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Building an Empire on Technology – with Rudy Nielsen

By Richard Sweeting, The Cascadia Report, March 17, 2021

Rudy Nielsen R.I. FRI, President, NIHO Group, joined Cascadia Report to relive some tales from his incredible life and career to date, and share some advice with those that look to follow in his footsteps. With over 50 years of real estate experience, he is a highly regarded expert in the BC real estate industry. He has occupied the roles of developer, appraiser, entrepreneur, landowner, real estate consultant, keynote speaker, and deal maker. A skilled negotiator, Nielsen has successfully closed many notable deals and worked with thousands of individuals on buying and selling real estate.

An innovator and a trailblazer, he is contacted by many people to provide insights on recreational, commercial, and industrial land among other real estate trends. Rudy has a unique and highly successful method of determining the highest and best use of a property, the ability to develop a property and fulfill that vision and create a market strategy to showcase the property to the ideal target market.

Rudy Nielsen founded Landcor Data Corporation in 2000, as part of the NIHO (Nielsen Holdings) Group of Companies, to meet the growing demand for a fast, accurate system to value and analyze properties without having to physically inspect each one. Landcor offers a suite of real estate data and analytic tools and they continually strive to evolve to meet the needs of their clients.

With a long and storied career behind him, I started by asking Nielsen what he loves about the day-to-day of the job, and what motivates him to stay hands-on after all these years.

“The main thing I like about my job, is being a leader. I like spearheading, I like new ideas. And even though I'm pushing the limit on age, I still come up with a lot of good ideas because I've been in business for a so long. I started in the real estate business in 1964 when I first got my real estate license, and I learned a lot over the years and with that knowledge I developed Landcor and Landquest. Landcor was a challenge - I am not much of a computer expert and often ask for help from one of my programmers, or my lovely wife who is more computer savvy than me. But I do understand what financial institutions, realtors, and appraisers need to make correct and speedy decisions with less risk.

One of our previous past governments back in the late 90’s came to me and asked me if I could build a real estate valuation system. They'd gone to two big tech companies first, who attempted to develop a regression formula, but failed. So, I went to my professor from University of British Columbia, who had taught me all my appraising courses. I told him that if you can appraise a house or a piece of property as an individual on paper you should be able to do it with a computer too. It’s the same information, you just have to calculate it with an algorithm and solid regression formula. I talked him into coming on board, and the professor brought on an economist with a PhD. I then hired six programmers. We had three months to come up with a formula that we could prove to the Government that we could valuate any house in British Columbia in 6 seconds, and we did it. We developed a hedonic regression formula that really worked. Our first customer was a major financial institution and they have been a customer for 21 years now. Back then in 2000 it was very difficult to tell people you could appraise their house on a computer in 6 seconds.”

Being an innovator and an entrepreneur seemed to come naturally to Nielsen. The opportunity to combine that with his deep knowledge and passion for the world of real estate meant he could take it to people and make them understand the potential of what he and his team had created.

“I had to explain to people that it's the same principle. The appraiser goes out. The two magic words in appraising are ‘recent’ and ‘similar’, you need recent sales compared to similar properties. If you know that, then you can do it by computer. After we came up with the valuation products and we got our first major financial institution signed, then others also came on to use all Landcor’s products. We have a really good retention program. As long as I am President and Owner of Landcor I expect to be out there with my team. I still attend meetings with my CEO, and I talk to as many people as I can. It is very important to have a good retention program and I also like to hear any complaints or comments from customers directly so I can fix any problems and listen to their needs. I also like to work with my Landcor team sharing ideas and handling everyday problems. But I also still enjoy my passion of recreational land with NIHO.”

While Niho Land and Cattle Company (NIHO) remains his ‘flagship’ and takes a lot of his time, Nielsen speaks passionately about the work that Landcor has done. It may seem attractive for someone of his advancing years to take a backseat, but he remains committed to working closely with the team and ensuring that the company culture is one of collaboration and trust.

“I really believe in a good team atmosphere. Since COVID-19 we have been meeting every morning on Zoom, where we discuss and collaborate ideas. I require a written report from everybody on Friday on what they've done during the week, what the complaints are and what their ideas are for increasing the company's efficiencies are. I have had this policy for 50 years since I had my first job managing a real estate firm. I'm a hands-on man and the day I couldn't be hands on anymore I’ll put somebody else in this spot or get out altogether. Because I believe that the President has to stay involved and make many daily decisions - you just can't go to the golf course and drink martinis, you’ve got to be in the trenches with your team. We have a great communications system internally and we have an excellent list of clientele coordinated by my CEO. He runs the day-to-day operations, and we are on the phone at least two or three times a day.

Right now, we have a staff of about 20 people. We have our own marketing department, and our programmers are top-notch. We also hire a lot of students just out of University as we like their new ideas. I have a motto that ‘if you use yesterday's idea today, you'll be broke tomorrow.’ You always have to be changing, on a weekly basis.

