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Is SA billionaire Elon Musk living up to his ‘Tony Stark’ title?

Decoding the man behind the SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity industries.

Despite countless comparisons to Apple’s genius inventor Steve Jobs, it is the analogies to Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark that have stuck to South African-born billionaire Elon Musk like a super-powered exoskeleton.

Hailed as a true 21st century industrialist, who has shaken up three established industries, 2012 saw Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s successful return from its first commercial space flight to the International Space Station. His electric Tesla S luxury sedan was hailed as the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year and his SolarCity solar power company blew all expectations following its first public share offering in December last year.

His appetite for risk has been richly rewarded and he has just debuted on the Forbes World’s Billionaire list with a projected net worth of $2bn, up from $680m the previous year. He also arrived on the Forbes most powerful list at number 66 (of 7.1 billion people on the planet): that’s one up from the man that owns a chunk of Russia, Alisher Usmanovis and one down from under Mr Fiscal Cliff himself John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

On a recent the Daily Show appearance, the anti-establishment news source favoured by the hip and connected, host Jon Stewart noted (perhaps incorrectly): four entities have launched rockets into space: the US, China, the Soviet Union (Russia) and Elon Musk. To which the latter humbly replied, “Well, it wasn’t just me.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket:

Source: SpaceX

The serial 41-year -old entrepreneur behind PayPal and Zip2 is now one of the most powerful men in space – an increasingly privatised space. Since cash-strapped NASA has returned to its core exploration activities and retired its Space Shuttle fleet, enter SpaceX – the private space company he started in 2002 with $100m of the money he made from PayPal.

As such SpaceX is the biggest, boldest and most profitable of his endeavours. NASA will use SpaceX vehicles to haul cargo to and from the International Space Station – a move which Forbes says will endow Musk with the power of a 19th century railway industrialist. Although SpaceX is currently privately owned, Musk has hinted at a share issue in the future.

Then there is SolarCity which aims to bring solar power to the masses and which holds the largest market share in residential solar in California. After a wobbly start with its share offering at in December last year, the share has now risen more than 100% on the Nasdaq. Concerns remain about the viability of the business model once the US government rebates for clean energy expire in 2016.


Last but not least there is Tesla, the electric car company that aims to bring electric cars to the masses with a top-down approach of getting the rich and famous to plug in.

Musk co-founded Tesla Motors in 2003 and in a showdown which could be described as pure Tony Stark, Musk fell out rather badly with his co-founder and went on to become Tesla’s chairman, product architect and CEO.

In 2008 Tesla almost collapsed under the weight of delays and cost overruns and in 2010 he famously raised eyebrows when he declared himself out of cash during the messy divorce from his novelist wife Justine Musk.

Musk inspects each Model S (see below) before it is shipped and his high degree of involvement has both sceptics and supporters worried about whether Tesla will be able to reach adequate production levels – the waiting list is currently 13 000 long and backlogged until late 2013.

The electric Tesla S luxury sedan:

Source: Tesla

Then there are the Ford, GM and BMW electric car offerings that are being touted as serious competition in what is regarded as a very narrow segment of the market.

With its fourth quarterly results out next week, all eyes are now on the company to see if it can stop burning cash, ramp up production and sustain a profit.

However, in a disclosure he was soon after forced to defend on CNBC, Musk tweeted earlier this year: “Am happy to report that Tesla was narrowly cash flow positive last week. Continued improvement expected through year end.”

The stakes are high and to that end the stock price has this year richly rewarded his habit of putting himself on the line in such spectacular fashion. But despite some stellar growth, Tesla and SolarCity shares remain volatile and subject to heavy short selling.

The man in the headlines

In a November interview, online magazine Esquire touched on his enigmatic South African roots. He is described as a wanderer and someone who grew up in South Africa without ever considering himself South African, the son of a Canadian-born dietician and fashion model mother and an engineer father.

Musk reportedly left South Africa for Canada at age 17 and attended the University of Toronto and then the University of Pennsylvania, where he rode the wave of the tech boom onto fame, money and an American citizenship – taking his South African family with him.

In interviews he widely credits the book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as his inspiration. “It taught me that the tough thing is figuring out what questions to ask, but that once you do that, the rest is really easy.”

Regularly described as a brilliant control freak, journalists frequently note his schoolboy ultra-politeness and cool and structured approach to his projects. He is also hailed for his openness to negative feedback, but equally does not tolerate anything but total commitment from his employees, who it seems are quite familiar with the term “all-nighter”.

His detractors – and there are many – continue to create endless noise which Musk has been happy to plug into to fuel the media machine. Quick on the draw Musk keeps tight control of media attention and is vociferous in his tweet and blog responses to criticism and reviews.

He may not have escaped an Afghan rebel army by building a protective suit out of scrap metal, but Elon Musk is certainly a brilliant venture capitalist who has escaped the clutches of the SANDF to take Silicon Valley by rocket charge. His skill lies not only in his ability to manage risk, but also in his Donald Trump-like ability to harness his successes and failures into a personal brand that sells itself. An investment in any one of his ventures is as much an investment in the man as in the product.

For its part Hollywood has enthusiastically embraced the good and the bad. Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times wrote last year: “Tony Stark, alias Iron Man, is suave, brilliant, mega-rich and dripping with beautiful women. Sounds an awful lot like Elon Musk, the South African entrepreneurial wunderkind “.

* Freelance journalist Karin Diepgrond has worked as a writer/sub-editor in South Africa and London, and as a personal chef to billionaires, moguls and rock stars on superyachts all over the world for the past ten years. You can follow her at @karindiepgrond

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