Zhu rose quickly through the ranks at Tesla, becoming manager of the China business by the end of his first year. Under his leadership, Tesla’s Shanghai factory—the company’s first outside of the United States—has come to fruition at breakneck speed, transforming it from a muddy field to a facility producing glowing electric vehicles in less than 12 months. Before mass production began at the end of 2019, Mr. Zhu had been promoted to his vice president of global and president of Greater China.
Last July, he was further promoted to oversee all of Tesla Asia Pacific as the automaker expanded its operations in Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore. Zhu’s China team also worked around the clock to keep the Shanghai factory running during the city’s Covid lockdown, earning praise from Musk for “burning oil at 3 a.m.” The last 12 months have been very difficult, but the factory has undergone an upgrade to increase capacity to 1 million EVs per year.
The more than 710,000 cars Tesla produced in China last year accounted for about 52% of the company’s global production. Zhu’s work ethic was on full display during the lockdown. When movement restrictions were first introduced, Zhu stayed in the factory and slept in the factory with a handful of security personnel who ensured the facility was not compromised. He recalled workers to operate in a bubble environment that cut them off from the outside world during his two months when Tesla operated a closed-loop production system.
Several YouTube videos featuring Zhu and local-language media reports show that Zhu is fully committed to Tesla, down to the way he dresses. He wears Tesla brand fleece most of the time. He lives in his government-subsidized two-bedroom rental apartment for less than 2,000 yuan ($300) a month, about a 10-minute drive from the factory. Most of his family lives in Beijing, about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) away.
In an interview with Chinese media last year, Zhu said he usually starts work around 6 a.m. and catches his North American colleagues logging off in the evening. He then travels to the factory, sometimes carpooling with other employees who live in the same complex. “It’s a great atmosphere,” said Zhu. “For example, help me get my parcel. I’ll get something for you. It’s a good way to work and live.”
Upon arriving at the factory, Zhu said he spent time walking around the production lines in various workshops and talking to engineers to solve technical problems. “At our company, most things you do with your hands get your hands dirty,” he said, explaining why he wears his jacket and safety helmet, mostly hi-vis. In a nearby office, Zhu shared the open space of his standing desk with many people, including his production director, Song Gang. He was often found there even after midnight.
Several current and former Tesla China employees have described Zhu as practical and responsive, saying he tends to respond quickly to emails and messages at any time of the day. In an interview with Duke’s Fuqua School, Zhu described himself as “tenacious”. He recounts the story of how severe storms and drainage problems threatened part of the roof to collapse after the Shanghai factory was built. Zhu and about 30 staff, ranging from new recruits to senior employees, grabbed plastic buckets and climbed to the roof in the pouring rain to “protect our property.”
“The company’s culture is to not waste resources and time on fancy nonsense,” said Zhu in a rare recent video interview with PCAuto, a local car review website. . “Focus your main energies and resources on what really matters. There is no huge management organization here to serve management. Book your own tickets, get your own food. Everyone is very used to it.This is true equality, right?”
Zhu has shied away from the limelight and is rushing to make public appearances at the Shanghai factory, including handing over the keys to the first Model 3 owners in December 2019.
However, he has been in frequent contact with Musk, and he last visited China before Covid in 2019. In his April earnings call that year, Musk said progress at the Shanghai factory was “a testament to the excellent execution of our team on the ground. Every day, I get 12 photos from Tom Zhu. I have received an email containing: The person leading the Gigafactory program.”
And in true egalitarian fashion, Zhu says everyone can get in touch with the top big guys. “Of course, I’m not the only person in China who can communicate with Elon,” Zhu said in a recent interview. “In fact, all of our employees can randomly ask anyone in this factory how to contact Elon. You can reply.”