Tony Aquila became CEO of electric automaker 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, California, native founded automotive technology company Solera in 2005, where he was chairman and CEO. Aquila has been chairman 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 investment firm AFV Partners LLC, where he is still chairman and CEO.
Aquila says that, like many American innovators, he never went past the ninth grade in school.
Canoo recently named three new executives and gave other executives additional duties. Why make those changes?
We’ve expanded, realigned and made changes to synchronize with our near- and long-term growth. We’re looking to bring significant jobs to the Arkansas area. … Unlike other [original equipment manufacturers], our products are 80% technology and 20% mechanical. We’re a tech company that produces hardware and software, and our team reflects that. Our team combines tech industry veterans and automotive sector leaders. … We have a team that is challenging why things are done in a particular way so we can operationalize efficiently. … In a time of such a large industrial pivot, our team has the mindset and skill set for the new frontier we are building.
Why did the company choose Arkansas?
Northwest Arkansas has created an ecosystem of innovation, infrastructure and education excellence. …
Historically, Arkansas was the end of the known territories. The people who came to Arkansas were innovators, pioneers and adventurers. We appreciate this spirit as we move on to the next frontier of automotive. ...
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 why Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt and others are in the state.
Attracting the types of employees and talent that can further our mission to bring electric vehicles to everyone is important as well. … We’re thinking 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, great education and opportunities to raise their families for generations.
What do you think of the announcement of another steel facility in northeast Arkansas?
A key component of our strategy is to invest in the communities and states that are investing in manufacturing alongside us, creating American jobs and innovation. Northwest Arkansas is today what Texas was in 2007. It’s where the puck is going. You can move product from northwest Arkansas via water, rail, road to get anywhere in North America and do it in an environment where employees can own homes. We expect more companies will be moving into the area.
What is your most important mistake that has helped shape your career?
The most meaningful experience was flunking the fifth grade. I wanted to work at a different pace and a different way. … I learned to find problems worth solving. Instead of following others, I learned to focus on forging new paths. I have trained myself to think beyond what is here, and focus on the white space that can be built, grown or made efficient. 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 making decisions, investments, and leading people on a mission. They help drive the success of my teams by instilling output-focused practices, tackling inefficiencies and keeping all of us accountable.
What does the name "Canoo" mean?
To me, a canoe is the oldest most ecological form of transportation using nature within nature. It is made from the environment and brought Lewis and Clark across the country. It has a spirit of adventure and discovery.
It’s humble and available to anyone regardless of economic means. In addition, the link to water is special to me as we move to Arkansas which – along with the state of Oklahoma – has the most waterways of any two states in the nation. Did you know that, on every lake, a canoe is allowed to be on its waterway? Because it’s respectful and one with the nature it was built from. Canoo reflects our mission to bring EVs to everyone. It’s an affordable means of transportation that brings you across the land and transports goods affordably and efficiently while being light on 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 vehicle lifecycles.
What do you enjoy 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 taught by books, but a technician is taught by his hands and his co-workers. That’s what Henry Ford was, the Dodge brothers and many great American innovators. They saw something new and different that would improve people’s lives. That’s a powerful thing, to see what could be.
Now I get to take an active role in leading us toward a better, electrified future: instilling pride in American-made electric vehicles. I’m honored to build vehicles for everyone, to give working people something they can be proud of, that looks good and gives them something back. A lot of people make electric vehicles for people who don’t wear socks. I’m proud to make vehicles for people who wear socks and get them dirty. They’re the working people who need lower cost per mile [and] vehicles that retain value. This is why we build vehicles for everyone. So many things in this world have been built for the rich and privileged, but when you focus on what is meaningful, you build for everyone.
In many ways, I didn’t pick Arkansas or Oklahoma. What NWA has done not only benefits its state, but its neighboring states. It's a community that cares about the people, not the political lines. Many people think of the U.S. as 50 countries under a flag and currency. I see it as a nation of people who work in communities across state lines, often across borders. That’s what drew me here. The community. The innovators and pioneers before me forged a path of like-mindedness that ultimately brought us to our new home. We’re excited to put our roots across NWA and eastern Oklahoma.