Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton could illustrate “millenial” in a dictionary. He’s self-assured, ambitious and achievement-oriented. He doesn’t have much patience for conventional wisdom – like “Get a degree if you want to be successful.”
Milton never completed college. Now 36, the serial entrepreneur is the nation’s foremost pitchman for hydrogen fuel-cell technology in transportation. He started Nikola Motor when he was 29, and it has become one of the most visible advanced vehicle companies in the world.
Nikola, named for famous electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, is a pioneer in the fuel-cell electric truck industry. It also is developing battery-electric water-sports, all-terrain and military vehicles.
Milton’s game plan calls for Nikola to be the world’s largest producer and purveyor of hydrogen for zero-emission fuel cell vehicles. Milton wants to build 700 Nikola hydrogen stations across the U.S. by 2028.
These are lofty goals, but Milton has faced challenges before. He describes his early years as sometimes tough, marked by the loss of his mother to cancer when he was a young teen. His family fought financial hardship created by her long years of illness and treatment costs.
The hurdles of those early years formed him and laid the foundation for his successes today, Milton, who isn’t shy about his accomplishments, told Trucks.com.
“I won the lottery when it came to parents,” he said. He credits the examples of his father, Bill Milton, a retired Union Pacific Railroad manager, and his Realtor mother, Sally, for his drive and fortitude.
“He has obsessive focus,” said Mark Russell, a longtime Milton mentor who recently signed on as Nikola’s president. Milton was a customer of Russell’s prior company, Worthington Industries.
“He can extrapolate and form new patterns,” Russell said. “It’s what the rest of us call vision.”
Milton often learns by going into the field and asking questions, Russell said.
As he was formulating Nikola five years ago, Milton used the Thanksgiving holiday to gather intelligence by talking to truckers in the newly opened North Dakota oil fields. He gave Russell a call from the highway.
“This was about the time he was moving to try to make Nikola a real enterprise,” Russell said. “He said he was having a great time, that he was visiting truck stops along the I-90 in the Dakotas.”
Milton isn’t a trained engineer or scientist. He tried college, but quit after one semester at Utah Valley State College – now Utah Valley University – in Provo.
His key strengths are his vision, communications skills, passion and the “animal spirit” to stake his money and his reputation on an idea, Russell said.
“He’s a classic entrepreneur, on the extreme side, with no time for the regular structures and strictures of society,” Russell said.
Others who have worked with Milton echo Russell’s assessment.
‘ENERGETIC AND ENGAGING’
“Trevor is a very energetic and engaging visionary type of person, extremely passionate about what he is trying to accomplish with Nikola,” said Ingrid De Ryck, vice president of procurement and sustainability for Anheuser-Bush. The brewing giant has said it will order 800 Nikola trucks for its fleet.
“If you need a salesperson to pitch a new technology to a company, you’d rather have someone like him than someone that shows up and delivers the same message time and time again,” she said.
Milton’s passion is a potent tool, said Jon Morrison, president of Americas Business unit of Wabco Holdings Inc.
Nikola offers a collaborative platform that enables various component developers to work together to build the best truck, Morrison said. But in the end, Milton’s passion is what sold Wabco not only on becoming a development partner but also in investing $10 million in Nikola.
Milton said his drive grew out of a childhood that could have been stifling but for the encouragement he received from his father.
“My dad got his degrees in business and finance, and while he wasn’t an entrepreneur, he wanted me to be one,” Milton said. He described his father as his best friend and biggest supporter.
“I borrowed $20 from my dad and bought candy and resold it to the kids at school. I made a killing, to the point that the principal wanted to kick me out of elementary school. That was where it all began,” he said.
A family crisis helped build his character, Milton said.
“From the time I was 6, my mother had cancer. I watched her cough up blood and eventually die,” he said. The family had relocated to Las Vegas when Milton was a toddler but moved back to Utah when he was 8.
“That’s when things got tough,” Milton said. His father had quit his job and begun consulting for Union Pacific, mostly in Las Vegas, making the long drive to and from the Milton home in Kanab as often as possible.
Milton and his brother and three sisters “had to learn to survive as a family with a mother who was bedridden and a father who had to go to work 4-5 hours away. It was very tough, the toughest time of our lives, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. “
Milton, a Mormon, credits an 18-month church mission to Brazil after high school with helping him learn to be independent – and to become fluent in Portuguese.
After that miission, Milton spent some time in Puerto Rico, studying Spanish. He returned to Utah in 2003 and started his first company. It was an alarm and video-surveillance business.
He sold it a few years later and started an online retail operation that Milton, never self-effacing, called “an incredible success,” although it failed.
Nikola is his sixth business. “Three were good successes, three were not so great, but a .500 batting average in baseball is the best player in the world,” Milton said of his track record.
His entrepreneurial days are done, though, and Nikola will be his last business, Milton said. He’s raised $300 million so far in pursuit of his dream and recently launched a new quest for $1.5 billion in fresh investment capital.
Nikola’s roots extend back to Milton’s early years. His father’s job gave Milton access to trains in the Las Vegas area.
One day an engineer taught the 6-year-old Milton how a locomotive ran on electricity that was generated by the engine’s huge diesel engines. The engineer pointed to a diesel truck running on the highway alongside the tracks.
“He told me that maybe one day they’ll be smart enough to build a locomotive semi-truck, and that was my lightbulb,” Milton said. “I decided right then that someday I’d built that locomotive semi. The next 30 years were all about preparing myself.”