Summary List Placement
Trevor Milton, the charismatic founder of the electric-truck startup Nikola, became a minor celebrity in the automotive world last year after he took Nikola public in June, setting off a wave of public listings from electric-vehicle companies. Nikola had big names behind it — including General Motors, BlackRock, and Anheuser-Busch — and investors who at one point gave it a valuation larger than Ford’s.
But in September, allegations that Milton had a long history of lying and exaggerating about Nikola’s products quickly reversed the company’s momentum, leading Milton to resign in a matter of weeks.
Beginning in August, Insider started interviewing people who know or have worked for Milton while reviewing regulatory filings and lawsuits involving his companies. On March 6, Insider published the results of that investigation. You can read the full story here.
Below is a summary of the story’s main findings.
Through a spokesperson, Milton declined to comment on Insider’s story. Nikola also declined to comment.
Milton’s early successes came with allegations of dishonesty
Milton has been more successful than most entrepreneurs. He’s sold two of his five startups, and his fifth, Nikola, made him a billionaire after it went public. Many of those who spoke with Insider said Milton’s an unusually gifted salesman.
But some who have dealt with Milton over the years have accused him of misleading them or others.
- Glen Pilz, the man who bought Milton’s first startup in 2006, told The Wall Street Journal that Milton misled him about a $30,000 contract he says Milton had presented to him as a done deal but which his company hadn’t won. “The books were not what they said they were,” Pilz told CNN.
- Swift Transportation, a trucking company that worked with dHybrid, Milton’s third startup, sued dHybrid for breach of contract in 2012. Swift alleged dHybrid executives had spent some of a $2 million advance in ways that violated their agreement. Swift also alleged that dHybrid’s technology, fuel systems that mixed diesel and natural gas, didn’t have the “technical efficiencies or capabilities” the startup had advertised. dHybrid denied Swift’s allegations.
- Milton sold his fourth startup, dHybrid Systems, to the manufacturing company Worthington Industries in 2014. Many of dHybrid’s fuel systems had to be repaired, but two former Worthington employees told Insider that a report, prepared by an engineer Milton had hired, gave the impression nothing was wrong with them.
Milton continued to exaggerate during his time at Nikola
Milton founded Nikola in 2014. During his time at Nikola, Milton made a number of misleading statements, according to regulatory filings and people who worked for the company.
- Two contractors who worked on a prototype truck for Nikola in 2016 told Insider that Milton would tell visitors to Nikola’s headquarters that the company had developed parts that it had actually bought from suppliers.
- In June, Bloomberg reported that Milton had lied when he said a prototype truck unveiled in 2016 had all the components needed to drive under its own power. Milton initially denied Bloomberg’s report, but Nikola later admitted it was true.
- Nikola said in February that the financial-research firm Hindenburg Research correctly identified at least eight other instances in which Milton or the company made inaccurate statements, including comments Milton made in 2020 that Nikola developed all the “major” components in its vehicles.
Two women have accused Milton of sexual assault
Two women accused Milton of sexual assault last year. The first, Aubrey Smith, is a cousin of Milton’s. She 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 told them about the alleged assault years before she spoke with Insider.
In September, 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.”
Milton denied the allegations made by Smith, Winona, and the woman mentioned in CNBC’s report.
Milton’s friends say he’s misunderstood
Three of Milton’s friends described to Insider a different side of Milton, one that’s loyal, highly intelligent, and generous.
“He’s got a huge heart,” one of those friends, Jimmy Rex, 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.”
Another friend said he never saw Milton walk past a homeless person without giving them something when the two lived in Utah. More recently, Milton gave Nikola employees a total of 7 million shares, worth about $125 million, as a token of gratitude.
Milton had a difficult childhood
When he was growing up in Las Vegas and Utah, Milton dealt with a number of challenges: His mother and step-mother died before he turned 22, he was bullied in grade school (according to a childhood friend), he failed out of high school, and he dropped out of college after one semester.
When Milton lived in Utah, his father worked four hours away, 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.”
Milton’s been quiet since leaving Nikola
Milton has been quiet since leaving Nikola, a surprising development for someone who once expressed himself through a steady stream of tweets, Instagram videos, and interviews.
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, Michael Fleming, a friend of Milton’s, told Insider. Milton’s LinkedIn profile says he’s “currently taking a break from social media and work.”
Are you a current or former Nikola employee? Do you have a news tip or opinion you’d like to share? Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address email@example.com.