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Tom Zhu: Elon Musk’s right-hand man at Tesla

<i>Andrew Kelly/Reuters</i><br/>Elon Musk arrives at the In America: An Anthology of Fashion themed Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 2
Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Elon Musk arrives at the In America: An Anthology of Fashion themed Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 2

By Laura He, CNN

Tesla’s China chief has reportedly been given a big promotion.

Tom Zhu has been handed Tesla’s US assembly plants and sales operations in North America and Europe as additional responsibilities, leaving just the Berlin Gigafactory outside his remit, according to media reports on Tuesday.

The reports have intensified speculation that China-born Zhu is being groomed to succeed Elon Musk as CEO at the world’s biggest electric carmaker. So, what do we know about him?

‘Pragmatic’ and ‘workaholic’

Zhu, who is now the highest-profile Tesla executive after Musk, has played a huge role in helping the company rebound strongly from Covid lockdowns in China, the carmaker’s biggest international market.

His reported appointment comes at a time when Musk has been distracted by his acquisition of Twitter, and Tesla’s stock has plunged 65% in 2022.

While Tesla did not respond to requests for comment by CNN, Chinese media has been speculating since December that Zhu was being groomed for a bigger global role at the electric automaker.

“Zhu is a core leader at Tesla and a linchpin to its success especially in China,” said Daniel Ives, managing director and senior equity research analyst covering the tech industry at Wedbush Securities.

Zhu joined Tesla in 2014 and has been described as “pragmatic,” “industrious” and “a workaholic” by the Chinese media.

“I wanna sleep so much, but the job is so damn interesting,” he said in a 2019 post on his Weibo account.

Zhu has made few public appearances since joining Tesla, and there is little public information about his age or personal life. He was born in China and CNN was not able to confirm if he still holds Chinese citizenship.

According to his social media profile, he acquired a bachelor’s degree from the Auckland University of Technology in 2004 and an MBA degree from The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Before joining Tesla, he founded a project management consulting firm, offering advice to Chinese contractors who wanted to expand overseas.

A 2021 interview by the Jiefang Daily in Shanghai, the Communist Party’s official newspaper in the financial hub, showed Zhu working from an open office, with hardly any time to eat breakfast.

“Efficiency and pragmatism are a style of our company,” he said in the interview, which is one of the few Zhu has appeared in since joining Tesla.

‘Getting your hands dirty’

In a separate video interview last year by PCauto, a privately owned Chinese news portal, Zhu revealed more about his personal life and working style.

Tesla’s China boss does not embody a flashy lifestyle. He lives in a low-cost public rental home, paying a monthly rent of less than 2,000 yuan ($290), as it is close to the sprawling Shanghai factory.

Living close to work is “quite convenient,” Zhu said in the interview. He also car pools with colleagues and starts work at 6 or 7 in the morning, often staying beyond midnight.

He also revealed that he texted Musk regularly, discussing issues at work or plans for the future, which Zhu said made him “feel extremely excited.”

In 2019, after multiple typhoons hit the Shanghai plant’s drainage system, Zhu and other Tesla employees manually drained water with plastic buckets in the rain.

“Getting your hands dirty” represents an entrepreneurial spirit and culture of of the company, he said.

Tesla’s China success

Zhu’s reported promotion came after an impressive performance by Tesla’s China operations.

Since 2014, Tesla has expanded rapidly in the world’s largest car market. In 2019, it built the Shanghai Gigafactory within 10 months, at a cost that was 65% cheaper than the Model 3 production plant in the United States.

Within a few years, it became the biggest EV production plant on the planet.

In 2021, Tesla delivered 936,000 vehicles globally, more than half of which came from the Shanghai factory.

In August 2022, Musk said the company had manufactured over three million cars, one million of which came from Shanghai. In November, the Shanghai factory set a fresh monthly delivery record of more than 100,000 vehicles. All this was achieved after Covid restrictions caused the plant to temporarily suspend production last year.

Tesla’s China sales also beat expectations. For the first three quarters of 2022, Tesla generated revenue of $13.6 billion from China, up 51% from the same period a year ago.

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CNN’s Juliana Liu and Reuters contributed to reporting.

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