Tesla Investor Rode A 14,800% Gain Due To A 27-Year-Old Analyst

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Owuraka Koney forms part of an elite group on Wall Street: Those who foresaw Tesla Inc.’s wild growth potential before it even went public.

Koney was just 25 when he stumbled across the fledgling electric-vehicle maker while researching other companies for Jennison Associates. He was immediately taken with Tesla’s vision and by 27 managed to convince his colleagues at Jennison to gamble on the stock.

A dozen years and some 14,800% later, Koney isn’t satisfied. He still sees lots of room for additional gains as the company releases a “tsunami” of new cars in the coming years. At the same time, he expects the auto industry to undergo a massive consolidation as it makes the challenging shift away from combustion engines.

Koney, talking for the first time publicly about how Jennison built a Tesla position now worth $5.9 billion, said the Elon Musk-led company built EV expertise early and has fine-tuned its products, positioning itself to be among the survivors. Koney thinks by 2026, Tesla could be pumping out twice the 2 million or so cars it’s expected to deliver this year. That will set it up for further growth, even as dreamy notions of fully self-driving cars remain years away.

“They are mostly a car company today. That’s what drives the majority of their revenue,” Koney said. “A few years from now that will still be the case.”

When Tesla posts quarterly earnings on Wednesday, Koney won’t be especially worried about the company’s seemingly constant volatility. The results will be a barometer for how well a series of price cuts are working in an increasingly crowded market, in which both legacy automakers and startups are constantly introducing alternatives to the Model 3 and Model Y, Tesla’s two workhorse vehicles.

Koney said he’s thinking more about three years from now, when he expects next-generation Tesla cars will be rolling off a newly built assembly line in Mexico. He sees those models being made cheaply at high volumes, putting investors like Jennison in line for another Musk windfall.

Chance Meeting

Koney had no real background in the auto industry when he first encountered Tesla. He was born in Ghana and spent part of his childhood in Gambia. His father was a judge, and his mom worked for Ghana Airways. After studying economics and political science at Williams College, he got his first job in finance as an aerospace analyst at UBS Group AG.

Jennison, an affiliate manager of PGIM with about $175 billion under management, hired Koney in 2007 to cover the industrial sector. Two years later, the analyst embarked on a nationwide tour of the EV ecosystem to understand why one of the companies he followed, Johnson Controls Inc., was considering building a lithium-ion battery business. One of the startups he visited impressed him so much he began forming a whole new investment idea.

When Koney met with Tesla at its retail store in Silicon Valley, Deepak Ahuja, Tesla’s then-chief financial officer, said the company would first break into the market at the high end, where consumers were willing to pay a premium for an EV. Then they would drive downmarket as quickly as possible, increasing volume and lowering the price of each successive model.

Koney came away bullish, but Tesla still faced a lot of risks. He kept a close watch on the company as it gained a stronger footing. In April 2010, the carmaker received a low-interest $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy – a lifeline as it was creating the Model S. A month later, Tesla bought a shuttered factory once owned by a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. That June, Tesla went public at $17 a share, valuing the company at about $1.7 billion.

Koney met more executives, including its then-chief technology officer, JB Straubel, and its head designer, Franz von Holzhausen. By 2011, convinced Tesla was “for real,” it was time for him to pitch Jennison on the idea.

“Owuraka believed that Tesla was going to revolutionize the auto industry,” said Kathleen McCarragher, head of growth equity at Jennison. “He had a deep understanding of the significance of Tesla’s competitive advantages.”

Among the factors Koney highlighted to the team was that Tesla had created its own battery system, had structural cost advantages compared to traditional automakers and had a “unique company culture that could create innovative solutions,” McCarragher said.

Jennison owns more than 20 million Tesla shares, making it one of the company’s largest investors. The asset manager declined to say how profitable its bet on Tesla has been over the years, citing compliance issues. The stock has gained more than 135% in 2023 and is up 14,853% since mid-2011, when Jennison first disclosed its initial shareholding in a regulatory filing.

