The surprise shakeup in the Tesla C-suite — with CFO Zachary Kirkhorn parting ways with the electric vehicle maker after 13 years — initially jolted the stock last week, surprising even close watchers of Tesla who are used to CEO Elon Musk’s maverick ways.
Kirkhorn’s departure has also sparked questions in the executive search firm realm around what a second act might look like for a 38-year-old finance chief who has already held the finance reins of the pioneering EV company and worked alongside one of the world’s richest and most quixotic business executives.
Speculation ranges widely, and Kirkhorn has not said pubically what his plans are nor did Tesla respond to requests for comment on his next chapter. But corporate finance experts seem to agree on one element that will likely play into his career calculations: the departing Kirkhorn is walking away from the Austin, Texas-based company with a net worth of $590 million. Having earned himself a long runway, he can clearly take his time choosing his next gig — or may hop off the CFO circuit altogether, experts told CFO Dive.
“He has made ungodly money,” Josh Crist, co-managing partner of the Downers Grove, Illinois-based executive search firm Crist|Kolder Associates, wrote in an emailed response to questions from CFO Dive. “I’d be surprised, even at only 38 years old, if he’s not a full time venture capital investor moving forward… I mean, he’s made equity in the $500M range, he doesn’t need to be a full time CFO again!”
Silicon Valley CFO hunts
Still, some big-name CFOs have exited their jobs recently. Could top spots at major Silicon Valley powerhouses tempt an ambitious and battle-tested finance chief like Kirkhorn to jump back into the ring?
Probably one of the more consequential open seats is at Mountain View, California-based Alphabet’s Google, which announced last month that its longest-serving CFO, Ruth Porat, was pivoting to a new role as president and chief investment officer. Meanwhile, in the auto industry where Kirkhorn’s expertise lies, San Francisco, California-based ride-share firm Uber Technologies said it was kicking off a search to find a replacement for its finance chief, Nelson Chai, who will be stepping down from the role early next year.
Jack McCullough, president and founder of the CFO Leadership Council, said he expects Kirkhorn would be on the shortlist for the Alphabet position or a number of others, noting that Kirkhorn would likely have his pick of opportunities. “Any firm would love to have the guy who has sort of been running Tesla the last few years,” McCullough wrote in a emailed response to questions from CFO Dive.
At the same time, Shawn Cole, president of the boutique executive search firm Cowen Partners, told CFO Dive in an interview that he did not think Kirkhorn would be a good match for Alphabet but he didn’t specify why beyond a potential mismatch of cultures.
A Twitter twist
One thorny position that experts nixed for Kirkhorn: a job at Kirkhorn’s former boss’s recently rebranded X platform, formerly known as Twitter. The San Francisco, California-based company does not appear to have filled its CFO seat since its finance chief Ned Segal, along with its CEO Parag Agrawal, were fired in October and escorted out of the headquarters building shortly after Musk’s takeover, experts say.
X did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the CFO position. But if the social media giant is looking for a new finance chief, Crist bets it’s not a role for Kirkhorn. Not only did Musk already wish Kirkhorn well in his next chapter, Crist believes that Kirkhorn is likely trying to distance himself from Musk. “I would be absolutely shocked if he was pivoted to Twitter,” Crist said.
Then too, companies that are in difficult financial straights like X often forgo the cost of a formal CFO’s salary and are typically more heavily reliant on the finance department’s accounting operations, Cole said. In addition, a “high-ego” CEO like Musk, especially at a troubled company, often will not want a chief financial officer who tells him what to do, Cole said.
“That’s my experience with the Elons of the world,” Cole said.
“Master of Coin’s” traditional path
A look back at Kirkhorn’s career shows he followed a traditional finance-focused path often trod by would-be high-performing financial officers, complete with Ivy League degrees and work early on at a major consulting firm. The staid path belies the eye-brow raising additional title of “Master of Coin” which he famously gained in 2021, the same year Tesla CEO Elon Musk was also granted the title of “Technoking.”
Kirkland earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from University of Pennsylvania, where The Wall Street Journal has reported he was a leader of the solar-car team, and an MBA from Harvard Business School, according to his LinkedIn account. After internships at Microsoft, he started his career with a nearly three-year stint at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company before joining Tesla as a senior analyst in finance in 2010.
Once discussed by board members as a possible successor to Musk, he is credited with realizing manufacturing efficiencies that have helped the company achieve 15 consecutive profitable quarters and pushed Tesla’s value up to more than $500 billion from around $50 billion when he became CFO four years ago, according to a May 11 Wall Street Journal report. He also was known for “skillfully navigating” conversations with Musk and breaking down a “seemingly unattainable demand” to complete the task, the report said.
The news of Kirkhorn’s exit initially weighed on Tesla’s shares, as is often the case when CFOs depart, but investors mostly shook the news off, Future Fund Managing Partner Gary Black, a close watcher of Tesla, told CNBC last Monday night, adding that he didn’t think Kirkhorn’s exit had anything to do with product or pricing strategy. Instead, Black characterized it as a personal decision as well as one that is related to the likelihood that Kirkhorn doesn’t have the kind of product background that he would need to position him to succeed Musk.
“The thing that I think rattled people at least initially... is it was sudden. Usually with a resignation that’s amicable there’s a transition from three to six month transition,” Black said. “But again, nothing about Tesla is normal. So I’m not going to get too worked up about it.”
Tesla’s shares were trading in the $237 area in mid-afternoon trading Monday, down about 6% from the closing level of $253.86 on Aug. 4, before the news hit on Aug. 7.
Wherever Kirkhorn does land, it’s a good bet that he will make the move quietly. Kirkhorn’s locked X account has only 60 followers and in the past he has kept a relatively low profile outside the firm. For example, he did not bite on an offer to speak at the MIT Sloan conference in Boston, a high-profile conference for CFOs, according to the CFO Leadership Council’s McCullough.
“He has actually been a bit elusive to me. I invited him to speak at our event at MIT Sloan — pretty prestigious — and he’s not into it,” McCullough said. “He is Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab, I am afraid.”
Alphabet and Uber did not respond to requests for comment.