Nikola, the embattled electric-vehicle startup that recently partnered with General Motors, said its founder stepped down as executive chairman effective immediately, removing a target of critics but clouding Nikola’s future direction.
Trevor Milton, the social-media-savvy public face of the company he founded in 2014, was replaced by board member Steve Girsky, whose title will be chairman, the company said in a statement late Sunday.
The shake-up comes less than two weeks after the Phoenix-based company found itself in the crosshairs of a skeptical short seller that issued a highly critical report and whose claims are the subject of investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and, reportedly, the Department of Justice.
“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,” Milton said in the statement. “So, I made the difficult decision to approach the board and step aside.”
The company has faced a turbulent period in the aftermath of a short-lived share rally following GM’s surprise decision earlier this month to take a $2 billion stake in Nikola and manufacture its new pickup. GM got a cash-free 11 percent equity position in its smaller partner in a bid to scale up and fast-track its own vehicle electrification efforts.
Girsky, 58, a former vice chairman of GM, helped lead the automaker out of bankruptcy.
Nikola’s shares have roller-coastered since the company went public on June 4 in a reverse merger, with Girsky’s blank-check company VectoIQ.
At one point, they soared so high the startup’s market value exceeded Ford Motor. After the third day of trading, Milton — who owns 35 percent of the company, based on regulatory filings — was worth $9 billion, making him the world’s 188th richest person, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His net worth is now valued at $4 billion.
The stock tumbled after short seller Hindenburg Research questioned the validity of Nikola’s claims about its electric-vehicle technology, accusing Nikola of being “an intricate fraud built on dozens of lies.” That drew the attention of financial regulators.
Milton countered, calling Hindenburg’s report a “hit job” in a tweet. He promised in a subsequent tweet to provide a detailed response to what he said were “one-sided false claims.” He also posted videos on Instagram, including one laden with expletives, dismissing Hindenburg’s accusations.