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Tony Aquila became CEO of electric carmaker Canoo Inc. in April 2021, after investing in the company and serving on its board. In November, Canoo announced it would move its headquarters to northwest Arkansas and employ 500 people in Benton and Washington counties.
Previously, the Richmond, Calif., native founded automotive technology company Solera in 2005, where he served as president and CEO. Aquila served as president of sports data intelligence provider Sportradar, runway analysis company Aircraft Performance Group LLC, and RocketRoute, a flight planning and navigation service for the aviation industry. He also founded the investment firm AFV Partners LLC, of which he is still Chairman and CEO.
Aquila says that, like many American innovators, he never made it past ninth grade in school.
Canoo recently named three new leaders and assigned additional duties to other leaders. Why make these changes?
We have expanded, realigned and made changes to synchronize with our short and long term growth. We seek to bring important jobs to the Arkansas region. …unlike others [original equipment manufacturers], our products are 80% technological and 20% mechanical. We’re a technology company that produces hardware and software, and our team reflects that. Our team combines technology industry veterans and automotive industry leaders. … We have a team that wonders why things are done in a particular way so that we can operationalize effectively. … At a time of such important industrial pivot, our team has the mindset and skills necessary for the new frontier we are building.
Why did the company choose Arkansas?
Northwest Arkansas has created an ecosystem of excellence in innovation, infrastructure, and education. …
Historically, Arkansas was the end of known territories. The people who came to Arkansas were innovators, pioneers, and adventurers. We appreciate this spirit as we move into the next automotive frontier. …
We see northwest Arkansas and [southern] Oklahoma as a region. Ultimately, we chose Arkansas and Oklahoma because of the people and companies that came before us. They have been innovators for our country. There’s a reason Walmart, Tyson, JB Hunt and others are in the state.
Attracting the kinds of employees and talent that can advance our mission to bring electric vehicles to everyone is also important. … We think long term. It’s important that our people are part of a community where they can put down roots, buy a home, and have a good quality of life, a great education, and opportunities to raise their families for generations.
What do you think of the announcement of another steel plant in northeast Arkansas?
A key part of our strategy is to invest in the communities and states that invest in manufacturing alongside us, creating jobs and innovation in the United States. Northwest Arkansas is today what Texas was in 2007. That’s where the puck goes. You can move products from Northwest Arkansas by sea, rail or road to anywhere in North America and do so in an environment where employees can own their homes. We expect more businesses to settle in the area.
What is your biggest mistake that helped shape your career?
The most significant experience was missing fifth grade. I wanted to work at a different pace and in a different way. … I learned to find problems worth solving. Instead of following others, I learned to focus on creating new paths. I’ve trained myself to think beyond what’s here and focus on the white space that can be built, expanded, or made effective. I look for solutions when people don’t even see the problem yet. That’s when I see real success in business.
In the process, I adopted a set of core principles that underpin my approach to decision-making, investing, and leading people on assignment. They contribute to the success of my teams by instilling results-driven practices, addressing inefficiencies, and holding us all accountable.
What does the name “Canoo” mean?
For me, a canoe is the oldest and most ecological means of transport using nature in nature. It is made from the environment and brought Lewis and Clark across the country. He has a spirit of adventure and discovery.
It is humble and accessible to all, regardless of economic means. Also, the connection to water is special for me as we head to Arkansas which, along with the state of Oklahoma, has the most waterways of any two states in the country. Did you know that, on all lakes, a canoe is authorized to sail on its watercourse? Because it is respectful and at one with the nature from which it was built. Canoo reflects our mission to bring electric vehicles to everyone. It is an affordable means of transportation that takes you across the country and transports goods affordably and efficiently while respecting the environment.
Our name reflects our vision to reinvent the automotive landscape and focus on use cases with pioneering technologies and a unique business model that spans multiple owners across the vehicle lifecycle.
What do you like most about your job?
When I was a kid, working in a body shop, I learned from my family how to look at something and see its potential. An engineer is trained by books, but a technician is trained by his hands and his colleagues. That’s what Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, and many great American innovators were. They saw something new and different that would make people’s lives better. It’s a powerful thing, to see what could be.
Now I can play an active role in leading us into a brighter, electrified future: instilling pride in American-made electric vehicles. I’m honored to build vehicles for everyone, to give workers something they can be proud of, that looks good and gives them something back. A lot of people are making electric vehicles for those who don’t wear socks. I’m proud to make vehicles for people who wear socks and get them dirty. It’s the workers who need a lower cost per mile [and] vehicles that retain their value. That’s why we build vehicles for everyone. So much in this world was built for the rich and privileged, but when you focus on what makes sense, you build for everyone.
In many ways, I didn’t choose Arkansas or Oklahoma. What NWA has done not only benefits its state, but also its neighboring states. It’s a community that cares about people, not politics. Many people think of the United States as 50 countries with one flag and one motto. I see it as a nation of people working in communities across state lines, often across borders. That’s what drew me here. The community. Innovators and trailblazers before me forged a path of shared spirit that eventually brought us to our new home. We are excited to expand into the NWA and eastern Oklahoma.