chinese media PC Auto in 2021, Tom Zhu commented that his work day usually started at 6am, to keep in touch with the teams in the US despite the time difference. At that time, the executive indicated that he lived in a two-bedroom apartment located just 10 minutes from the factory, and that used to share the car ride to the facility with other workers who lived in the same place.

youtube videoyoutube video

“At our company, most things are hands-on. You must get your hands dirty. About the problems we have in the markets throughout the country, I try to find out as soon as possible, ”he said at the time. In addition, he threw a rather peculiar concept about his contact with Elon Musk:

“I think he doesn’t want me to tell him about my work. Actually, he expects us to be a communication channel and bridge so that he can understand our progress as a business in China. So we keep in touch very frequently; although not only I can communicate with Elon. Actually, all of our employees can do it. If you randomly walk up to any worker in this factory and ask him how to contact Elon Musk, he will tell you.”

Will Tom Zhu be the next Tesla CEO?

Today, Tom Zhu appears to be several lengths ahead of other Tesla executives to become Elon Musk’s hypothetical successor. Although no one dares to predict when such a change of conduct may take place, if it ever happensclear.

But with his responsibilities as global production leader and sales leader across Europe and North America, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s closer to the CEO chair than ever. Speculation aside, what is clear is that Elon Musk has found his own Tim Cook in Tom Zhu.

Also in Hypertext:

Technological and scientific news in 2 minutes

Receive our newsletter every morning in your email. A guide to understand in two minutes the keys to what is really important in relation to technology, science and digital culture.


Ready! you are already subscribed

There was an error, please refresh the page and try again

We recommend you


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest article