COMMENT: Never mind the cars, buy the carmaker

By Graeme Roberts | 1 July 2010

Would you buy a car from a carmaker that sells only US$109,000 electric sportscars based on a Lotus design, has burned through US$230.5m in cash since its July 2003 start, posted losses every quarter since, and will have a gap in its line between the final roadster and a planned, cheaper, luxury electric sports sedan due in 2010? Probably not, which explains the film star, musician and well-heeled electric car fan base to date. But, would you buy a slice of the carmaker? This week's IPO said a resounding 'yes'.

Earlier this week, Tesla Motors raised US$226m in an initial public offering of 13,300,000 shares of its common stock at $17.00 per share, 20% more volume than originally planned and US$1 above the range being discussed ahead of the IPO.

Today, according to the just-auto stock ticker at 16:04BST, TSLA last sold for $24.10 a share, down from a high of $25.92 after opening at $25. Little wonder the financial press today are noting that founder and CEO Elon Musk made at least $24m from the IPO, restoring some of the wealth he’s staked on Tesla and other startups - this is the bloke that co-founded PayPal, the online payment company now owned by EBay, and is CEO of Space Exploration Technologies, a Hawthorne, California-based company that builds spacecraft.

Tesla set a price of $17 a share and Musk sold 1.42m shares, including an over-allotment to underwriters, according to filings and data compiled by Bloomberg. Tesla rose 41% on Wednesday, the second-biggest rally for a US IPO this year.

Bloomberg noted he had spent more than $70m of his own money on Tesla while selling about 1,000 Roadsters to film stars, musicians and battery-car advocates.

Musk told Bloomberg TV earlier in the week the company would already be profitable if it only made the Roadster and supplied powertrains but is expanding “3,000%” over two to three years as it develops the Model S sedan and aims to remain independent.

“It’s just not possible for the company as a whole to be profitable with that rate of expansion,” Musk said.

Tesla has also managed to attract Toyota, which planned to buy $50m of shares alongside the IPO, and may cooperate on EV development, though they haven’t yet signed agreements to do so. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the government of Abu Dhabi and Daimler are also investors.

Musk, 39, who made about $300m selling PayPal and Zip2 Corp, said in February he had just $650,000 in “liquid assets” and got loans from friends to pay fees and support for estranged wife Justine Musk, Bloomberg said, citing a divorce-related filing. The value of his remaining 26.9m Tesla shares was about $641m based on Wednesday’s close.

The company also won $465m of US Energy Department loans last year to expand production and sales of electric vehicles and components. Terms of the federal loan agreement require Musk and other top Tesla executives to retain at least 65% of the company’s shares. Musk has said in interviews he’s invested at least $70m of his own money in Tesla.

Although it has so far sold only about 1,000 cars, Tesla has attracted enormous publicity in proportion to output. Contrast that with the giant Renault-Nissan alliance which has the Nissan Leaf EV ($25,000 after rebates in the US; about EUR30,000 over here) ready for sale by the end of this year, ground broken for a US factory and battery facility, plans for UK battery and car production and a line of electric Renaults and a string of recharging infrastructure deals worldwide to follow. The alliance has not been shy about trumpeting its achievements, either, but hasn't attracted proportionately more interest.

Tesla now has the former Toyota factory, updated roadsters and a 300-mile-range luxury EV sedan due out in 2012. It'll be interesting to see how it does. If an exclusive, expensive, luxury EV four-door (versus the five-door C-segment Nissan hatchback) doesn't touch the sweet spot, there's going to be a huge financial train wreck. If it does, the big boys of the autobiz are sure to come calling. And Mr Musk will certainly then make back more than his stake.