High Volatility

For nearly a dozen years, Koney has ridden the waves of stomach-churning volatility, a similar experience to the other company he pegged as a potential behemoth early in his time at Jennison: Netflix Inc. Few stocks are as polarizing as Tesla, and each day begins with absorbing the news flow, checking Reddit and “aggressive lurking” on Twitter.

Some of the ups and downs have been triggered by Musk himself, and behind the scenes Koney has found himself in disagreements with the multibillionaire.

In 2016, Tesla wanted to acquire SolarCity, a rooftop solar-panel installer run by Musk’s cousins. Some investors balked: Tesla was in the throes of working on the Model 3, its first mass-market car, and the deal seemed ill-timed.

As Tesla lobbied shareholders for support, the company arranged for a phone conversation between Koney and Musk. The analyst was rushing home to his infant daughter when the call from the CEO came through. His mother, who’d been helping with childcare, picked up as Koney walked in the door and told him “this guy called Elon” was on the phone.

Shareholders overwhelmingly approved the SolarCity deal; Jennison voted against it. Solar still isn’t a big part of Tesla’s energy business, where much of the excitement is focused on the company’s Megapack batteries for utilities.

“I was not a fan of that deal, and I’m still not,” Koney said. “I like Elon. But I’m not a fanboy, per se. We don’t just sign off on everything.”

By 2018, Tesla was in a manufacturing ramp-up period so taxing and capital intensive, Musk called it “production hell.” According to the CEO’s retelling, the company was weeks away from bankruptcy, and key executives quit.

That was also the year Musk infamously tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420, and had “funding secured.” Koney shot Tesla an email and was ultimately deposed by investors who sued Musk in federal court (the transcript of the analyst’s deposition is sealed).

Early 2019 was equally rough: Tesla closed stores and missed delivery targets, and Ahuja left. But Koney saw the second quarter of the year as a turning point: Tesla became cash-flow positive, proving it could build the Model 3 and make money. It’s still the only US company with a profitable EV business.

Tesla is not immune to risks. The company itself says it is highly dependent on Musk, who is also the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. In October, he acquired Twitter Inc. for $44 billion. This month, he announced the leadership team for xAI, his latest startup.

“Elon is a big driver for Tesla’s success,” said Koney. “The less time he spends on Twitter and the more time he spends on Tesla, I’m happy.”

Full Self-Driving

In March, Tesla gave a lengthy investor presentation at the company’s headquarters and factory in Austin, and Musk shared the stage with several other executives. Koney was there in person, paying close attention to the more than 160 slides that Tesla showed.

Besides the breadth of executive talent, Koney’s biggest takeaway was the “unboxed” assembly process that Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, highlighted. He said the company will move away from complex and cumbersome methods the industry has used for more than a century, eliminating hundreds of parts and simplifying assembly processes. Koney believes Optimus, Tesla’s humanoid robot, could ultimately be put to work on production lines to install seats and interior panels.

That could reduce costs, which would be especially helpful as Musk slashes prices of Tesla models to keep growing sales as other carmakers release waves of competing electric vehicles.

While those cuts will pressure profit margins, Musk has said the company could make so much money on autonomous-driving software in the future, it doesn’t need to make upfront returns on vehicle sales. The CEO has long made lofty claims about AI-powered cars that haven’t come to pass.

Koney thinks that Full Self-Driving Beta – Tesla’s name for its driver-assistance software – is getting incrementally better, and requiring less input from the driver. He should know: He has a Model X with FSD Beta and regularly drives it in Manhattan.

“It’s extremely cautious around pedestrians, which it should be,” Koney said. “There’s a ways to go before FSD works in a city like New York, let alone a place like Mumbai.”

More bullish for Koney is the fact Tesla is building a new factory in Mexico that will make its next-generation cars.

Though details are scant – vehicles were shrouded under white sheets during its investor day – Tesla expects them to be winning products. The company wants to make 20 million vehicles a year by 2030 and will need a cheaper, high-volume models to get there.

It’s a far cry from 2009, when Koney was excited about the fledging EV maker but much of Wall Street questioned whether the company was viable.

“When I look at Tesla today, I’m no longer worried about survival,” said Koney. “It’s just a question of how successful they will be.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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