The lesson for Elon Musk? Don't rely on fan club directors | Nils Pratley

Elon Musk has come to his senses and apologised for his ugly and baseless slur against a British cave explorer who played a key role in the rescue in Thailand. The Tesla founder couldn’t resist taking a final dig at Vernon Unsworth – he said the diver had told “several untruths and suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini [submarine]” – but at least Musk acknowledged he has nobody to blame but himself. “The fault is mine and mine alone,” he said in a tweet.

Interestingly, Musk also apologised to “the companies I represent as leader”, which was a rare admission that he failed in his duties as boss. Consider that to be a nod in the direction of those investors in the electric car company who had called for an apology.

Yet there’s a wider story here. Musk’s insult to Unsworth was unique in being slanderous but in recent months he has taken swings at Wall Street analysts, the press and short-sellers and even objected to being called “a billionaire” (a denigrating term, apparently). He comes across as absurdly prickly. Or, as Gene Munster of Loup Ventures, a US venture capital firm, said in an “open letter” to Musk this week: “Your behaviour is fuelling an unhelpful perception of your leadership – thin-skinned and short-tempered.”

Few founders of great technology firms have been models of charm and affability, it could be argued. Bust-ups tend to come with the territory. But you can’t blame investors for worrying that Musk’s reputation for self-regarding boorishness will rub off on the Tesla brand. At Uber, Travis Kalanick’s antics set back the progress of the taxi firm by annoying too many people, including regulators. It would be a shame if Tesla, a genuinely useful company, were to drive down a similar road.

Musk should take a break from Twitter, said Munster. Good idea. He would also benefit from having some independent minds in Tesla’s boardroom to remind him that he has investors and employees. The board includes Musk’s brother and two investors in SpaceX, Musk’s space company. The set-up looks too cosy.

The UK, arguably, has the opposite problem of shackled founders. We might be better at creating 21st-century technology companies if more pioneers were given Musk’s licence to pursue long-term bets. But the point remains: Tesla investors deserve a board that is prepared to tell the boss when to shut up and concentrate on the day job.

Premier Foods cake fight ends in a draw – probably for the best

Neither side deserved to win the cake fight at Premier Foods. Rebellious activist Oasis Management pursued the rotten-borough tactic of borrowing shares to inflate its voting power. Premier’s board never explained why chief executive Gavin Darby is so generously rewarded for a half-baked share price performance.

So the outcome feels about right. Darby survived in his post, which was the best pragmatic outcome, but his 59:41 majority was sufficiently slender to serve as a kick up the backside.

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Chairman Keith Hamill seems to have got the message that Premier must move faster. He’s now talking about identifying “other strategic opportunities to accelerate the company’s turnaround”. Translated from management-speak, that may mean flogging a brand or two to pay down debt and reduce pension liabilities, which was one of Oasis’ ideas.

Any disposals still need to arrive at the right price, which was Hamill’s counter-argument. Fair enough. There’s no point selling the family silver – if Batchelor’s soup can be described as such – unless you get top dollar. But at least the board is now on the hook to explain how hard it has tried and how the financial arithmetic works. That is a modest advance.


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