Elon Musk auditions as corporate gadfly, taking sides against Disney

Nelson Peltz, in glasses, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, actress Nicola Peltz Beckham and Will Peltz at a movie premiere in Los Angeles in February. PHOTO: LISA O’CONNOR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Nelson Peltz, in glasses, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, actress Nicola Peltz Beckham and Will Peltz at a movie premiere in Los Angeles in February. PHOTO: LISA O’CONNOR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


The billionaire resembled infamous activist Evelyn Y. Davis in Nelson Peltz’s proxy fight.

Elon Musk has entered his corporate gadfly era.

It is too soon to say he is becoming this generation’s Evelyn Y. Davis, the late, infamous activist shareholder who for years needled public CEOs from IBM to General Electric with personal insults and corporate critiques. But he’s traveling a similar path—even as he leads car company Tesla, rocket maker SpaceX and social-media platform X.

How can he be a gadfly and one of the world’s richest men? He trod unfamiliar ground this past week with an overture to help change the makeup of Disney’s board, but failed, effectively making him more of an annoyance to the Mouse House than a threat.

Hence, gadfly.

Since Musk bought X in 2022, Disney has halted advertising on X. Subsequently, Musk has called for its chief executive, Bob Iger, to be fired, and joined a chorus of conservative critics decrying what they say is the company’s embrace of woke culture.

His vocal antagonism with Iger surely made him an appealing ally to activist investor Nelson Peltz, who sought Musk out to help in a bruising proxy war that came to a head this past week. But if Peltz was hoping Musk would be the closer to his monthslong campaign, he was sorely disappointed.

Yes, Musk made some calls to investors, my colleagues have reported. But he didn’t publicly endorse the proxy battle until just hours before the results were announced—too late to have much of an effect influencing the army of retail shareholders Musk’s echoverse might have persuaded to vote to put Peltz onto the Disney board.

“While I don’t own any Disney shares today, I would definitely buy their shares if Nelson were elected to the board," Musk tweeted Wednesday, the day the vote came to a close. “His track record is excellent."

The day after his victory, Disney’s Iger took a victory lap, appearing on CNBC, where he was asked about Musk’s attacks. “I ignore it," Iger said. “There’s no relevance to the Walt Disney Co. or me.…People have been coming after me and the company for years, and I don’t get distracted by those things."

Indeed, Disney has a long history with gadflies. Almost 20 years ago, Iger’s mentor, then-CEO Michael Eisner, received rowdy applause when he cut off Davis as she rattled off a list of criticisms during a shareholder meeting.

By then, she was well-known for appearing at such meetings and holding court. She once told then-Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca he needed to lose weight and proposed a soft-porn actress as a candidate for ITT’s board on the theory her romantic links to the British royal family would give the company influence.

“As a defender of shareholder rights, Evelyn Y. Davis was moderately effective," The Wall Street Journal began her obituary when she died at age 89 in 2018. “In her parallel quest for publicity, she was in a league of her own."

Davis, who often questioned CEO pay as being too much, published an annual newsletter, Highlights and Lowlights, and insisted that companies buy at least two copies. A criticism of Davis was that CEOs subscribed hoping to avoid her criticism, a claim she denied.

Musk has a different megaphone, with more than 179 million followers on X and a daily habit of opining on many topics from politics to videogames. His drift toward more contentious social issues has been controversial among some of his old supporters and cheered on by new ones.

It is hard to imagine Musk welcoming another CEO’s meddling in a proxy battle against himself.

“He’s willing to be the gadfly, he would not want anybody to be the gadfly in his orbit," said Nell Minow, vice chair of ValueEdge Advisors and a Tesla investor. “If he thinks Peltz is smart and has good ideas and can help with strategy, then by all means, I would stand up and cheer if he added Peltz to the [Tesla] board."

In fact, Musk has been publicly agitating since January for Tesla’s board to give him a giant new pay package to increase his ownership stake in the automaker, arguing he doesn’t feel comfortable working on robotics and artificial intelligence without the reassurance that he has more control over the company than activist investors.

It was a point Musk reiterated on the same day as the Disney proxy fight concluded. “I (obviously) don’t need to money personally, but am concerned about not having voting power that to influence Tesla to do the right thing," Musk tweeted late that night with typos.

His demands come as some Tesla shareholders are losing patience with his antics—including his own ongoing feud with Disney—and the electric-car company’s performance. Tesla shares have fallen 34% this year through Friday, while the S&P 500 index has risen 9.7%.

The automaker this past week reported disappointing first-quarter delivery results that marked the first year-over-year decline since 2020, the latest sign that the electric-car market is struggling.

The stumbles have attracted Musk’s own gadflies. Ross Gerber, a vocal Tesla shareholder who last year briefly attempted to get elected to the company’s board, laid blame for the disastrous quarter on Musk’s behavior.

“For over a year I’ve been warning about this potential reality," Gerber tweeted this past week. “Now it’s here. It’s time for shareholders to assess the blame where due. The tesla BOD should be replaced immediately with independent directors as required by law."

Musk responded by deriding the longtime advocate and investor as an “idiot."

Despite losing the fight, Peltz sounded happy with Musk. “This guy has no ego," he told CNBC on Thursday of Musk, calling him “a brilliant guy, understands so many things about the world and all you want to do is listen to a lot of what he’s got to say."

Were Musk to go full-on corporate gadfly, one wonders how many CEOs would agree.

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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