Who is new Tesla CFO Vaibhav Taneja?

Who is new Tesla CFO Vaibhav Taneja?

Until Monday, Tesla executive Vaibhav Taneja was just another name adorning the occasional regulatory filing—even for the EV giant’s investors.

As chief accounting officer, the 45 year-old is an insider privy to the financial secrets of Tesla and therefore subject to disclosure whenever he bought and sold shares in the company. Beyond the Form 4s he filed to disclose share movements, in which he most recently liquidated stock options worth a cool $1 million, he otherwise could have been a ghost. And forget about any fingerprints left on social media.

Now the Delhi University-trained certified public accountant is stepping into the second most important job at Elon Musk’s $800 billion electric vehicle manufacturer, where he will have to prove he is just as effective at communicating with Wall Street as his predecessor, Zach Kirkhorn.

Taneja, who keeps a low-profile and hasn’t even posted the announcement on his own barebones LinkedIn page, joined Tesla by default through its $2.6 billion acquisition of SolarCity in 2016. He led the accounting team integration, eventually becoming corporate controller. When Kirkhorn was bumped up to the C-suite in March 2019, Taneja earned his own promotion to head of accounting for the carmaker.

Prior to that, he lead a near 17-year career at top four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, where one of his skills would later prove very valuable for Tesla. For the past six years, the company has sold its vaunted Full Self-Driving feature for thousands of dollars despite being incomplete and still in beta. Taneja has been responsible for deciding when and to what extent that revenue can be recognized in a reporting period versus what must be deferred.

His background growing up in India and role as a director at Tesla’s local subsidiary may help in paving the way for growth there. The Indian car market, with its billion-plus consumers, has long been tipped to be a game changer for the industry, but has yet to fulfill its great promise.

Taneja has very big shoes to fill, given predecessor Zach Kirkhorn enjoyed enormous respect among shareholders despite not even hitting the tender age of 40. He’s credited for strict cost discipline as well as bringing stability and predictability to a key corporate function previously accused of excessive management churn.

Taneja will have to maintain the predecessor’s path of steady predictability

To borrow an automotive analogy, Tesla’s finance chiefs had been often viewed as a moving part quickly prone to wear and tear. When Kirkhorn stepped into the role in March 2019, he took over from Deepak Ahuja, who himself had to be brought back out of retirement following a short stint by Jason Wheeler.

It’s rare for even Tesla’s senior managers to emerge from the all-encompassing shadow of their talismanic CEO, but Kirkhorn did just that. The cherubic faced “Master of Coin” exuded a kind of a serene confidence and command of his portfolio that soothed Wall Street’s concerns.

During quarterly investors calls, Kirkhorn was the perfect foil for Musk’s erratic behavior and meandering tangents that unnerved a market looking for straight answers to their questions. It wasn’t unusual for some Tesla bulls to gripe afterwards they wished the soft-spoken CFO would helm the calls instead to avoid the stock’s typical sell-off after earnings days.

Having helped take Tesla from a $50 billion market cap to at one point more than $1 trillion, Kirkhorn was even tipped by the Wall Street Journal in May to be a hot contender for Musk’s job following months of speculation about CEO succession.

“Predictability is everything with a CFO,” former Tesla director Steve Westly told the paper at the time. “What you can’t do is surprise people, and he has not surprised people.”

But Taneja has proven his staying power as chief accounting officer as well—another position that previously was similar to an ejector seat. Eric Branderiz lasted two years before calling it quits while Taneja’s direct predecessor in the role, Dave Morton, departed after less than one month on the job.

“The accounting department hasn’t been without question in that time,” wrote Aakash Gupta, a vice president of product at Apollo.io, citing questions over the validity of asset values on the balance sheet. “There have been numerous other ‘scandals’ over the years—Vaibhav has handled them.”

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