Summary List Placement
Trevor Milton was minutes from showing the world the fulfillment of his childhood dream. It hadn’t been an easy road. He’d failed out of high school, dropped out of college, watched his mother and step-mother die before his 22nd birthday, and gotten sued by the man who appeared ready to give him his big break as an entrepreneur.
Now, before a crowd of 600, in December 2016, Milton was about to boast that Nikola, his scrappy two-year-old startup, had made a fully functioning, zero-emission semi-truck before anyone else. It was called the Nikola One. In Milton’s words, it was “by far the most state-of-the-art truck ever built in history.” He’d been thinking about it since he was 6.
Wearing blue chinos and a light-purple dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up and brown hair slicked to one side, Milton didn’t have the polish of a Steve Jobs or Mary Barra. He talked a bit too fast, but did so with the conviction of someone who had spent the past two years steadily winning over supporters.
Twenty-five minutes into his presentation Milton left the stage. The lights dimmed, and the white sheet covering the One came off. Attendees stood, snapped photos, and applauded as Milton returned. He looked at the truck, laughed, and wiped his face with his hands.
He said, “Oh, that thing is so awesome.”
As the show drew to a close, Milton emphasized a point he’d made earlier. The vehicle behind him didn’t just look cool; it worked. You could drive it off the stage. “You’re going to see that this is a real truck,” he said. “This is not a pusher,” or a nonworking prototype wheeled out for show.
But that was a lie.
If you sat behind the wheel and put your foot on the accelerator, the truck wouldn’t move. It couldn’t. Milton’s not-a-pusher was very much a pusher.
Markus Scholten, an engineer who helped design the One, had warned Milton before the event that misleading the audience would come back to haunt him, but Milton brushed him off, Scholten told Insider.
Over the next four years, Milton’s star rose as Nikola raised a billion dollars in funding and assembled a blue-chip roster of partners and customers. By 2020, Milton, the serial entrepreneur who’d started four companies before Nikola and sold two of them, was being compared to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
But last June, Bloomberg was the first to report that the One prototype Milton unveiled in 2016 couldn’t drive under its own power. Three months later, Hindenburg Research, a financial-research firm that calls out companies it thinks have misbehaved, said Milton had a long history of bending the truth.
Milton denied the allegations, but they hung over him until, a little over a week later, he resigned from the company that made him a billionaire, before it delivered a single truck.
At a time when brash tech founders are upending established industries from aviation to food production, Milton sought to portray himself as a visionary with a game-changing idea. Like Musk, Milton has built a career on ambitious bets, an intense work ethic, and an uncensored public persona.
While Musk’s foibles have come paired with astonishing results, Milton’s have produced a mixed record. He’s had more success than most entrepreneurs, but allegations of exaggeration, misbehavior, and dishonesty have followed him throughout his career.
Depending on who’s describing him, Milton is either generous, ambitious, and inspiring, or undisciplined, dishonest, and callous. Insider spoke with 38 people who have worked for Milton or interacted with him, including friends, investors, and former employees. (Many spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, but their identities are known to Insider.)
Those two sides have clashed throughout Milton’s career, allowing him to build a $2 billion fortune while leaving a trail of investors and business partners who felt they’d been burned.
Through a spokesperson, Milton declined to comment on this story. Nikola also declined to comment.
A rough start
Born in Utah in 1982, Milton had what at times was a difficult childhood. When he was a toddler, his family moved to Las Vegas, where he had trouble making friends and became an easy target for bullies, a childhood friend said.
Milton and his four siblings moved to a farm in Kanab, Utah, when he was 8, because his mother, who had cancer, didn’t want to die in the city. She died when Milton was 14. Milton’s father, Bill, remarried, and that woman also died of cancer, when Trevor was 21.
Even after the Miltons moved to Utah, Bill continued to work in Nevada, four hours from their new home, forcing Milton and his siblings to become more self-sufficient. “I didn’t have people there to take care of me,” Milton said last year on “The Mark Haney Podcast.” “I had to do it myself.”
Unable to offer hands-on guidance all the time, Milton’s parents made it clear that they believed in him and wouldn’t get upset when he failed. To Bill, making a mistake was fine. Lying about it was not.
Trevor’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in during elementary school, where he sold candy he bought with money borrowed from his father. But he struggled in the classroom and later failed out of high school. After getting his GED and going on an 18-month service mission in Brazil (Milton grew up in the Mormon church), he attended Utah Valley University for one semester before dropping out.
“I was not made for school,” Milton said last year on “The Founder Hour” podcast. “It just did not fit me. I hated it.”
