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Oct 11, 2018

Why Tesla Could Do Better Than James Murdoch for Chairman I Business I DealBook I NYT



Breakingviews
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James Murdoch is reportedly a leading candidate to replace Elon Musk as chairman at Tesla.CreditCreditBryan Bedder/Getty Images for National Geographi
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Tesla can find a better chairman than James Murdoch.
The outgoing chief executive of 21st Century Fox is the leading candidate to oversee Elon Musk at the automaker, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday. He would be a better choice than any of the other directors on the board of the electric-car maker. But Mr. Musk’s tweet denying the story — which simply said “this is incorrect” — is a reminder that Tesla and its investors need a strong outsider to keep the chief executive under control.
Replacing Mr. Musk with an independent chair is required as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged that he made false and misleading statements via Twitter about a potential buyout of the company.
Mr. Murdoch is one of only three Tesla directors who safely qualify as independent: The others have too much history with Mr. Musk. Mr. Murdoch also has experience as an executive at big public companies like 21st Century Fox. True, he worked alongside his tycoon father, Rupert — but at least he knows how to deal with an entrenched shareholder-executive.
Mr. Murdoch has no background in cars, though. And he had to step down as executive chairman of News International in 2011 after a phone-hacking scandal.
Moreover, Mr. Musk’s latest tweet reinforces how neither Mr. Murdoch nor the rest of the board has yet proved able to rein him in. Publicly commenting on the chairman search gives the impression that the chief executive is playing a central role, when he should have little to no say. Another part of the S.E.C. deal requires the board to set up “additional controls and procedures” to oversee Mr. Musk’s communications.
To date, directors have either supported Mr. Musk — as they did after he rejected the initial settlement offered by the S.E.C. — or remained silent about his controversial remarks. They have not obviously curbed the his penchant for going public with unrealistic business targets, either.
Aside from tough love for Mr. Musk, improving investor relations, mass production and corporate finance are all on Tesla’s to-do list. That all makes appointing a respected outsider a better option than Mr. Murdoch. That could be former Ford Motor boss Alan Mulally, erstwhile Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney or even a hard-nosed finance type like the Goldman Sachs and White House alum Gary Cohn.
Antony Currie is associate editor at Reuters Breakingviews. For more independent commentary and analysis, visit breakingviews.com.
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