• General Motors viewed Tesla in 2009 as a "bunch of engineers playing with laptop batteries."
  • Nikola CEO Steve Girsky, who served on GM's board, recalled being told that in a recent Q&A.
  • Tesla now ranks among the world's most-valuable companies with a $830 billion market capitalization.

One of Tesla's biggest rivals was totally dismissive of Elon Musk's automaker less than 15 years ago, Nikola CEO Steve Girsky recalled during a recent fireside chat.

Girsky, who took over as Nikola's CEO in August, served on General Motors' board of directors between 2009 and 2016. He raised the subject of Tesla shortly after joining the auto giant, he said last week, according to a transcript provided by AlphaSense/Sentieo.

"I asked about Tesla and was told that it was just a bunch of engineers playing with laptop batteries," Girsky said.

"That was conventional wisdom at the time, and we know how that turned out," he continued. "Tesla got a 10-year jump start on the entire industry." 

Girsky shared the anecdote to underline his belief that Nikola has a similar headstart on its competition.

"The big guys are writing off the zero-emission trucking industry," he said. "I know they're playing with prototypes, but they believe this tech is late-decade stuff at the earliest."

Tesla, a pioneer in battery technology and electric vehicles, has defied much of the auto industry's expectations in recent years.

Its revenues ballooned from about $112 million in 2009 to $81 billion last year, and it swung from a net loss of $254 million to $12.6 billion of net income, the company's annual reports show.

The automaker's market capitalization has also mushroomed from around $2 billion when it joined the stock market in 2010, to about $830 billion today. It now dwarfs GM, worth $46 billion, and has even surpassed Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, worth $807 billion.

Auto executives have voiced their skepticism of Musk's EV company on many occasions.

"It's driven purely by psychology or almost a mass psychosis," Bob Lutz, a former GM, Ford, and Chrysler executive, declared in February 2020 after Tesla stock more than tripled in six months. Shares of Musk's company have surged more than five-fold since Lutz made those comments.

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