BC Middle Market Growth Conference panellists speak
from opposite ends of spectrum
By Patrick Blennerhassett
In the final three months of 2016, Canada’s economic growth beat expectations. According to the Conference Board of Canada, overall gross domestic product growth finished the year at 2.6%, well above tempered forecasts. Leading the way for the past two years has been British Columbia, overtaking the high-powered economic engines of Ontario and Quebec. Many budding entrepreneurs might be thinking: Is this the time to take the plunge and start my own business? What can I expect in the startup phase, and how do I get to a point of sustainability? The stats for small and medium-sized businesses remain daunting; more are shut down every year than are started. What types of support framework and peer networks for business owners are available in the middle market?
John Nicola, chairman and chief executive officer of Nicola Wealth Management, has been a veteran of the financial services industry since 1974 and has seen virtually every scenario play out in the business world. With experience ranging from investment management and financial planning to exit strategies and shareholder agreements, Nicola has witnessed the industry undertake a massive metamorphosis – the rise of the online, digital world of technology.
“What’s happening with tech startups is not necessarily any different from what one would expect from the nature of any startup business,” he said. “But let’s face it, the Internet has made certain things possible from a wealth management perspective – the business I’m in – so companies that exist now couldn’t have existed technologically 10 years ago.”
Nicola will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) BC Middle Market Growth Conference to be held April 10-11 at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver. Formerly known as ACG Capital Connection, the conference has been rebranded this year to reflect its status as Western Canada’s leading conference on growth, covering key issues for business owners, CEOs and CFOs, deal-makers and financiers. The event’s purpose is to foster growth and help drive the most important sector of the B.C. economy: the middle market – something Nicola is passionate about.
Nicola said the lightning speed at which tech startups rise and fall has added a wrinkle to modern business statistics and hesitation for anyone looking to start up a company.
“The last time I looked at data from [Statistics] Canada it was definitely breathtaking. But how many people have set up contracting businesses, or plumbing businesses, or firms in a more traditional sense, and what’s the success rate between their startup and failure rate compared to the tech industry?”
Nicola knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a business work. In 2015 he won Business in Vancouver’s BC CEO of the Year award for a small to medium-sized private company and was recently recognized as one of Canada’s Most Admired CEOs. Nicola also experienced first-hand the trials and tribulations of the startup world through his son, Chris, who will join him on the conference’s feature panel titled “Keeping It in the Family: An Inside Look at the Businesses of Father-Son Entrepreneurial Duo John and Chris Nicola.”
As co-founder and current chief technical officer for WealthBar, an online automated financial services company, Chris Nicola has seen his business through the fires of the startup phase to the middle market. WealthBar has been hailed as one of the industry leaders in Canada when it comes to robo-advising, in which software algorithms assess investor portfolios looking for risk and offering investment advice on everything from stocks and bonds to real estate and commodities.
Chris Nicola said one of the biggest hurdles as a startup was finding other businesses in the same boat, with which they could swap information and advice.
“One of the challenges with a lot of peer-to-peer groups is they tend to cater to more mature businesses than the typical early-stage technology startup that is scaling rapidly but not yet cash-flow positive,” he said. “So many of these peer groups won’t have many companies who are going through the same kind of experience.”
He said the Launch Academy, a startup incubator opened in 2012 by entrepreneurs in the very same situation, was instrumental in helping his company get to the middle-market stage. WealthBar was one of the first companies to join the academy. In fact, Chris Nicola got investor help from none other than his father, who saw potential and a larger shift taking place within the financial services sector and injected capital.
“In theory, based on numbers alone, people should have been leaving already,” said John Nicola about traditional wealth management options for those with modest incomes. “We’re just in the early stages, and I think sometime soon automated wealth management will be accepted like online banking or online travel as being a naturally digital experience.”
The father and son represent two generations of wealth management, one built on innovative planning and the other on technological innovation. John Nicola said that regardless of the type of company you’re trying to take to middle market, the rules remain the same.
“How long does it take you to go from the early-adopter stage to that critical mass that takes you over the S curve? The products now are often so compelling right away you think there should be an exponential growth, but quite frankly it’s still not that easy.”