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Nikola battles back: Electric truck startup seeks to calm investors (Update)

Milestones and leadership team have board of directors’ backing, chairman says

Talk of SPACs brings Nikola to mind during a FreightWaves LIVE @HOME fireside chat. (Photo: Nikola)

Editor’s Note: Updates throughout including an unattributed report by CNBC that GM may increase its stake in Nikola

Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA) is fighting back after three weeks of withering media coverage following a short seller’s fraud allegations that succeeded in crashing the startup electric truck maker’s stock. 

In a media tour that helped the company’s battered shares recover some of their lost ground, Nikola on Wednesday put CEO Mark Russell and recently named Chairman Steve Girsky into media interviews seeking to reset company fortunes with an all-is-well message.

FreightWaves asked what Nikola could have done to avoid the fallout from a Sept. 10 Hindenburg Research report that contributed to founder Trevor Milton resigning as executive chairman, or if they had any regrets from recent events.

“I’m not going to chew on yesterday’s breakfast,” Girsky said. “We’re going to move forward here. We’re trying to level set everybody of what this company is, where they are, and where they are going. I am here to say the board is supportive of this team moving forward.”

Trevor’s vision

Russell joined Nikola as president from early investor Worthington Industries (NYSE:WOR) in February 2019. He declined to answer whether he was put off by Milton’s outsize personality or ever tried to rein him in from nearly constant tweeting and bragging about the company’s technological prowess.

“Trevor’s vision about the future of hydrogen and fuel cells was absolutely brilliant,” Russell said. “That’s what has been driving the momentum and the build of the company to this point. That’s what’s driving us forward. We’re delivering a battery truck and then we deliver the fuel cell truck and the stations to fuel the fuel cell truck. That vision started with Trevor years ago.”

Later in the interview, Russell offered that Nikola will rely less on Twitter as a communication tool.

Girsky, who became non-executive chairman of the board of Nikola following Milton’s departure, is CEO of special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) VectoIQ. He led the reverse merger that made Nikola a public company in June. 

Too public too soon?

Asked by FreightWaves to respond to a comment from board member Jeffrey Ubben that Nikola was too young a company to be exposed to the glare of public scrutiny, he demurred.

“I think it’s a great public story,” Girsky said. “The vision excites a lot of people and it’s about executing on that vision. The stock price will reflect the value as we go forward and hit our milestones.”

Nikola on Wednesday published a timeline of milestones it expects to hit. That begins with European testing of Nikola Tre battery-electric heavy-duty truck prototypes in the fourth quarter.

First up: the Tre

The Tre is a joint venture with Italian truck maker Iveco, a subsidiary of CNH Industrial NV (NYSE: CNHI), which invested $250 million in Nikola in September 2019. About 60% of that investment was the use of Iveco’s S-Way truck platform and an Iveco plant in Ulm, Germany. 

The S-Way also is the basis for the Nikola Two hydrogen fuel cell-powered Class 8 truck that goes into production in 2023 at Nikola’s plant currently under construction in Coolidge, Arizona, The S-Way shares about 85% of its components with the Tre but accounts for only 15% of the value, according to Nikola Chief Financial Officer Kim Brady.

The Badger’s future?

Nikola’s lengthy press release on Wednesday did not mention the Badger electric pickup truck. Nikola and General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) announced Sept. 8 that GM would produce the truck and provide batteries and fuel cells in exchange for 11% equity in Nikola worth $2 billion. 

But that figure was based on GM receiving about 48 million new shares of Nikola stock priced at $41.93 each, more than twice Wednesday’s closing price of $20.49.

CNBC reported Wednesday without explanation or attribution that GM could take a larger stake in Nikola. One way that could happen is if Nikola awarded more shares to GM to make up for the decline in share value.

Russell declined to rate on a 1-10 scale the likelihood the Badger, most closely associated with Milton and the subject of heavy hype on Twitter, would be produced.

“The Badger is not in the release because that is in the discussions with GM,” he said. “All we can say on that front is the discussions with GM are continuing.”

Nikola said Wednesday it was postponing a corporate event called NikolaWorld 2020 scheduled for Dec. 3-5 because of the COVID pandemic. It planned to reveal the Badger at the event.

Nikola and GM said in a joint release Sept. 8 that they expected the transaction to close prior to Sept. 30 (Wednesday). Either side can walk away if no agreement is reached by Dec. 3.  That is the same day that lockup agreements expire covering up to 250 million Nikola shares, allowing them to be sold.

Hydrogen station partnership – or not?

Nikola’s plan for a 700-station network of hydrogen fueling stations is unchanged, Russell said. He hedged on how that will develop.

“The plan that we have is to go forward on our own,” Russell said. “That’s the way we’ve focused from the beginning. We’re absolutely open to partners to de-risk and accelerate what we do. We do expect to be able to announce a partnership on the hydrogen side before the end of the year. If we don’t, either way, we’re in the ground for the first commercial station next year.”

That station could be a stand-alone or part of a pair of stations to serve an Anheuser-Busch Inbev S.A. (NYSE: BUD) route from a production plant in Van Nuys, California, to a distribution center in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona.

Keeping the order book intact

Anheuser-Busch agreed in 2018 to buy up to 800 of Nikola’s fuel cell trucks. It is the only customer with a formal purchase agreement with Nikola. Anheuser-Busch will test the first fuel cell prototypes in early 2022.

Nikola claims 14,000 fuel cell truck orders with an estimated revenue of $10 billion if converted to leases. 

“I have not looked at the number most recently,” Russell said. “But I have been talking to all of our customers and partners and institutional investors. Our discussions with them have not been uninterrupted through all this. That’s the reason for the level set, to make sure everybody understands that. Our customers are sticking with us.”

Related articles:

Steve Girsky replaces Trevor Milton at embattled Nikola

Nikola explains what it does and doesn’t do on electric trucks

Shell stuffing: How Nikola became VectoIQ’s public preference

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

One Comment

  1. Robert

    Nikola has reiterated its business process goals for all to see. Moreover, it looks like the known issues have been resolved, therefore moving forward Nikola must execute and stay focused on this plan. I believe what Nikola has recently said and know they will be successful in the future!!

Comments are closed.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.