2011 Financial Services Entrepreneur Of The Year: John Nicola

By Rebecca Tay

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John Nicola is the type of man others like to spend time with, whether at cafés, on the golf course or at his office on West Broadway. But his positive attitude and lack of pretension are only part of the reason for the success of Nicola Wealth Management, where he is CEO and chair.

Armed with 20 years’ experience, Nicola founded the firm in 1994 to service self-employed business owners, professionals and executives. For these clients, the firm has the advantage of being able to both plan and act on its own advice. “We offer advanced financial planning advice as a platform,” explains Nicola, “but we execute the investment side as well.” Indeed, Nicola recognized the need for this two-pronged approach early on, achieving full portfolio management designation by 2000. The firm’s first project was the purchase of an $8-million retail centre, with $2.5 million of equity. Today, it handles $300 million in real estate, with $150 million of equity.

In 17 years, Nicola Wealth Management has grown from a team of seven managing $80 million in assets and 150 client families, to 75 staff in two offices (the other is in Kelowna) managing total assets of $1.6 billion and 1,000 client families.

In 2000, Nicola Wealth Management was one of the first companies in Canada to shift from a commission-based to a fee-based model. He also departed early on from the traditional wealth management approach of marketing investments and insurance products to business owners. “It’s not the way really wealthy people invest, it’s not the way major institutions invest and it wasn’t the way we were going to invest,” he recalls. Instead, each client file is assessed holistically, considering everything from investments, compensation, and taxes to estate planning and charitable giving. The approach has paid off: his firm’s assets have increased by almost 100 percent since 2008, despite the recession.

Also notable is Nicola’s management style. “We run it like a guild,” he says. “The apprenticing model, in my mind, is the kind of learning you need once your formal learning is finished.” Anyone who joins the firm transfers his or her clients to the firm in exchange for shares in the firm and each client is assigned one senior and one junior advisor. “This provides depth of coverage for the client,” reasons Nicola, “but also fosters development, and guarantees a commitment from every senior person to develop our junior staff.”

Nicola still has clients from 1974, the year he started in the financial industry. Clearly, a lot of wealthy people must like spending time with him.

Four Questions

What was your first real job?
I was in a rock band in university, and I also worked at all of my father’s restaurants, doing the dishes, the cooking, the cleaning.

What was your first big break in your current business?
When we first started doing total-rate-of-return statements; that got people noticing.

What’s the secret to success?
I don’t get overexcited about successes, and I don’t get too depressed about failures.

If you were a TV or movie character, who would you be?
Sherlock Holmes. I just reread the entire anthology: four novels and 56 short stories. I’m an aficionado.

Fact corrections were made to the original printed article.