If Milton was not built for academia, he fit the profile of a startup founder: energetic, optimistic, extroverted. His great talent, according to those who know him, is persuasion. Even former employees who dislike him marveled at his ability to make people believe in him.
“He could sell snow to an Eskimo without having access to snow,” a former employee of one of Milton’s early startups said.
But in his eagerness to build his companies, Milton has shown a tendency to blur, and maybe even step over, the line between optimism and deception.
People who’ve worked with or otherwise know Milton say he has lied to boost his reputation, misled partners and coworkers about his companies’ products, and claimed he and his employees built parts they bought from suppliers.
“As you work closely with him, you begin to see that he struggles to tell the truth about anything,” a former coworker said.
A pattern emerges
In 2006, when Milton was 24, he sold his first company, St. George Security & Alarms, which offered video surveillance and alarm systems. The buyer, Glen Pilz, was soon unhappy. He received a few unpleasant surprises after taking over, he told The Wall Street Journal, like employees who didn’t have proper certification and a $30,000 contract he says Milton had presented to him as a done deal but which the company hadn’t won.
“The books were not what they said they were,” Pilz told CNN. Pilz bet every dollar he’d saved on the company, he said. By the end, he says he lost $300,000 and had his home foreclosed on twice. (Pilz didn’t respond to Insider’s requests for an interview.)
Milton moved on, starting two companies that had nothing in common with his first startup, or each other, in 2009. One, uPillar, was an e-commerce site; the other, dHybrid, made fuel systems for heavy-duty trucks. According to people who worked for the companies, both Trevor’s youth and interpersonal skills showed in the way he ran them. Some employees said he had a knack for keeping them motivated and would make gestures of appreciation like buying them lunch or upgrading them to first class on business trips. Others felt that he could be an impulsive, undisciplined micromanager.
uPillar resembled a mash-up of eBay, Cars.com, Indeed, Zillow, and Match.com, where users could sell unwanted items, apply for jobs, buy a car, shop for a home, and connect with singles looking for love. Milton aggressively promoted the site, advertising on Glenn Beck’s radio show, organizing an attempt to break the record for the world’s largest silly-string fight, and holding a contest whose winner got a trip to Hawaii.
In Milton’s telling, uPillar failed because it was too successful too quickly. Operating out of Utah instead of Silicon Valley made it hard to raise money fast enough to keep up with the site’s growth.
“We had 80 million people on our site, and we collapsed because we couldn’t handle the traffic,” Milton said on “The Mark Haney Podcast.” “We would have become Amazon if we would have been able to live through it.”
But four people who worked for or with uPillar said the site failed to get much traction. Milton’s claim, in an interview last year with Forbes, that uPillar had attracted more than 80 million visitors a month, was implausible, the four people said. A 2011 blog post from a web design and marketing firm said uPillar at the time was receiving about 200,000 visits a month, citing data from Compete.com, a site that measured web traffic before shutting down in 2016.
“I just don’t think that the company was ever on track to be the great classified site that he had envisioned and hoped that it would be,” said Travis Benson, who worked as a web developer for uPillar.
dHybrid fared better, but not before a prospective customer sued after getting the same feeling Pilz did, that Milton had promised more than he could deliver.
The company made fuel systems that mixed inexpensive natural gas with diesel, promising truck operators fuel savings of 30% or more — a big deal in an industry with slim profit margins. According to Yahoo Finance, Michael Shrout, a Utah inventor and early dHybrid employee, developed the startup’s technology. But it was Milton who sold others on the tech. Before Milton pitched him, one dHybrid investor wrote three checks — one for $20,000 and two for $10,000 each — unsure of how much he’d want to contribute. By the time Milton was through, the investor was so excited he handed him all three.
As Milton searched for funding in late 2009, he met Jerry Moyes, the CEO of Swift Transportation, one of the largest trucking companies in the US. In a counterclaim dHybrid later filed in response to a lawsuit from Swift, dHybrid alleged that Moyes laid out a vision of the two traveling in his private jet, selling dHybrid’s fuel system to the transportation industry’s big shots. dHybrid alleged that Moyes told Milton he could trust him to make dHybrid successful. (In a reply to dHybrid’s counterclaim, Swift agreed that Moyes told Milton they could fly together on a private jet, but denied that Moyes said he’d make dHybrid successful.)
The two companies signed a deal that gave Swift the option to buy up to $250 million worth of dHybrid fuel systems if it was happy with the way they worked. As part of the agreement, Swift paid dHybrid a $2 million advance to continue developing its technology and install fuel systems on trucks so that Swift could test them.
