Photograph by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
By Jen Wieczner
November 6, 2015

The annual Baron Investment Conference is known for its surprise guests, from Barbra Streisand to Sir Elton John to Paul McCartney, who performed at last year’s event held at New York’s Lincoln Center.

But while the performers are always kept secret, the CEOs that take the stage between the entertainment generally are not. This year’s agenda, however, listed a surprise speaker billed simply as an “electrifying” chairman and CEO: It turned out to be Elon Musk of Tesla (TSLA), which is a large holding of Baron Capital, the New York investment firm that hosts the conference.

In an interview at the conference Friday with the firm’s billionaire founder Ron Baron, Musk discussed his upbringing, his feelings about global warming, Tesla’s rough early years, and his aspirations for the future, among other subjects.

While Musk is confident in the future of his electric car company now, that wasn’t the case when he became CEO in 2008, he said. “At the beginning of Tesla I didn’t think we would be successful, I thought we would almost certainly fail,” he said. “Almost every decision we made was wrong.”

Musk, who is also the CEO of rocket ship company SpaceX, told of how he took advantage of other car companies’ struggles during the recession to alleviate Tesla’s own, buying the company’s California manufacturing plant at a discount from GM (GM) and Toyota (TM). At 5.5 million square feet, its vastness can actually make for good exercise, Musk said: “It’s actually a long walk from the one side to the other.”

Speaking of the massive “gigafactory” Tesla is building in Nevada, Musk spoke of the “really good deal” that state received when he decided to put the battery manufacturing facility there. While Nevada is offering tax credits to Tesla if they create a certain number of jobs and meet other milestones, Musk said the state will still come out on top, with Nevada forecasting its own return of 80 to 100 times on what it’s giving in tax breaks. “Not percent—times,” Musk said. “As the saying goes, the house always wins. And Nevada, that’s the house, OK. Nevada is the house.”

Musk even had a surprise for the conference attendees: a VIP test drive, and a dedicated website address to sign up for it.

Following his interview, the conference broke for lunch, during which attendees were treated to performances by comedian Steve Martin, singer Michael Buble, and Tony Bennett in concert with pop singer Lady Gaga.

“We hope this is a nice surprise,” Gaga said, wearing a black top and sheer black skirt that exposed her garter belt, as she sang classics both in English and French.

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