Tesla, SpaceX, A.I., Mars and more: Is Elon Musk spread too thin?

Last Updated May 16, 2017 10:35 AM EDT

Elon Musk produces electric cars and solar roof panels for the mass market, makes rockets to launch satellites and re-supply the International Space Station, and seeks to build a machine that can read human thoughts. So is he spread too thin as chief of several groundbreaking companies?

That question comes up periodically about Musk, a serial entrepreneur and polymath, especially when his empire achieves yet another high-water mark. Just recently, his electric automaker, Tesla (TSLA), became the largest U.S. car company by stock market valuation, surpassing General Motors (GM). Now valued at almost $53 billion, Tesla has seen its stock surge more than 50 percent over the past 12 months, despite torrents of red ink: a projected loss of $950 million this year, versus GM's expected profit of $6.3 billion. 

"How can he head three companies?" asked Chicago securities attorney Andrew Stoltmann, a stockholder rights advocate who follows Musk's activities. "Tesla's stock has done well, but what happens when it drops? Shareholders will say he's spread too thin." 

The 45-year-old billionaire is also back in the news lately due to his privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. On Monday night, it launched a re-usable Falcon 9 rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit. SpaceX, which suffered two launchpad explosion in 2015 and 2016, has an ambitious schedule for 2017, aiming to prove it has recovered. Not only that: Musk wants SpaceX some day to lead the colonization of Mars. 

Meanwhile, he formed Neuralink, a company that seeks to implant tiny electrodes into people's brains that will transmit their thoughts to computers. In April, he predicted that this endeavor would eventually allow humans  to communicate via telepathy

Musk is always a dervish of activity. Last year, he merged SolarCity, a solar panel maker that also loses money, into Tesla, a controversial move that critics called a bailout. He also is pursuing ideas like the Hyperloop, an ultra-fast, long-distance transportation scheme, propelling passengers through a tube in capsules. Another potential project is to ferry cars around traffic-congested Los Angeles in high-speed underground tunnels. What's more, he runs an active charity.

Musk's businesses are churning out new products at a rapid pace. Later this year, Tesla plans to deliver its newest sedans and SUVs, and Musk says reservations for them are huge. This summer, SolarCity will begin selling solar roof tiles, which could mark a breakthrough for the sunshine-to-electricity industry, replacing ugly roof panels.. 

No wonder that skeptics question how he can keep all the plates spinning. Lawyer Stoltmann points to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of both social media website Twitter (TWTR) and mobile payments services provider Square (SQ), which have had rough spells. Their uninspiring performances prompted some analysts to call on Dorsey to choose one or the other. "Like Dorsey, Musk has too much" to keep track of, Stoltmann said.

Last year, software developer Mark Hibben, writing on the Seeking Alpha investor site, called for Musk to step down from Tesla management. On a quarterly earnings call with analysts, Hibben wrote, Musk "sounded exhausted." Hibben added that he often "wondered how he could possibly serve as CEO of SpaceX, and Tesla and be chairman of SolarCity. Combined with his various avocations such as Mars colonization and Hyperloop, it all seems too much."

In the most recent Tesla earnings call , in early May, Brad Erickson of Pacific Crest Securities asked Musk how, given his plethora of activities, he could manage "staying actively in place at Tesla longer into the future"

Musk replied: "I intend to be actively involved with Tesla for the rest of my life. Hopefully stopping before I get senile." 

Often likened to Steve Jobs, and sometimes to Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, Musk is a self-made man who has prospered as an inventor. Actor Robert Downey Jr. turned to him for inspiration when the actor was playing the billionaire Tony Stark, a fictionalized icon of technological innovation, in the "Iron Man" movies.   

So how does Musk intend to do it all and keep at it year after year? Musk and his staff would not comment publicly. But he does have an eye for talent, which helps get things done. A person who knows him well said he is ably served by competent lieutenants, particularly J.B. Straubel, co-founder and chief technology officer of Tesla, and Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.   

To be sure, a large part of Musk's success is his seemingly boundless energy, aided by ample dollops of pluck, intelligence and creativity. After all, he taught himself computing at 10 and sold a video game he created at 12 to a computer magazine for $500. South African-born Musk immigrated to Canada at 17 and then came to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned two bachelors degrees, in physics and economics.

He made his first fortune by selling an online city guide company called Zip2 to Compaq in 1999, and his second as a co-founder of PayPal, cashing out when eBay (EBAY) bought it in 2002. He ranks No. 80 on the Forbes World's Billionaires list, with an estimated wealth of $15.3 billion. 

