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Entrepreneur Of The Year 2022: John Nicola is banking on growing Nicola Wealth internally


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Founded by Nicola, the wealth management firm has grown to some $12.5 billion in assets

By Nathan Caddell

John Nicola has had to do many pivots in the near 50 years he’s been in the wealth management business. However, there’s one newer development that the veteran investment executive and entrepreneur isn’t a big fan of.

“Some advisors say that clients are happy to do everything on Zoom, and I’ve had to say, Well, I’m not exactly sure that’s 100-percent true,” says Nicola over, you guessed it, a video call. “If you’re in a room of four to six people, watching how they interact with each other the body language and questions that come up in the spur of the moment, the way the conversation flows, it’s very difficult on Zoom or Teams to have that dynamic conversation.”

Still, it’s pretty hard to not be impressed with what Nicola has been able to do with the eponymous wealth management firm he’s run for some 28 years, even over Zoom. From when he founded the firm in 1994 to 2000, it grew from $80 million in assets to a little over $200 million. Eight percent a year—nothing to sneeze at, but not enough for Nicola to be impressed.

“I realized that in order for us to really move in the marketplace, we’d have to go fee-based as opposed to commission-based, and we’d have to offer a bigger universe of assets,” he recalls. Nicola Wealth started looking at real estate, mortgages and private assets, and has since grown to some $12.5 billion in assets—or a growth rate of 20 percent a year.

Today, the company has some 400 employees, around 300 of which are in its home base of Vancouver. Is the next John Nicola somewhere in that group? Maybe. Even though the 71-year-old says that “I really like what I do and think I can still do it pretty well” and “it would appear that people want me to hang around,” he also admits that he’s thought about who might be next.

“There’s two possibilities,” riffs Nicola—who last won the Pacific Region Entrepreneur Of The Year award in 2011—about his succession plans. One would be to reduce activity in operations and bring in a new CEO, “ideally an internal person.” In that scenario, Nicola would move to a role as an executive chair on the board. He’d still have an active involvement in the company, but not on a day-to-day basis.

“The other model is similar to how Joe Segal operated, or how Jimmy Pattison and Warren Buffet operate now,” says Nicola. “They all are or were in their 90s and by all measurements doing a really good job in the CEO role. And yet, they’re putting at risk the very people that might have been their successors 20 years ago. Because how long do those people really want to wait?”

Nicola insists he doesn’t know exactly who that next person might be, but he does have in mind some qualities he’d like to see in them.

“I started out with the background of an insurance salesman and I’ve acquired some expertise over a certain period. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” he admits. “Going forward, maybe it’s time to look for people that specialize in a particular area.”

A word of advice for any would-be successors: you’re probably going to want to show up to the office at least a few times a week.

10 Questions With John Nicola

What was your first summer job?

Working for my Dad age 12 in his Fish and Chip Shop. 

Is an entrepreneur born or made?

My experience and those of others I know suggests primarily entrepreneurs are made but certain traits required may be genetic such as the ability to accept risk and persistence.

What is your definition of success?

That depends on the area of one’s life being measured . Success in business is quite different than success with one’s family, marriage or friendships.

What other job might you have had?

I thought I was going to become a physicist.

Name one thing people would be surprised to learn about you.

They are usually surprised to hear that I played bass in a rock band for seven years.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Ability to think critically to be able to achieve their business goals )

What businessperson do you most admire?

The business people I admire are actually writers such as Steve Covey, Jim Collins and Simon Sinek. They are or were all business people as well, but they are also inspiring teachers.

What do you do to relax/unwind?

Physical activity, golf, tennis, cycling, walking and reading.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think I’d be described as energetic and passionate about what we do and able to delegate well. 

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.

My laptop charger.