Over the next two years their relationship fell apart as Swift declined to buy dHybrid’s fuel systems and Milton’s startup became increasingly dependent on Swift for loans. In 2012, Swift sued dHybrid for breach of contract, alleging the company’s executives had spent some of the $2 million advance in ways that had nothing to do with the work Swift was paying it for. Meanwhile, Swift alleged, dHybrid’s tech had caused engine problems and didn’t have the “technical efficiencies or capabilities” the startup had advertised.
dHybrid denied Swift’s allegations in a counterclaim, alleging Swift was the one that had violated its contract by failing to provide the necessary vehicles for testing and interfering with dHybrid’s efforts to raise money. Swift, dHybrid alleged, had tried to drive it into bankruptcy so that it could buy its tech at a discount. (In a reply to dHybrid’s counterclaim, Swift denied dHybrid’s allegations.) The two companies dropped their claims against each other in 2015.
Still, a pattern seemed to be emerging: Milton had a gift for selling his companies’ potential, and, according to some, a habit of painting too rosy a picture.
The battle with Swift left Milton in a tough spot. The company that had once appeared to be his ticket to the Fortune 500 had turned against him, leaving dHybrid paralyzed by the weight of endless legal filings. At dinner with a friend, Milton broke down and sobbed, the friend said. dHybrid was losing money Milton had raised from family and friends, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
Then he found a way out.
In late 2012, Milton’s father registered a new company, tweaking dHybrid’s name and mission. dHybrid Systems would sell fuel systems that used only natural gas, instead of ones that mixed in diesel. In 2014, the Miltons sold dHybrid Systems to the manufacturing company Worthington Industries for $12 million. (Trevor later claimed that dHybrid Systems sold for “much more than $20 million.”)
Worthington soon had a problem on its hands. Many of the dHybrid fuel systems had to be repaired because the brackets that secured them to a truck would break, four former Worthington employees said. Two of those former Worthington employees said that a report, prepared by an engineer Milton had hired, gave the impression nothing was wrong with them.
In a 2015 financial filing, Worthington said dHybrid’s intangible assets — including its “technological know-how,” relationships with customers, and order backlog — once valued at $2.9 million, were now worth just $600,000. In March 2016, Worthington said it had made $1.5 million in warranty payments related to the dHybrid acquisition in a recent three-month period.
“We stand by our public filings and don’t have any additional information to add,” a Worthington spokesperson said.
Three people who invested in the first dHybrid told Insider they also received bad news after the Worthington acquisition: Their shares didn’t entitle them to any part of the $12 million payout. Though dHybrid and dHybrid Systems had similar products, they were technically separate companies.
Milton would later say he reimbursed most of the investors he was able to get in touch with, but two people who put money into dHybrid said they were never paid back, and two of Milton’s relatives said some of their family members had lost money on their investments.
Milton had frustrated some of those investors long before the Worthington sale. Two said they spent years asking him to send them stock certificates documenting their stakes in his companies, but never received them. A third investor made a similar allegation in a 2010 counterclaim to a suit Milton had filed against him. Milton denied the investor’s allegation.
Nikola takes off
Mark Russell was Worthington’s COO when he persuaded the company to buy dHybrid. He became Milton’s boss after the deal closed, and imagined guiding Milton through the ranks at Worthington. Then, one day, Milton walked into Russell’s office and told him he was going to create “the semi-truck of the future,” Russell told Insider. If Russell were smart, Milton said, he’d invest in Milton’s new company. (Russell told Bloomberg that he successfully encouraged Worthington to become one of Nikola’s earliest investors.)
Milton had been thinking about electric semis for more than two decades. In a 2019 interview with Trucks.com, he said that when he was 6 years old, he was at work with his father, who was then a railroad manager for Union Pacific. An engineer there explained to Milton how a locomotive ran on electricity generated by diesel fuel. The engineer pointed to a nearby semi and said that one day someone would figure out how to make it, too, run on electricity.
“That was my lightbulb,” Milton told Trucks.com. “I decided right then that someday I’d build that locomotive semi. The next 30 years were all about preparing myself.”
Milton founded Nikola in 2014 and started focusing on the company full time in 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. For a year, he used his home in Salt Lake City as the company’s headquarters, with computers strewn throughout his basement and kitchen.
Nikola struggled to stay afloat in its early years, forcing Milton and his father to take out mortgages on their homes to keep the company alive. At one point, Milton has said, the company was days away from bankruptcy before securing a critical $30 million fundraising round. As is common with startup founders, his life became consumed with getting Nikola off the ground, said Michael Fleming, who’s been friends with Milton for a decade.
