Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja, once passionate about the electric automaker, quits

Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja, second from left, with CEO Elon Musk.

Deepak Ahuja, who left Tesla as company CFO last week for the second time since joining in 2008, has admittedly been comfortable with change and been flexible about what to do next, “learning along the way” what gives him the most satisfaction in work and life.

After Elon Musk, Tesla cofounder and CEO, announced January 30 that Ahuja will be retiring as company CFO, Ahuja told Reuters his decision to retire was difficult but that he had helped build a solid foundation for Tesla’s long-term success.

The agency quoted him as saying in a statement that his time at Tesla has been a nonstop adrenaline rush. “It is time for me to check a few things off my bucket list and pursue other life goals.”

The 56-year-old Mumbai native has lived on three continents, including Africa, and worked in fields as dissimilar as ceramic engineering and finance. According to a 2011 report in McCormick Magazine of McCormick School of Engineering of Northwestern University, where he studied, Ahuja originally planned to go into the family business in India.

His parents, who were serial entrepreneurs and had established several successful businesses, primarily in the garment industry, manufacturing jeans and lingerie, wanted him to become a business partner in a factory manufacturing ceramic insulators for the electric grid. Ahuja came to the United States in 1985 at the age of 22 to learn more about ceramic technology and enrolled in McCormick as a PhD student in materials science.

He was to return to India after his study, but at this point Ahuja’s plan changed as after earning his masters, he decided not to pursue his PhD because, by his own admission, a PhD “would have taken him too deeply” into pure science. He discovered at this stage that he was interested in applied technology.

During his days at Northwestern University, Ahuja got involved in activities such as organizing social events for the Indian Students association, of which he became president. He also took full advantage of his new surroundings, joining the sailing club and learned to captain a small boat, the magazine noted.

After his master’s Ahuja moved from Chicago to the Pittsburgh area, where for six years he worked as an engineer for Kennametal, developing ceramic composites for use in the aerospace and automotive industries, but he did not see much room to grow in his job and decided to move to the business world. “I wanted to help drive strategic decision- making,” Ahuja, who earned an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University while working at Kennametal, told McCormick Magazine.

The rest of his transition story – from applied technology to the world of business – is common knowledge.

Ahuja began his financial training at Ford’s Woodhaven stamping plant, working as a production line supervisor for a few months. He recalled in his interview to the magazine how his engineering experience stood him in good stead

“I had been in manufacturing plants with my parents from a young age but manufacturing in the United States is a very different experience. You’re part of a massive enterprise. It gave me a back-to-basics understanding of how manufacturing and the auto industry work,” he told he magazine.

Ahuja once told the audience at Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon jokingly that he was glad he didn’t know what it meant to run a startup because if he did, he probably wouldn’t have left his job at Ford.

Though that November 7, 2016 comment in front of the Tepper School students, faculty and staff in an address as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series was made in a jocular vein, Ahuja stuck to the job at Tesla, except leaving once. He recalled in his address at Carnegie Mellon that when he and Musk met in 2008, “it was a game-changing moment in my life” and that he never before had felt so passionate about a business opportunity.

But he also said in that lecture, according to the Tepper School of Business, that he recognized problems with the company. “I also recognized that the path to success for Tesla was riddled with a lot of obstacles. The odds of success were likely 50 percent or less,” he noted. “It felt like a crossroads in the path of my life: Should I take the more risky path? Or should I stay on the more comfortable and secure path that I was on?”

Ahuja, however, stayed on. By the time Ahuja first left the company in 2015, Silicon Valley Business Journal noted in a February 2017 article, Tesla was a very different company as it had gone public, opened its factory in Fremont, and started selling the Model S and Model X. Shares had gained roughly 975 percent under Ahuja’s watch as investors who bought $10,000 in Tesla shares at the company’s IPO found those shares worth about $119,000 by the time he retired.

Ahuja, who holds a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, BHU and a master's degree from Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science of Northwestern University, has worked in three continents, including in South Africa where he served as CFO of Ford of Southern Africa.

Last week when Musk announced that Ahuja will be retiring, he did not specify the reason for his retirement from Tesla. But Musk said Ahuja will “continue to be at Tesla for a few more months and will continue to serve as a senior adviser to Tesla for years to come.”

TechCrunch quoted Ahuja as saying Jan. 30 that, “There is no good time to make this change.” He said after two back-to-back profitable quarters, now might be the best time.

But according to news reports, Tesla’s cash problems has raised some hard questions about its finances. An Axios report said Jan. 30 Tesla has a $920 million debt coming due March 1 from bonds issued in 2014.

The report said this can be paid if the electric automaker uses a mix of cash and stock — “but that would require Tesla shares to jump about 21% from their current level, Bloomberg reports.” Axios said according to Bloomberg “it's conceivable” that it could hit the 21% milestone over the short time frame. “CEO Elon Musk is set to report the company's fourth-quarter warnings which could be the spark it needs.”

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