SHANGHAI/SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Tesla Inc's (TSLA.O) China chief Tom Zhu and a team of his reports has been brought in to troubleshoot production issues in the United States, fueling talk among colleagues he is being groomed for a bigger role at a time when Chief Executive Elon Musk has been distracted by Twitter.
Zhu, who heads Tesla's Asia operations, has been traveling with a team including Shanghai gigafactory manager, Song Gang, to Tesla's plants in California and Texas, and was there as recently as last week, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. Both asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Tesla did not respond to written requests for comment from Reuters sent to its Shanghai and global media relations accounts. Musk did not respond to a Reuters' email seeking comments for the story. Zhu and Song could not be reached for comment.
Under Zhu, Tesla Shanghai rebounded strongly from lockdowns this year to bring Tesla close to its growth target for 2022 of 50% production growth. Analysts expect output to fall short at closer to 45%, based on forecasts for the just-concluding fourth quarter.
Zhu and others made their first trip to the United States for Tesla this year in August, one of the people said, at a time when the company has some key management roles there unfilled.
Among the projects the Shanghai team have worked on is Tesla's long-delayed Cybertruck, its next new model, a third person said.
Tesla's Austin plant is ramping up production of the Model Y and readying the Cybertruck. The Fremont plant is preparing to launch a new version of the Model 3, which will start production in Shanghai next year, Reuters has reported.
Some Tesla investors and analysts have voiced concerns about Musk's distraction following his acquisition of Twitter in October and the depth of the executive bench at the electric-car company.
Bloomberg reported this month that Zhu was helping to run the Austin plant. However, Zhu's colleagues in Shanghai believe he is in line for a more senior and wider-ranging role at Tesla, the two people said.
A close aide to Zhu in Shanghai circulated a farewell poem for the China boss in recent weeks on social media, anticipating his new assignment, according to the message reviewed by Reuters.
SHANGHAI TEAM ON THE ROAD
At the Austin factory, Chinese engineers were seen by people at the plant working in the area reserved for development of the Cybertruck and batteries, a third person with knowledge of operations there said. Tesla has targeted production of the Cybertruck next year.
At Fremont California, Chinese staff have been working on Model Y underbody assemblies, according to another person with knowledge of their work there.
When Tesla posted a picture on Twitter on Friday to celebrate Austin hitting a new production milestone of 3,000 Model Ys in a week -- still less than a third of the weekly output of Shanghai last quarter -- Zhu was shown smiling with hundreds of people on the factory floor.
Zhu, who was born in China but now holds a New Zealand passport, is a no-fuss manager who favors Tesla-branded fleece jackets and lives in a government-subsidized apartment a 10-minute drive from the Shanghai Gigafactory, according to people who work with him and his comments to Chinese media.
When Musk sent a memo in early June warning he had a "super bad feeling" about the economy, Shanghai was on track to end the quarter down 36% from the quarter before because of COVID lockdowns, data released later showed.
With help from Shanghai officials, Zhu restarted operations by asking thousands of workers and suppliers to stay at the factory for more than six weeks. Zhu himself opted to stay longer, sleeping at the factory as Musk had in 2018 when Fremont was struggling to ramp production, two people with knowledge of the events told Reuters.
Shanghai, a complex that employs some 20,000 workers, came roaring back in the third quarter, with output of the Model Y and Model 3 up over 70% on the quarter.
Through September, Shanghai accounted for more than half of Tesla's output.
The plant has excelled in applying cost-saving, factory-floor innovations for Tesla, including the use of massive casting machines to simplify production.
"The manufacturing people who led that push are obvious choices to spread the production gospel into the other new plants," said Sam Fiorani, who tracks production trends Auto Forecast Solutions.
Tesla board member James Murdoch said last month the company had recently identified a potential successor to Musk without naming the person. Murdoch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reuters has no evidence that Zhu is the possible candidate.
"With Elon Musk's attention currently being pulled in a number of directions, finding someone to help guide Tesla is important, especially someone with the manufacturing know-how that Tom Zhu has," Fiorani said.
Some investors are skeptical that Zhu alone could turn things around: "In America, doing business is very, very different than running a factory in China," Ross Gerber, a Tesla investor and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and Investment Management said on Twitter Spaces on Tuesday. "So I think Elon needs to be at Tesla."
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