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Lohscheller will succeed Russell as CEO of Nikola

Nikola Motors president steps into CEO role when Mark Russell retires Jan. 1

Veteran automotive executive Michael Lohscheller was Nikola Corp. Chairman Steve Girsky’s pick to run Opel when Girsky was vice chairman of General Motors. On Wednesday, he did it again, elevating Lohscheller to the top job at Nikola from president of Nikola Motors.

The succession plan began when Girsky recruited Lohscheller to the president role in February. He worked under current CEO Mark Russell, who will retire. Lohscheller becomes corporate president and joins the company’s board of directors immediately. He takes over as CEO when Russell retires in January.

Russell will retain his board seat. He is Nikola’s largest individual shareholder with about 12% of company stock.

“Being part of Nikola has been the highlight of my career,” Russell said in a statement. “I could not be prouder of this team and everything we have accomplished and the milestones we have achieved so far.”

Nikola recovery from scandal

Nikola is delivering battery-electric trucks to customers, something that seemed unlikely during a turbulent time in late 2020 and early 2021. 

Scandal rocked the startup that went public in June 2020 via Girsky’s VectoIQ special purpose acquisition company. After a spectacular run-up in stock price in the first couple of months, Nikola founder and executive chairman Trevor Milton came under scrutiny for allegedly lying about the company’s technology progress and prowess to pump up the stock price.

Milton faces trial in federal court Sept. 12 on four counts of fraud related to statements and representations he made about the company.

Milton’s recruit

Recruited to Nikola by Milton, Russell became CEO when the SPAC merger closed. He receives credit for milestones including:

  • A greenfield manufacturing plant in Coolidge, Arizona
  • Securing a contract for discounted solar-generated electricity from an Arizona utility. Nikola will use in making hydrogen fuel for fuel cell trucks
  • Initial production of Nikola Tre battery-electric trucks and prototypes of a hydrogen-power fuel cell version due in 2023.

Russell also oversaw the dismantling of numerous projects Milton started, including canceling the battery-electric Badger pickup truck, shutting down a fledgling motorsports unit and dropping a lawsuit against Tesla Inc. over Milton’s allegations of patent infringement. 

Coincidentally, Russell and Milton co-own a joint venture that holds 40 million shares of Nikola stock. Milton’s voting rights of those shares plus his personal holdings led to a recent proxy fight over increasing the number of authorized shares. Milton voted his shares against the proposal. 

Nikola adjourned its annual meeting an unprecedented three times and hired a proxy solicitation firm to chase down enough votes to pass the measure that will allow Nikola to raise capital through future share sales and other financial arrangements.

Russell also led the way to Nikola’s purchase of distressed battery pack maker Romeo Power. Nikola agreed to pay $144 million in the all-stock transaction that secures Nikola’s source of the battery packs critical to electric trucks.

Standing upright at Nikola

Lohscheller kept the plant development and truck production on track while Russell tended to crisis resolution, including agreeing to pay a $125 million fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission that extricated the company from Milton’s troubles. Milton’s SEC civil trial was put on hold until the conclusion of the criminal trial.

“In his six months since joining our company, Michael has continued to bring an increased sense of urgency, high level of accountability, improved lines of communication and accelerated decision-making to Nikola Motors,” Girsky said.

As CEO of Opel, Lohscheller led the company to sustainable profitability and oversaw its transformation into a leading electrified car brand. More recently, he helmed Vietnamese electric car startup VinFast.

Lohscheller also served as executive vice president and CFO at Mitsubishi Motors Europe and Volkswagen Group of America.

“I spent so much time in Europe transforming large companies to zero-emission ability,” he said in a media roundtable in May at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo. “It’s very hard. You try to explain to 30,000 people that electrification is the future. And they’re like, ‘Really?’ Here, with Nikola, everybody is focused on zero-emissions trucks. How great is this?”

At 6-foot-8, Lohscheller may be the tallest executive in the trucking industry. He is a good advertisement for the spaciousness of the Tre, standing upright in the cab with headroom to spare. In the Nikola display at the ACT Expo, Lohscheller showed photographic evidence with a wide grin.

Nikola beats Q2 revenue estimate on deliveries of 48 electric trucks

Nikola finally gets the votes to pass its share proposal

Struggling Romeo Power acquired by Nikola to secure battery supply

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.