“There were a couple years there where he just worked,” Fleming said. “He was 100% work.”
Milton still had a tendency to exaggerate, some who worked for him said. Two contractors who helped build the One semi-truck prototype said Milton would tell visitors to Nikola’s headquarters that the company had developed parts that it had actually bought from suppliers, such as the One’s motors and inverters.
Nikola announced the One in May 2016. Within two months, the truck racked up over 7,000 reservations, and the company scheduled its unveiling for December. Milton wanted a fully functioning prototype for the event, and he wanted it built in about six months, said one contractor who worked on the vehicle. Such a task would normally take 18 to 24 months, the contractor said.
That goal became harder to reach in August, when Nikola announced the truck would not use natural gas, diesel, or gasoline, but instead hydrogen, which required a new fuel system. Come December, the truck had none of the components needed to store or produce power from hydrogen, but Milton, two contractors said, had someone put a sticker on the vehicle that indicated it did.
Milton made other questionable moves, like hiring his brother, Travis, who didn’t seem to do much, two current Nikola employees said. (When contacted by Insider, Travis declined to comment.)
But, according to some of those who worked for him, Milton still had a talent for connecting with his employees. When Nikola was operating out of Milton’s basement and doubts started to form about the company’s prospects, he knew how to keep his team motivated, Scholten said. And even as he started to attract more attention, Milton didn’t adopt an air of superiority. One former employee described him as friendly and approachable, and said he felt he could have walked into Milton’s office unannounced and started a conversation without bothering him.
In the years after Nikola unveiled the One, it would add Bosch, Anheuser-Busch, US Xpress, and Iveco to its list of partners and reservation-holders. Milton even recruited Mark Russell, the Worthington COO who’d briefly been his boss, to become Nikola’s president.
As Nikola grew, so did Milton’s ambitions. In addition to building semi trucks and fueling stations, he wanted to make an off-road military vehicle, a jet ski, and a pickup. Those side projects didn’t make sense to some employees, who thought they were taking resources from Nikola’s core products. (Nikola has in recent months stopped working on those projects.)
While Nikola still had plenty of work ahead before it could begin to deliver on Milton’s goals, MIlton started talking as if he’d already met them.
“We’ve already changed the world of transportation with the hydrogen truck,” Milton said last year in an interview. “We’ve accomplished everything I’ve ever dreamed of in my life with that.”
In another interview he said, “We’re the first company to do full production of a zero-emission truck,” despite the fact that Nikola had said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that production for its first model wouldn’t begin for another year. “We beat Daimler, we beat Volvo, we beat Tesla, we beat everybody.”
In March 2020, Milton took the next big step: agreeing to take Nikola public by merging with VectoIQ, a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. At that point, Nikola was generating less than $500,000 in revenue a year, all of which came from installing solar panels. Some of those panels went to Milton, who paid a total of $500,000 for “solar installation services” in 2018 and 2019.
The merger brought Nikola over $700 million, more than all the money it had raised previously, and left it with an enterprise value of about $3.3 billion. It also made Milton a billionaire, but cost him the CEO role: Some early investors admired Milton’s vision and fundraising abilities, but didn’t he think he had the operational skills to get Nikola’s vehicles on the road, Bloomberg reported. Russell became CEO, while Milton remained the chairman of Nikola’s board of directors. Milton said he didn’t mind the move. It allowed him to focus on the big picture while leaving the administrative tasks that didn’t excite him to Russell, who, Milton noted in interviews, still reported to him.
In August, with two partnerships and a new customer to announce, as well as a pickup truck to unveil, Milton had a good feeling about the rest of the year.
“The next four months,” he told CNBC, “are going to be the greatest four months in Nikola’s history.”
Most critics were harmless. One was not.
With Nikola’s rising profile came increased attention from skeptics.
“It isn’t impossible that Nikola will eventually grow into this valuation, but it will require far more even than the successful execution of its current, ambitious plan,” a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote in June. “Nikola: Vaporware Selling For ~$25 Billion,” read a July headline from a Seeking Alpha contributor.
Milton, at the time an avid tweeter, became preoccupied with his doubters. He’s long been sensitive to criticism, five people who have worked for him said, and during interviews he would often bring up Nikola’s critics unprompted and talk about them at length.
While most of them were harmless, one was not.