Of course, it helps that Musk has assistance from Washington and state and local governments in the form of tax breaks, grants and rebates for his technologically oriented companies, which are dedicated to fighting global warming or pushing America into the cosmos. A Los Angeles Times article contended that Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX will benefit from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support.      

By most accounts, Musk thus far has been able to turn in an epic display of multi-tasking because of his:  

Non-stop work ethic. This is a man who believes relaxing promotes vulnerability. He once told Business Insider that when "I took a week off, my rocket exploded. The lesson here is don't take a week off." In a TV appearance on Denmark's 21 Sondag program, Musk admitted he's only taken time off twice in 12 years. He typically puts in 90-hour work weeks.

Always intent on keeping a tight schedule, he seems to order his day more by instinct than by regimentation. "I've actually not read any books on time management," Musk told Mashable. At Tesla, he often will inspect vehicles personally as they come off the production line. He has a sleeping bag so he can stay close to the factory floor around the clock. 

"My desk has frequently been in the factory," Musk told Business Insider. "I move my desk around to wherever the most important place is in the company at that time."

Attention to detail. Musk doesn't just inspect a sampling of Teslas. He reportedly eyeballs each of them. He also is a one-man guinea pig, requiring his engineers to install every proposed change on his own Tesla before he okays them for customers. 

One story about Musk is that he once discovered the wrong kind of screw was used in Tesla sun visors and said,  "they felt like daggers in my eyes." Another pictures him obsessing over the design of a key fob, spending weeks over its dimensions and appearance. 

Relentless reading gives him many of his ideas. Dolly Singh, a former SpaceX executive, told Quora that "Elon reads voraciously; he taught himself how to design and build the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft by reading books." 

Nevertheless, despite his hard-driving focus, Musk's career has had its share of glitches. After a succession of successful launches, there were the SpaceX rockets that blew up on the pad over the past two years. And last May, a self-driving Tesla car crashed into a tractor trailer on the highway, killing the Tesla driver and pulling Musk into a public argument over how safe the vehicles are (federal auto-safety regulators later found no defects in its autopilot system).  

Riding his subordinates. Author Ashlee Vance, in a book about Musk, writes that his employees both revere and fear him, and try to please him by copying his marathon work habits. Vance writes, "They give up their lives for Musk." 

Life with Elon is not always orderly or predictable. In an analysis of Musk's management style, the Booth consulting firm found: "An engineer might spend nine months working 100 hours a week on something because Musk has pushed him to, and then out of nowhere, Musk will change his mind and scrap the project."  

"I have OCD on product-related issues," he told the Wall Street Journal, meaning obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I always see what's wrong ... I never see what's right. It's not a recipe for happiness."

A self-described SpaceX engineer, writing on Quora, noted: "You can always tell when someone's left an Elon meeting. They're defeated." Over the past year, amid rising pressure from the pending rollout of the next car model, high-level executive departures have rocked Tesla. The chief financial officer, the director of hardware engineering and the human resources head have left.

And in what is now Tesla's energy division, SolarCity co-founder Lyndon Rive announced on Monday that he would be leaving in June to start another company and to spend more time with his family. Rive also is Musk's cousin.

Ability to inspire. A devout science fiction enthusiast, Musk has an ability to instill his vision in employees, customers and investors. What he is selling, as he is fond of saying, is the future.

Whether it will come to pass as he predicts, or with him in the forefront, remains to be seen. Wall Street treats Tesla like a technology stock, viewing it as the best bet to dominate electric cars and battery storage.   

"Tesla engenders optimism, freedom, defiance and a host of other emotions that, in our view, other companies cannot replicate," analyst Alexander Potter of Piper Jaffray told Bloomberg News.   

On paper, GM (10 million vehicles delivered in 2016) should have the advantage over Tesla (80,000). Tesla lags behind GM in bringing out the next-generation electric car: the Chevrolet Bolt, introduced in February with a price and range similar to Musk's next entry, the Model 3 sedan, debuting later this year. Trouble is, GM can't match the enthusiasm surrounding Tesla. 

It's fair to ask if Musk can wear so many hats. But Jobs was the head of both Apple (AAPL) and Pixar Animation Studios. And Edison led businesses in electricity generation, movies and batteries. Like them, Musk is a dreamer, and maybe his can all come true.

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.