Tesla has picked Robyn Denholm as its new chairman, giving the Australian telecoms executive the task of providing a check on the electric carmaker’s volatile leader Elon Musk.
Mr Musk agreed to step down as chairman as part of a settlement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which claimed he broke securities laws in August with a Twitter post saying he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. He will keep his role as chief executive.
The appointment of Ms Denholm, at present chief financial officer and head of strategy at Telstra, is effective immediately. After a six-month notice period at Australia’s biggest telecoms group, she will work full-time as Tesla chair.
Ms Denholm, 55, told the Financial Times she was really excited about the opportunity to chair the Tesla board, even though it meant stepping down from her role at Telstra just over a month after taking it on.
“Telstra is a fantastic company and I’ve really enjoyed my time here but I didn’t feel I could devote enough time to the job in my new role as Tesla chairman. So I felt stepping down in an orderly manner was the right thing to do,” she said.
Ms Denholm is Australian but also holds US citizenship, which she gained while living and working in the US for 16 years. She would not comment on the challenges she will face at Tesla.
An independent director at Tesla since 2014, Ms Denholm had previously told Australian media via a Telstra spokesman that she would not take on the Tesla chairman job.
Ms Denholm has experience of working in the US and Australia across a range of technology companies, including Telstra, Juniper Networks and Sun Microsystems. She also worked in a finance management role at Toyota.
“Robyn has extensive experience in both the tech and auto industries, and she has made significant contributions as a Tesla board member over the past four years in helping us become a profitable company,” Mr Musk said in a statement.
She has spent just under two years working at Telstra, playing an important role in helping to restructure the former state telecoms operator in the face of tough competition in its domestic market.
Over recent weeks Ms Denholm had fielded questions from Australian media about her ability to juggle her commitments as a Telstra executive and her position on the board of Tesla, which has been in crisis mode for several months.
Telstra is in the middle of a major turnround plan, which involves shedding a quarter of its 32,000 workforce, disposing of A$2bn ($1.46bn) in non-core assets and splitting its infrastructure arm into a separate division.
“Telstra chief executive Andy Penn has relied on Denholm to help him implement the company’s change programme. She will be a loss,” said Ian Martin, analyst at New Street research.
Ms Denholm holds a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Sydney and a masters degree in commerce from the University of New South Wales and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. She is one of two women on the board of Tesla.
The FT last month that reported that James Murdoch was a leading candidate to become chairman of Tesla, and was interested in securing the position. At the time, people familiar with the matter said Ms Denholm’s location in Australia was a barrier to her getting the role.
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