This past week, Tesla announced that it would sell $US500 million in stock, in an offering designed to raise cash to fund construction of a massive battery factory in Nevada and to scale up the company’s Supercharger network of charging stations.
The company then upped the amount of stock on offer, to $US640 million. CEO Elon Musk will likely purchase $US20 million in shares himself.
The move surprised no one who has been following the ups and downs of Tesla’s fortunes and stock price over the past 12 months, although it came sooner than anyone really thought.
But the move also signalled Tesla’s admission that it’s entering its fourth major crisis since the company’s founding in 2003.
Tesla has survived its previous brushes with death, so there’s no reason to expect it won’t come out on top this time, if history is any guide.
But then again, a crisis is a crisis and shouldn’t be downplayed.
Here’s a rundown of what Tesla has been through already in its short corporate lifetime.
The Elon Musk Management Crisis
Musk was an early Tesla investor and chairman of its board. As he ramped up the amount of money he was pouring into the company — funds he had from the sale of PayPal to eBay and that had made him a multimillionaire — he squared off against Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhardt. Eventually, Eberhardt would be forced out and Musk would become CEO in late 2008. Eberhardt and Tesla settled their differences after a lawsuit.
The Bankruptcy Scare
In late 2008, as the financial crisis gripped the global economy, Tesla struggled to stay in business. Musk often tells the story of how, after he had invested effectively everything he had in the company, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Only an investment round that, according to Musk, closed on Christmas Eve staved off the company’s demise and allowed it to sell chunks of itself to Daimler and Toyota and to secure a $US465 million loan from the Department of Energy. This all enabled Tesla to develop and produce the Model S sedan.
The IPO Hangover
Tesla staged an IPO in 2010, but its stock price remained fairly flat for two years before rocketing higher in spring of 2013. During the long doldrums period, Tesla was challenged to produce and deliver Model S sedans and endured a number of early manufacturing glitches and delays. The crisis ended when Motor Trend named the Model S its 2013 Car of the Year.
Tesla Crisis 4.0
Tesla is now heading for crisis number four — actually its first as a true car company rather than as a Silicon Valley startup story or as the centrepiece of a narrative about a booming stock price. With the Model S established in the market, Tesla is trying to launch a new vehicle, the Model X SUV. The car will likely be priced around $US50,000-60,000 and is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in late September.
But there have been production problems, many of which reportedly involve the back seat of the Model X. This has cut into expectations for Model S production, compelling Tesla to lower guidance from 55,000 vehicles delivered in 2015 to something between 50,000-55,000.
Tesla has also started to burn a lot of cash. So much that it threw in the towel on trying to finish up 2015 with a predicted $US1 billion in the bank — following the accounting of outgoing CFO Deepak Ahuja — and decided to sell $US500 million in stock to create a cash cushion and to mitigate some of the risks that the company now faces. The equity raise makes sense, with the stock trading near its all-time high of $US291, reached last September.
An identity crisis
But even though Tesla shares are up over 1,000% since the IPO, the auto industry is staggeringly cash-intensive. Everyone in the car business knew that Tesla was headed for this day of financial reckoning. But it took the first half of 2015 for the cash burn to become alarming enough for Musk & Co. to pull the trigger on a raise, banking the funds before any bad news around the Model X launch or weaker Model S deliveries could revisit the share-price spiral that the company experienced in late 2014.
It would be easy to argue that Tesla Crisis 4.0 is the least worrying so far. Musk is no longer an upstart CEO, the company isn’t fighting for its life, and all the pressure of an IPO has faded.
But this is actually Tesla’s biggest crisis to date. It’s an identity crisis, and although you could insist that the bankruptcy crisis was a more severe existential crisis, it was ultimately all about Tesla stabilizing itself as a startup and surging toward an IPO.
That was an existential crisis. Stabilisation was imperative to survive.
This time around, Tesla has to stabilise its new story — and validate its identity as a car company.
Dream meets reality
First, Tesla was a dream. Then it was a startup saga, complete with a visionary Silicon Valley success at the helm. Since 2013, it’s been a stock story, with the attendant dueling on both sides from the Tesla longs and the Tesla shorts, the bullish Wall Street analysts with their $US400-per-share calls versus the bears who see the stock falling to $US150.
But now its a real, live builder of automobiles (OK, sure, it’s also establishing a side business in energy storage, but that’s not much to talk about yet). The truth is that no one has ever thought of Tesla as a car company. Being in the car business is very difficult, as the General Motors, Fords, Chryslers, Toyotas, and even Ferraris of the world will tell you. Mass-production of mobility, created for fickle, choice-addled consumers and driven by credit flows, is unforgiving.
And cyclical. But this is why I think Tesla will make it through Crisis 4.0. The automotive cycle in the US right now is in a robust phase. In fact, according to some economists, the US might have another five years of running room before a recession ends the party. If Tesla has the potential to sell 500,000 vehicles a year by 2020, this is the time to do it. Because in the US alone, the annual auto market could see 20 million news cars and trucks sold by then.
If Tesla is right and the demand for all-electric vehicles is out there, then all it needs to do is get its act thoroughly together on the production front. It has the capacity, at least theoretically. The plant that it occupies in Fremont, California can produce half a million cars each year.
It’s a cliche to say that every crisis is also an opportunity. But for Tesla, its latest crisis will finally force the world see the company for what it truly is.
And what it truly is could actually change the world.
Given all this, it makes perfect sense that Elon Musk recently climbed on top of a biplane for a bit of recreational wing-walking in England. What better way to put everything in perspective before tackling one of the biggest business challenges of the past 50 years?
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