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September 21, 2020 8:30 AM, EDT

Nikola Executive Chairman Trevor Milton Steps Down

Trevor Milton owns 35% of the company, according to regulatory filings. (Nikola Motor Co.)

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Trevor Milton has voluntarily stepped aside as executive chairman and board member of Nikola Corp., the electric truck company he created, it was announced Sept. 21.

The company said Steve Girsky, a former vice chairman at General Motors Co. and current member of Nikola’s board, has been appointed chairman of the board, effective immediately.

On Sept. 8, Nikola signed a $2 billion agreement with General Motors Co. under which GM would build Nikola’s Badger pickup truck and also serve as a key supplier of fuel cell-electric technology for Nikola’s Classes 7-8 trucks.

Trevor Milton's Sept. 21 tweet

Just two days later, Hindenburg Research, a short-selling firm, accused Milton and Nikola of deceptive practices with its electric truck technology.

“Nikola is in my blood and always will be. You are part of that Nikola family and always will be part of mine as well,” Milton said in a letter to the company’s employees. “I made the decision to approach the board of directors and volunteer to step aside from my roles as executive chairman and a member of the board of directors. The focus should be on the company and its world-changing mission, not me. We have to keep our eye on the target and deliver without distractions.”

Milton lauded his successor.

“As we move forward, I am confident Steve is the right leader to guide our vision at the board level,” Milton said. “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 policymakers, and has served as a director of numerous public companies.”

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The Nikola Tre

The Nikola Tre (Nikola Motor Co.)

Milton has been a high-profile leader at Nikola, frequently on Twitter and accessible to the media, and he has attracted the attention of the trucking industry, positively and negatively.

Hindenburg Research, which said it specializes in forensic financial research, published an article that said, among other things, that Nikola staged a 2018 video of its hydrogen fuel cell truck driving under its own power. The report also said Nikola made deceptive claims about its efforts to develop long-range batteries.

However, Hindenburg acknowledged it has a financial interest in Nikola — it holds a short position in Nikola stock. (A short seller is an investor that borrows a stock and sells it on the open market, planning to buy it back, and profit from, a drop in the stock’s price.)

 

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Milton denied the allegations and promised to defend himself and the company. Nikola has retained law firm Kirkland & Ellis.

In his departure letter, Milton said Girsky and the company will continue to aggressively move forward with its hydrogen fuel-cell electric truck.

Girsky promised to make the transition in leadership as seamless as possible.

RELATED: Steve Girsky Rises From Matchmaker to Chairmaker at Nikola

“On behalf of the board, I want to thank Trevor for his visionary leadership and significant contributions to Nikola since its founding,” Girsky said. “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.”

Stephen Girsky of General Motors

Girsky

After the Hindenburg allegations, GM issued a statement saying it stood with Nikola and would continue the deal with Nikola.

And Mary Barra, CEO of GM, defended the partnership as having been properly vetted. She told investors at a conference Sept. 14 she had “a very capable team that has done appropriate diligence.”

On Sept. 21, GM issued a statement to Transport Topics reaffirming its support for the partnership.

“We acknowledge Trevor Milton’s departure from Nikola and the decision of the Nikola board to move forward,” the statement said. “We will work with Nikola to close the transaction we announced nearly two weeks ago to seize the growth opportunities in broader markets with our Hydrotec fuel cell and Ultium battery systems, and to engineer and build the Nikola Badger.

“Nikola, Honda and other companies who are looking to GM’s technology as a platform for their products represent just one part of our overall EV strategy. Our overall goal is to put everyone in an EV and accelerate adoption.”

The no-cash deal gave GM an 11% stake in Nikola, and the agreement was announced just months after Nikola went public.

The company went public June 3 through a merger with VectoIQ Acquisition Corp., a special-purpose acquisition company. Girsky was VectoIQ’s managing partner at the time of the merger.

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