Global Investing Hot Spots

From a single Elon Musk tweet, the keys to Tesla's India strategy

Key Points
  • Tesla's strategy for India has been unclear, even though India's population is expected to surpass China's as the world's largest within a decade.
  • A more attractive business proposition for Tesla in India than its cars may be its Powerwall home-energy solar storage solution.
  • Whatever the case, Elon Musk may lean heavily on his CFO Deepak Ahuja to call the shots.
Rush-hour traffic in Delhi
Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's latest comments on an India venture caught many Tesla watchers by surprise.

In a Twitter interaction with a Tesla fan from India on May 30, Musk indicated it was the company's Indian-born chief financial officer, Deepak Ahuja, who was really calling the shots on Tesla entering India.

"Would love to be in India. Some challenging government regulations, unfortunately. Deepak Ahuja, our CFO, is from India. Tesla will be there as soon as he believes we should."

That Ahuja — who grew up in India but moved to the United States to pursue higher education and never returned — is not known to have this particular expertise, left some industry insiders with more questions than answers.

Had he really been handed the control of the eclectic carmaker's India fate or had he been in the driver's seat all along? Could Ahuja accurately calibrate the timing of Tesla's entry into the South Asian nation and the market's readiness for its products?

Some Tesla and technology experts are interpreting the CEO's remark as merely being a cheeky throwaway quip consistent with his character, especially his Twitter persona. But others, including those who personally know Musk, inferred that the billionaire entrepreneur was simply thinking aloud — and maybe seriously — on the microblogging platform, but short of actually making anything like an official statement.

Musk's tweet was completely unexpected, said Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering and author of "The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future."

Wadhwa said he had been interacting with Musk about India, but Ahuja's role in it never came up.

"This is new. I last exchanged emails with Elon in November about going to India," Wadhwa said. "I think that Elon was just inundated and tweeted his thoughts, he wasn't making an announcement."

Wadhwa, who counts Ahuja as a friend, said the latter was close enough to India to know its problems and opportunities. "Deepak [Ahuja] is a very experienced and sensible business executive who knows both the U.S. and Indian markets — as well as the strengths and weaknesses of Tesla," he said. "Ahuja is Elon's trusted advisor, so it makes complete sense to leave the decision to him."

Deepak Ahuja, Tesla CFO (left) and Elon Musk, Tesla founder and CEO (right), at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony for the Tesla initial public offering on Tuesday, June 29, 2010.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Ahuja does have a lot of international experience with Ford, but none in India that I'm aware of," said Morningstar equity analyst David Whiston.

Ahuja ran Ford South Africa and also headed a Ford-Mazda international joint venture before he left the Detroit automaker for Tesla.

There's a possibility, though, that Musk was referring to connections Ahuja has in India.

Ahuja, who came out of retirement to rejoin the Palo Alto-based automaker last year, left India at age 22 to pursue a master's degree in materials engineering in the U.S. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs and his father has originally expected him to return to India to help run a family business after being schooled in the U.S. He did complete his undergraduate work at the India Institutes of Technology.

"While I wouldn't expect a college student to be an expert in a culture, it's certainly better insight than 'left at an early age', or someone who has only visited. And having close family and friends in India may be help as well," said Tesla analyst Eric Ross at Cascend Securities, who has a sell rating on Tesla.

A Tesla spokesman put it more simply, saying Ahuja has an important role in these types of strategic decisions, including whether and when Tesla expands into new markets.

Wadhwa said he had urged Musk to accelerate the move to India but not to rush into selling cars. Instead, he thinks India has a sizeable need for Tesla's Powerwall home battery, and that's a more attractive business proposition for Tesla in India than its cars. "This is where the biggest opportunity is," he said. "The battery when combined with solar cells can solve one of the biggest problems that Indians face — the lack of reliable power."

Musk was "very interested in India" but already had far too much demand for Powerwall than he could possibly handle, Wadhwa said. Wadhwa quoted Musk verbatim from one of their email exchanges: "He [Musk] wrote: 'India is a very important market, but it will take us a year or so to get to a scale that matters."

If your car runs out of electricity in one of India's famous traffic jams, you'd have a problem.
Morningstar analyst David Whiston
on the need to bring not just cars but charging infrastructure to India

Right now it seems India couldn't be further from Musk's mind.

"I don't think there are any [India] plans yet; they are working frantically on scaling production up to meet the massive demand," Wadhwa said. "Elon is focused on ramping up production of the Model 3, the 'production hell' that he has tweeted about."

Wadhwa estimated Tesla could sell "a million Model 3's at the $35K price as well as several million Powerwalls in the next 12 months if they could produce them fast enough."

"India requires a significant percentage of products to be manufactured in India, something TSLA doesn't have the capital nor the appetite for at this time," Ross said. India also lacks the charging infrastructure necessary for Tesla to release into a new market. "I assume given these challenges, Ahuja may put India on the back-burner for a while; I certainly would if I were in his shoes."

Based on "current expectations," TSLA could release Models S and X in India no sooner than in August 2019, and Model 3 in December 2019, Ross estimates.

Similar production concerns were expressed by Morningstar's Whiston, who said Tesla has to be able to bring enough product to meet demand at a pace satisfactory to consumers, and build up the charging infrastructure [in India]. "If your car runs out of electricity in one of India's famous traffic jams, you'd have a problem," the Morningstar analyst said.

The current drive to reach profitability 

Then there's another hurdle that Musk would rather the market didn't obsess over too much: the need to raise capital. Contrary to Musk's repeated claims he wouldn't need to raise capital, Ross said the India launch is out of the question until Tesla has raised capital to the tune of several billion dollars.

"We don't expect they will even announce anything until they have raised capital, which we expect in the second half of 2018, or the first half of 2019, at the latest," Ross said, adding that "TSLA will raise additional capital once they show a strong ramp of Model 3s, perhaps 5,000 units per week, and at good margins, so there is a positive story to tell investors."

Tesla referred questions about its cash needs to its recent Q1 shareholder letter in which the company said that if it executes according to its plan for Model 3 production, then it will at least achieve positive net income excluding non-cash stock based compensation in Q3 and Q4 and expects to also achieve full GAAP profitability in each of these quarters. "Ultimately, the growth of Model 3 and the profit associated with it will help us accelerate the transition to sustainable energy even faster," the letter said.

Last week at the Tesla annual meeting, Musk followed that up by saying, "I think it is really looking like we will have positive gap net income next quarter as well as positive cash flow in Q3 and Q4. And we, as I have said before, do not expect to need to raise any incremental debt or equity."

Tesla announced a round of layoffs last week equal to 9 percent of its workforce, or roughly 3,600 employees, mostly salaried positions and with no expected impact on Model 3 production. In an email to Tesla employees explaining the job reductions, Musk wrote the move was required to reduce costs and become profitable.

Ross said he didn't think Musk was lying about capital requirements, but was being too "optimistic about his production assumptions."

It's unlikely Musk could ramp up production to "10,000 Model 3 cars per week, but if he did reach that level, he'd start generating real cash flow and he could then fund himself."

Over the weekend, Musk sent an email to Tesla employees saying that "radical improvements" are needed to meet quarterly targets.

Ross gave another reason — less specific but maybe equally significant — as to why India may have to wait: "Tesla has too many balls in the air, and any time they have a challenging quarter, they announce a new 'world-changing vehicle'," Ross said. "We now have a Model Y, Semi and pickup truck coming, all miraculously without requiring a capital raise."

Musk may have put the India tweet in its proper place best himself when taking to his favorite online hangout last Friday to communicate about another topic: "Don't take my tweet too seriously. For one thing, it's called a 'Tweet.'"

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