MarketWatch First Take: Musk vs. Zuck: A tale of two CEOs acting much differently during a pandemic
MarketWatch First Take
Facebook and Tesla both reported earnings and had conference calls that discussed the effects of COVID-19 on Wednesday, but the results were very different
Mark Zuckerberg has spent much of the past two years facing widespread vitriol about Facebook Inc.’s huge privacy lapses, while Elon Musk has bathed in rabid fans’ lionization of him as a genius who will change the world.
When confronted with the most dangerous crisis either Facebook
or Tesla Inc.
has faced as public companies, those roles reversed Wednesday on their respective earnings conference calls. Zuckerberg appeared to be the levelheaded, science-based executive who thinks through complex problems, while Musk sounded more like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” or a comic-book villain who does not care about preventing COVID-19 from spreading if it means keeping his factory closed.
The contrast mirrors the ongoing debate in the U.S. about when to open up the country to avoid a total economic collapse without endangering citizens who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus that is spreading across the globe. The San Francisco Bay Area — where Facebook and Tesla are based — announced an extension of its shelter-in-place Wednesday that will allow for more freedoms beyond the essential activities allowed currently.
That wasn’t enough for Musk, who had already proclaimed “Free America Now” and congratulated Texas for its plans to reopen some businesses in a series of tweets in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The executive — who stands to reap a huge windfall if Tesla can maintain its current market capitalization, which could depend on his Fremont factory reopening — continued the rant on a conference call with analysts Wednesday.
“To say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist,” Musk said, ignoring the fact that people can leave their homes for essential business and exercise in California. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.”
Zuckerberg, on the other hand, sounded like a calm and caring leader in talking about how most Facebook employees were working at home, and how the social network is trying to limit the spread of false information, a big difference from the social network’s role in the 2016 presidential election and its recent position on false political ads. He also said he is concerned about the country opening up things too quickly.
“I remain very concerned that this health emergency and therefore the economic fallout will last longer than people are currently anticipating, and while there are massive societal costs from the current shelter-in-place restrictions, I worry that reopening certain places too quickly before infection rates have been reduced to very minimal levels will almost guarantee future outbreaks and worse longer-term health and economic outcomes,” Zuckerberg said.
It would be easy to point out that Zuckerberg’s stance is beneficial for his company: Facebook does benefit from everyone staying at home, with its monthly average users climbing 10% in the quarter. Facebook is also seeing a “broad-based pullback” in advertising, though, and it declined to give any future guidance.
Beyond their differences in opinion on reopening society, Zuckerberg and Musk’s general approaches to discussing the disease were polar opposites. Zuckerberg thanked his employees, 95% of whom are working from home. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg talked about the $100 million grant program Facebook has started to help 30,000 small business around the world.
Zuckerberg talked about the ways Facebook is helping people stay in touch while stuck at home, and how they are using video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp, as the most widely used apps for video chats. He also talked about Facebook Messenger Rooms, a recently completed rival to Zoom Video
Zuckerberg said Facebook will still be hiring about 10,000 employees this year, unlike many other companies that are scaling back hiring, or laying off or furloughing workers. He also has conducted Facebook Live interviews with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom about the pandemic. The philanthropic organization he formed with his physician wife, Priscilla Chan, is working to increase COVID-19 testing in the state of California.
Musk did not mention nor thank Tesla employees once during the call. In a 24-page letter to investors to detail first-quarter earnings, the words “coronavirus,” “COVID-19” or “virus” did not appear once, with the pandemic only referred to as “global operational challenges” and “temporary suspension of production and deliveries.” Musk and Tesla’s chief financial officer delivered 15 minutes of prepared statements at the beginning of the conference call without once directly addressing the biggest issue in the world.
Granted, Tesla has two huge physical factories that require employees to be on site, and cars, once completed, have to be sold and delivered in person. In early March, Tesla violated the first shelter-in-place orders in the Bay Area and kept its Fremont factory open, saying it was an essential business, until it was ordered by the local sheriff to close. It later furloughed some of those factory workers.
Needing his factory to reopen for the business to maintain momentum does not give Musk the right to inaccurately compare government requests to stay at home to keep the potentially deadly virus from spreading with fascism. And it is yet another strike against the executive, who acted like a jerk on an earnings call just two years ago and later apologized for it.
Musk obviously didn’t learn much from that episode. Now even the once-derided CEO who has been the poster boy for Silicon Valley’s bullheaded push for technology at all costs looks almost presidential compared to him, and that’s a major turnabout.