On September 10, two days after Nikola announced a partnership with GM, the financial-research firm Hindenburg Research published a lengthy report outlining why it was short-selling Nikola stock. Hindenburg said that Nikola and Milton had a history of exaggerations and misrepresentations about the company’s products. In one 2018 video, Hindenburg said, a Nikola One prototype that appeared to be driving under its own power was merely rolling down a hill.
In a series of Instagram videos, Milton fumed, calling the report “bullshit” and saying Nikola had approached the SEC about it (the Department of Justice and SEC would later open inquiries into Nikola). Four months later, in its 2020 annual report, Nikola said that Hindenburg had correctly identified at least nine instances in which Milton or the company made inaccurate statements, including the suggestion that the vehicle in the 2018 video was a working prototype as well as comments Milton made in 2020 that Nikola developed all the “major” components in its vehicles.
In the wake of the Hindenburg report, investors sent Nikola’s stock price tumbling. GM, which had said it would invest in Nikola and manufacture a pickup truck for it, decided by November that it didn’t want to do either, saying instead that it would only supply Nikola with hydrogen fuel cells. BP and other energy companies paused discussions with Nikola about building hydrogen-fueling stations, The Wall Street Journal reported. And, in the weeks after the report’s release, two women accused Milton of sexual assault. People close to the women, and a former friend of Milton, corroborated their accounts. Milton denied their allegations.
On September 21, Milton stepped down from Nikola, saying he didn’t want to become a distraction.
The 2 Trevors
Milton’s friends think he’s misunderstood. They say he’s not the liar or predator his detractors and alleged victims make him out to be. In their view, he’s the opposite: loyal, highly intelligent, and generous, even when no one’s looking.
“He’s got a huge heart,” Jimmy Rex, a friend of Milton’s, said. “He’s always been willing to do things for other people. There’s so many things that he does that no one ever sees.” Once, Rex said, Milton paid for about 30 friends to join him on a trip to Hawaii.
Another friend said he never saw Milton walk past a homeless person without giving them something when the two lived in Utah. More recently, Trevor gave Nikola employees a total of 7 million shares, worth about $125 million, as a token of gratitude.
Others see Milton as selfish and callous. Aubrey Smith, a cousin of Milton, told Insider that he groped her after their grandfather’s funeral in 1999, when she was 15 and he was 17 (three people close to Smith said in interviews with Insider that she had previously told them about the alleged assault). Four years later, Smith said, Milton acted as if he didn’t recognize her at his step-mother’s funeral. Smith said Milton eventually told her he was sorry about his actions during the alleged 1999 assault, but added that he felt compelled to apologize only because Smith was his cousin.
“If you were anyone other than my cousin, I would tell you to fuck off and stop being crazy,” Smith said Milton told her.
A week after Smith recounted the alleged assault in a series of tweets, CNBC published a story that included an allegation from a former employee of St. George Security & Alarms, Milton’s first startup, that Milton had sexually assaulted her in 2004, when she was 15 and he was 22. The woman’s name was not disclosed by CNBC, though the publication said a friend of the woman, as well as Tyler Winona, a former friend of Milton, corroborated parts of her account.
Winona told CNBC that Milton later bragged to him about the alleged assault, saying, “I like virgins because they are naive.”
The alleged victim and Winona declined Insider’s requests for phone interviews through their attorney. Milton denied the allegations made by Smith, Winona, and the woman mentioned in CNBC’s report.
Milton has made no public statements since he left Nikola, a striking reversal for someone who once expressed himself through a steady stream of tweets, Instagram videos, and interviews. Having to leave the company he built hurt, three of his friends said.
“Talking to him the other day was kind of depressing, because it was the first time I’ve ever heard him sound down,” one friend of Milton said in September.
After spending much of his adult life leading startups, Milton now wants to rest and focus on his personal life in a way he wasn’t able to before, Fleming said. He wants to get in shape, start a family, and attend to the relationships he put on hold while building Nikola.
As a billionaire, Milton doesn’t have to work again if he doesn’t want to. (While most of his wealth is tied up in Nikola stock, Milton sold $70 million worth of shares when the company went public.) It’s hard, though, to imagine someone so wired for entrepreneurship will retire forever.
But if he wants to mount a comeback, he’ll have to be ready to face down skeptics who don’t trust him. He might do well to return to his roots. By his telling, there was little his father cared more about when Milton was young than honesty.
“I grew up in a family where the most important thing you can do is tell the truth,” Milton told “The Mark Haney Podcast” last year. “My dad bred that into me.”
That lesson appeared to fade as Milton grew older, and it cost him. If he wants a shot at redemption, he’ll have to make sure that lesson sticks.
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