Tesla's quarterly earnings announced today were a shock to Wall Street ... in a good way. The company finally hit a profit--$312 million--in its third quarter of the year. Operating margin was 6.1 percent, and cash was up by $731 million at the end of the quarter. Shares jumped as much as 15 percent at times in after-hours trading.
This was a huge win for embattled CEO Elon Musk, who has seemed erratic in his social media use, general demeanor, and attitude toward any critics, including the SEC after a settlement that put him out of the position of chairman for three years.
Fanboys will celebrate the news and congratulate themselves on backing a winner. But even though Tesla reiterated expectations of profit and positive cash flow through the current quarter, Musk and the company's board need to come to terms with some deep problems that may well kept more efficient operations and profits from appearing before now.
In operating terms, Tesla's challenge has been to manufacture and deliver cars quickly enough to increase sales and cash receipts for a fiscally sustainable business.
Musk was a stranger to the automobile business. Like many other examples of CEOs that assume they can easily move from one industry to another on the power of personal genius, he assumed he could stay on top of the business.
Instead, between heading this company, acting as CEO of Space X, and spending time with projects, Musk got in over his head. In an early August interview in the New York Times, Musk complained of work weeks of 110 to 120 hours. That tops out at 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Do people have to put in log weeks at times? Certainly. But over an extended period, this is enough to shake up someone's mental state. If this becomes a regular practice, it means you're doing something wrong.
In Musk's case, it meant not getting help to shore up his weaknesses so the company could thrive. He should have hired a COO a long time back. A practiced executive eye on production and logistics might have helped get cars finished and out the door sooner in the company's history.
Can a major effort achieve a goal? Absolutely. But using a forced march to obtain this type of accomplishment doesn't happen with only the CEO suffering. The strain likely extended downward. Even if not to 120-hour weeks, then people likely felt somewhat burned out by the experience.
You can pull this type of thing off on occasion. When it's too regular, you lose people, just as Tesla lost 41 executives in 2018 by mid-September. That includes the chief accounting officer who lasted one month. The reported 70-hour work weeks and cult-like atmosphere might have had something to do with it.
Elon Musk has heavily indulged in financial engineering that put his interests above those of the company. That includes having Tesla acquire SolarCity after directing SpaceX to buy bonds from the company, which had two of his cousins as major shareholders in addition to Musk.
The danger of today's financial success, and perhaps that of the current quarter (if the company, which has broken one promise after another, pulls it off ) is premature forgiveness. Investors are often taken with CEOs who seem to deliver big. But is the delivery is real and sustainable? Better that the board finally hold Musk's feet to the fire and obtain the changes the company needs him to make.