Why Musk’s Protege Left Tesla To Build His Own Gigafactory

Watching and observing Elon Musk function at peak productivity everyday for nearly five years, Peter Carlsson learned how to take control of his own time.

Elon Musk is famous for squeezing as much “time” into his day as humanly possible. He’s someone who can, with a straight face, talk of scaling back his workweek to only 80 to 90 hours per week. After taking PayPal public in 2002, Elon Musk built an electric automobile company that’s at present bigger than Ford and General Motors, a rocket company that’s all set to begin its first expedition to Mars, a tunneling company that has already jumpstarted a revolution in public transport, along with gathering an army of geniuses to lead two of the most futuristic initiatives at the bleeding edge of Artificial Intelligence. And these are only a handful of the many ground-breaking efforts that consume his time.

What’s astonishing is that he accomplished all of this in less than 15 years. Indeed, at the centre of Musk’s accomplishments is his mastery over the relationship between time and productivity — after crunching some numbers, Wired Magazine concluded that Musk accomplishes in a year what it would take Amazon, Uber and Google to accomplish in eight years.

“My performance review with Elon Musk took five minutes and, in response to the question of what I could improve, he thought I could talk a bit faster,” says Peter Carlsson.

As Tesla’s head of sourcing and supply chain, Peter Carlsson (pictured right) worked side-by-side with Elon Musk over the course of four-and-a-half years.

As Tesla’s head of sourcing and supply chain, Carlsson worked side-by-side with Musk over the course of four-and-a-half years and, one could argue, acquired the maverick mindset that it takes to survive (and thrive) at one of the world’s most demanding companies.

Carlsson was the global head of sourcing and supply chain at Tesla from 2011 to 2015. “The first 18 months was probably the most brutal in my career; we were burning a hundred million dollars per quarter,” said Carlsson.

Carlsson, a native of Sweden, began his career at Sony Ericsson. Later, he relocated to Singapore to become the purchasing and outsourcing manager for NXP Semiconductors. By 2011, Carlsson had built a reputation for deeply understanding the inner workings of successful large-scale manufacturing companies, how the pieces must fit together and flow in order to create a coherent, operating vision.

When he moved to Palo Alto, California that year, he was in talks with Apple to become a senior player in its iPad division; that’s when a recruiter from Tesla reached out to him. Carlsson had a 90 minute meeting with Musk himself.

“I was kind of blown away by the technology, the energy, the people in the company and felt that it was of course not as financially rewarding as joining Apple, but the gut feeling still told me that it was a much more interesting challenge.”

Later he went back to Singapore, “…and told my wife we just have to do this adventure.”

At Tesla, Carlsson helped launch the Model S, managing a supply chain that extended beyond 300 suppliers and turned a negative gross margin into a 28% surplus in less than 12 months. During his time there, Tesla’s team grew from 400 to over 16,000.

Working side-by-side with Musk who’s known to set impossible targets for himself and his team, Carlsson became accustomed to the enigmatic founder’s way of doing things.

“He was very into two things … one is, he was super into the design, and every key design decision he wanted to have the final word. And he was also very into recruitment, so all key positions he wanted to put kind of his sign onto,” Carlsson said. “But the other stuff he kind of relied on us … [and] until someone f****d up he didn’t get involved.”

Eventually, he felt the need to move on, to take charge of his time.

At Tesla, Peter Carlsson helped launch the Model S, managing a supply chain that extended beyond 300 suppliers and turned a negative gross margin into a 28% surplus in less than 12 months.

“It was a tremendous fun ride and the experiences are things I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. But it was also a 24/7, being on standby, and, you know, being on someone else’s time, which was Elon’s time,” he said. “And after four-and-a-half years, I felt a very strong urge to control my own time.”

After Tesla, Carlsson has branched out to — much like Musk — bring his highly specific skills and knowledge to a diverse variety of business ventures.

“I wanted to use my experience of scaling and scaling hardware, so I’ve started to engage in a number of startups both in the U.S. as well as in in Europe, both as an advisor and as well as an in some cases as a board member,” he said. “And I really, really love that. I think it’s a fantastic environment, a lot of energy — it’s pure — it’s pure will of wanting to achieve something.”

One of his primary ventures now is teaming up with another Tesla alumni, Paolo Cerruti, to launch Northvolt. Based in his native Sweden, with Carlsson as CEO, it plans on building the largest lithium-ion battery factory in Europe. Currently, Asia and the United States are the leaders in battery production. But like Musk’s startups, Carlsson’s vision is imbued with both deep ambition and an overriding mission to help humanity manage the transition away from an energy infrastructure dependent on fossil fuels.

“If nobody does anything, Europe is going to be completely dependent on an Asian supply chain. Europe has the opportunity to act for its own energy independence. It’s now or never,” Carlsson said in an interview with The Financial Times.

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