Source: USA TODAY
HAWTHORNE, Calif. — If endless hours are a requirement to become a business icon, Elon Musk has put in his share.
Nearly every week, he shuttles 400 miles between electric-car maker Tesla Motors in the San Francisco Bay Area and rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in this Los Angeles suburb. He is CEO of both.
His bruising seven-days-a-week schedule means heading for Tesla on Monday nights, returning on Thursdays to run SpaceX — as the rocket business is commonly called — then often spending the weekends at Tesla. All the while, he juggles responsibilities that go with being father to five young boys.
Musk looks the part of a jet-setter — he showed up to the interview at SpaceX in a sleek black leather jacket — but he talks like the lifestyle is grinding him down.
“I definitely would not recommend it. It is not the path to a happier life,” he says.
As fatiguing as his life may be, Musk is establishing himself as one of America’s pre-eminent high-tech entrepreneurs. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook and Sergey Brin and Larry Page introduced the world to Google. But Musk not only co-founded online payment service PayPal, he doubled, then tripled down by taking on two entirely unrelated, high-risk tech businesses.
His bet is starting to pay off. SpaceX grabbed the nation’s attention last year when its Dragon spacecraft became the flying delivery van to the International Space Station. It dropped off 1,673 pounds of supplies then splashed down in the Pacific. A second mission last month proved just as successful.
Musk says SpaceX has been profitable for five years, serving not only the government but myriad businesses that need its Falcon 9 rocket to deliver satellites into orbit.
Then there is Tesla. Musk is one of five co-founders in the company and later took control as it developed a small plug-in sports car. He ordered a raft of changes to the Tesla Roadster that slowed the path to market. But the company ended up selling 2,500, making it one of the first big sellers of plug-in cars.
The company’s next and only current product, the Model S luxury sedan, marked a huge step up in size and sophistication when it hit the market last year. The performance version can jet from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds and is EPA-rated for a range of up to 265 miles per charge, the most of any plug-in electric. Motor Trend made the Model S its coveted Car of the Year, lauding its quickness with looks that will wow valets at swanky hotels “like a supermodel working a Paris catwalk.”
Despite a starting price of $70,890 for the cheapest version with shipping, Tesla has boosted production. It made more than 4,750 of the sedans at the former Toyota-General Motors factory in Fremont, Calif., in the first quarter, and Musk is predicting Tesla’s first quarterly profit. The company says it plans to repay its $465 million federal loan early.
If you’re expecting Musk, 41, to take a bow, think again.
SpaceX is “doing pretty well these days,” but Tesla is “a couple of years behind that,” with the goal of making it profitable as a top priority, he says. A gull-winged electric SUV called the Model X is next up and a smaller, cheaper sedan is another three or four years out. So it’s easy to see why he might seem distracted.
Just keeping the issues he needs to track — he calls them “mental balls in the air” — with both companies would be enough to overwhelm many executives. But Musk says he is able to keep the two separate, although he occasionally needs to be reminded what company he will be talking about at a meeting. He says he can manage the occasional crisis at one of his companies, but when it is two at the same time, “then it is really difficult.”
It has happened. No year will beat 2008 for sheer difficulty, Musk says. SpaceX had seen three failed rocket launches. “If there had been a fourth failure, the company would have died,” he says. (It succeeded.) At Tesla, a round of financing fell apart as lenders scattered as the nation’s financial crisis heightened. Unable to pay the rent or make payroll without the new financing, Tesla’s future came down to the wire. Musk says at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve — “the last hour of the last day” when it could close — the money came through.
Now, having developed what he terms “a high pain threshold” when it comes to business, Musk is able to once again look longer term. He not only makes electric cars but crusades for their place on the highway. The nation, he believes, needs to stop denying that global warming exists and develop more sustainable transportation.
“We’re running the most dangerous experiment in history right now, which is to see how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere … can handle before there is an environmental catastrophe,” Musk says.
Besides running the two companies, Musk is chairman of Solar City, a solar-power provider to residential and business customers.
Musk, born in South Africa and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, cares as well about immigration reform. Preventing talented immigrants from taking a chance in America only means more of them will set up shop in their home countries, he says.
Musk is living proof of the value of immigration. Despite finding multiple ways to invest the fortune he made out of PayPal, Musk still is worth $2.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He’s wealthy enough that he held a press conference this month and personally vowed to back the resale value of Tesla cars — even if the company fails.
He doesn’t seem to mind putting his own money at risk. He says he would feel terrible if one of his companies died — and he still had cash in the bank that could have saved it.
These days, he allows that he occasionally thinks about creating new companies, but that he knows his limits. In fact, he set a goal for himself this year: to have more fun and less stress. “I’d like to dial it back 5% or 10% and try to have a vacation that’s not just e-mail with a view,” Musk says.
Asked what he has left to accomplish in life, the answer certainly is fun: He’d like to visit Mars.
“I think it would be a great adventure,” he says.
Then again, at least when it comes to business, Musk has had no shortage of adventures.
Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.