SAN FRANCISCO — The very attributes that have fueled a mania around Elon Musk — his vision, brash personality and willingness to take risks — could prove to be his downfall.
The Tesla CEO who made his fortune and his renegade-genius reputation by bursting through the barriers of conventional thinking faces a humiliating comedown as government regulators try to oust him from the company in a lawsuit accusing him of duping the electric car maker’s stockholders.
But extracting Musk from the company he has become synonymous with could devastate Tesla.
Musk’s fans maintain that Tesla would be insane to get rid of him, arguing it would go down as a huge mistake similar to the one Apple made in 1985 when it ousted its own visionary founder, Steve Jobs, only to bring him back with the company on the brink of bankruptcy 12 years later.
“People who create disruptive companies tend to be somewhat abnormal, and that is what leads to these Herculean accomplishments,” said Keith Rabois, a venture capitalist who used to work with Musk during one of his early incarnations at PayPal. “They are all a little bit off central casting in their own way, but that sort of is what lets them walk through these walls or over these walls when most people are terrified.”
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Musk on Thursday, alleging he falsely claimed in an Aug. 7 tweet that he had secured financing to buy out Tesla and take it private at $420 per share, a substantial premium over the stock price at the time.
The SEC is asking a federal court in New York to bar Musk from serving as an officer or director of any public company. The case is not expected to go to trial until early next year.
The fraud case comes amid a squall of disquieting tweets and other troubling disclosures that have raised questions about whether Musk should remain at the helm of Tesla, a company valued at $46 billion.
Musk has “gone from looking like the visionary genius to looking like the out-of-control guy who probably is on the borderline of a breakdown,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
Even before the SEC went after his job, Musk had raised hackles by ridiculing stock market analysts for posing fairly standard questions about Tesla’s shaky finances, and then called a diver who helped rescue 12 boys on a Thai soccer team from a flooded cave a pedophile , triggering a libel lawsuit against himself.
The challenges already facing Tesla might become even more daunting without Musk as CEO because its fortunes are inextricably tied to those of its leader.
Musk’s charisma and accomplishments as a disrupter of several industries are worth $130 per share — or about $22 billion — to Tesla, Barclays analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a note. He called it the “Musk premium.”
Given that Tesla has mostly lost money throughout its history and has had trouble meeting its own production targets while burning through cash, the company’s stock could be in danger of cratering without Musk’s aura.
That, in turn, could make it more difficult to raise more money to stay alive, particularly in the coming months, with $1.3 billion in debt payments coming due by early next year. It could also scare off consumers who are being asked for large deposits when they order the futuristic electric cars. And it could make parts suppliers skittish about doing business with the company.
Investors are already shuddering over what a Musk-less future might bode for Tesla.
The company’s stock plunged nearly $43 on Friday, or almost 14 percent, to $264.77, erasing $7 billion in shareholder wealth. Barclay’s Johnson is predicting Tesla’s stock will fall to $210.
That’s a 44 percent decline from where the shares ended just hours after Musk tweeted over the summer that he had secured funding for a buyout.
The SEC alleges Musk wasn’t even close to locking up the money and based the price at a slang reference to marijuana — 420 — to amuse his girlfriend. Since that tweet, Musk has been seen on camera apparently smoking marijuana in California, where the drug is legal.
Although the SEC contends Musk’s conduct should disqualify him from remaining as CEO, the agency may have to consider the damage that would be done to Tesla’s shareholders if he were ousted, said Joseph Grundfest, a Stanford Law School professor and former SEC commissioner.
The SEC’s challenge is to “appropriately discipline Musk while not harming Tesla’s shareholders,” Grundfest said.
In an apparent effort to do that, the SEC offered Musk a settlement that would have allowed him to pay a small fine and stay on as CEO if he agreed to certain conditions, including restrictions on when he could release information publicly, according to a person knowledgeable about talks between the company and regulators.
The person, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were private, said Friday that Musk rejected the offer because he didn’t want a blemish on his record.
For its part, Tesla’s board is standing behind him, declaring in a statement that it is “fully confident in Elon, his integrity, and his leadership of the company.”
Tesla might be able to thrive without Musk if it could replace him with a more experienced automotive or technology veteran who has been at the helm of a profitable company, said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book.
But that might depend on Musk — who owns a roughly 20 percent stake in Tesla — being willing to accept a less visible role at the company. “That role could be completely impossible for Elon to play,” Brauer said.