Nikola Motors loses founder Trevor Milton amid SEC and DOJ probe

Nikola Motors' new headquarters in Phoenix, AZ. (Credit: Trevor Milton/Nikola Motor/Twitter)

It appears that Nikola is facing a very steep hill ahead, with reports indicating that founder Trevor Milton has departed from the company, effective immediately. The update was reported by esteemed semi-truck-focused publication Freightwaves, which cited sources close to the embattled hydrogen fuel cell truck maker. 

Amidst his departure from Nikola, Trevor Milton will also be resigning as Executive Chairman. He will remain as one of the company’s largest shareholders, though he would reportedly not have any say about how Nikola will be managed moving forward. The publication’s sources noted that the decision to resign and leave was Milton’s, and it was done to protect Nikola and his investment. 

“Nikola is truly in my blood and always will be, and the focus should be on the Company and its world-changing mission, not me. So I made the difficult decision to approach the Board and volunteer to step aside as Executive Chairman. Founding Nikola and growing it into a company that will change transportation for the better and help protect our world’s climate has been an incredible honor,” Milton noted in a press release.

To date, it is estimated that Milton owns about 82 million shares of Nikola. That translates to about 20% of the hydrogen fuel cell truck maker, or about $2.8 billion. 

With Milton stepping down, Stephen Girsky, former Vice Chairman of General Motors Co. and a member of Nikola’s Board, has been appointed Chairman of the Board, effective immediately. Milton noted in the company’s press release that he is confident Girsky is the right person to lead Nikola as the company moves forward. He also remained optimistic about Nikola’s leadership, which he believes could allow the company to reach its full potential.

“As we move forward, I am confident Steve is the right leader to guide our vision at the Board level. In addition to being an early believer and supporter of Nikola, Steve has more than 30 years of experience working with OEM leaders, suppliers, dealers, labor leaders and national policy makers, and has served as a director of numerous public companies.”

“We’ve built a deep bench of talent over the years, and I am confident that Nikola’s Chief Executive Officer, Mark Russell, supported by Chief Financial Officer, Kim Brady, and the rest of the leadership team will advance our goal of making Nikola the global leader in zero-emissions transportation. I want to thank all of Nikola’s employees, investors and partners who have shared in my vision and rallied behind Nikola during this time,” Milton noted.

Girsky, for his part, has expressed his excitement for his new appointment. “I want to thank Trevor for his visionary leadership and significant contributions to Nikola since its founding. Trevor saw the possibility of creating an end-to-end zero-emission transportation system when the industry was still in its nascent stages and took action to build the Nikola of today, with world-class partnerships, groundbreaking R&D, and a revolutionary business model. I know I speak for everyone at Nikola in our gratitude and in wishing him all the best,” he said.

Milton’s departure marks yet another remarkable development in the Nikola saga, which has gone on a full roller coaster ride in recent weeks. Following a blockbuster announcement of a manufacturing deal with GM for its Badger pickup, Nikola was shaken by a report from short-seller firm Hindenburg Research, which alleged that Milton and the company had a history of misleading investors and the public. 

Among the key allegations from Hindenburg stated that Nikola has misrepresented the progress it has made with its technologies and vehicle projects. Nikola and Milton later posted a response to the firm’s accusations, though the release only addressed a fraction of Hindenburg’s allegations. Together with its response, Nikola also contacted the SEC, stating that it welcomes the regulator’s involvement. A later report from The Wall Street Journal indicated that the SEC review into the company was in its early stages, and that the US Justice Department has joined the investigation into Nikola. 

Nikola has garnered a reputation for being polarizing. While the company is lauded by its supporters for its grand vision of a zero-emissions future dominated by hydrogen-powered long-haulers, critics have argued that Milton’s claims about Nikola’s vehicles were not realistic. The former Nikola executive’s active presence on Twitter further added to the company’s skirmishes with its outspoken critics. 

While Milton’s departure will likely be a blow to Nikola, the company appears to have legitimate projects currently underway. Amidst the controversy surrounding the Hindenburg report, for example, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra stated that the veteran American automaker remains committed to the Nikola deal. With this in mind, the release of the Badger may still happen, though it would be interesting to see how Nikola moves on without its founder. “Our company has worked with a lot of different partners. We’re a very capable team that has done the appropriate diligence,” she said. 

Read Nikola’s full press release about Trevor Milton’s departure here.

Nikola Motors loses founder Trevor Milton amid SEC and DOJ probe
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