We were ready to expand across Canada until we had some hiccups here in BC with trying to get more data from the government. We have tested data in other provinces to see if our AVM valuation would work, and yes it will. So, it will work anywhere.”

Before he had a vision of starting the behemoth that NIHO became, and the innovation behind Landcor, Nielsen started out in real estate in a world long before computers. As someone with a unique perspective on the industry and almost 60 years’ experience, I was keen to find out what changes he had observed in that time, and what his vision for the future of real estate.

“When I started in real estate, it was an old person's game. It was the retired banker or life insurance guy. It was 1964 in Prince George and my father owned a few commercial properties. There was a businessman turned realtor who owned one of the major real estate firms in town and he and my father were friends. I knocked on his door and told him I wanted to get my real estate license. But in those days realtors were, as I mentioned, 50- or 60-years old’s who wore a black suit and tie, making it pretty tough for me to get a job as a realtor in Prince George back in 1961, also being a small town with everybody knowing what the other person was doing didn’t help.

I passed my exam, and they only hired me because my father did business with the firm and I think they thought that if they didn’t hire me, they’d lose my dad’s business. So, the next ploy was to shut me out. They gave me a desk to share with the town drunk in the back corner beside the washroom with paper thin walls. The drunk was a nice guy, but he started drinking about noon and by two o'clock he would be utterly drunk. I never got one listing in three months because they shut me out. Everybody else was getting listings.

Now I was broke and I had two kids and had to borrow $1,500 from my mum to survive. I thought about what I could do that nobody else in our office, or in the city was doing, and would be really interesting to do. So, I took a drive into the forest and sat on a log to think for about 4 hours. I realized there were empty building lots in Prince George. The pulp mills were just coming in, it was a boom time and there was inventory of empty lots to build houses on. Lots we're selling for $800 to $1,000 back in ‘64. The commissions were 10%, and they were split with the house, 60/40, so you really made $60 or the most $80 at the other end. Even then that was not very much money.

I thought if I sold enough of them it might work out. I took three months off and went to City Hall, where there were no computers, but I was able to access information on large ledgers. I went through each ledger carefully and along with a great big map of the city and a box of coloured crayons, I figured out who owned every empty lot in Prince George and found out there were about 400. I used those crayons to code them by colour - people from Alberta were yellow, people from Vancouver were red, etc. Once they were colour-coded, I combined the information into a loose-leaf binder. That’s how Landcor started - my manual system went into computers.”

It speaks to Nielsen’s determination but also eye for an opportunity that he pursued the area of real estate that his colleagues had largely ignored. Having been forced to adapt and innovate, he had single-handedly created a wealth of valuable information that was his alone. With the groundwork done, he began to turn his new-found expertise into sales.

“I realized very quickly that I knew more about empty residential lots else in Prince George than any of my competitors. In fact, I knew more about empty residential lots in Prince George than everybody else in the world.

The calls started coming in. And then of course the builders came to construct spec houses and was my opportunity to say to them, I’ll sell the lots to you at a good commission rate in return for a listing on the spec house after they are complete. So that’s how I got into residential. I worked my way through housing, and I went into commercial and industrial. I did a lot of commercial deals, assembling the land, putting shopping centers together, and then leasing them out.

In 1972 there was a job opening in Smithers for a manager of a real estate firm. I moved to Smithers and because I came in as an outsider in a small town nobody would talk to me., I had a hard time getting people to talk to me or listen to me. One day, one of the biggest buildings in town was on fire. In my early years I worked in Forestry for a number of years during the summertime fighting forest fires, but never a building. But I looked up and there were firemen on top of the burning building crouching, and over the side of the building hanging over the edge were another two-fireman trying to catch some fresh air. They had let the firehose go and it was snaking all over the roof.

I looked around for any other firemen to get those two guys off the roof and get some oxygen to them. I saw no one, just a massive crowd of people worried about the whole town going up in smoke. I look around again, and I was in my only new suit I owned, but I took my jacket and shirt off, put water on the shirt and tied it around my face, and climbed up that ladder. I got the two guys down, and I went back up and I grabbed the hose, put it on my shoulder and I aimed it into the building on fire. The Fire Chief then saw me up there and he says to one of the guys, what's he doing up there? The firemen told their Chief that I told them that I knew how to fight fires having worked in forestry in Prince George. He told his firemen to keep me up there on that hose, and if I get tired to give me a cup of tea and add some scotch into the tea. My two kids and my wife came down to see the fire, and there I was on top of the roof, hose on my shoulder pouring gallons of water into the fire with quick stops to drink my scotch and tea with the firemen. My oldest son had spotted me right away. The next day everybody wanted to do business with me and list their house with me.

While the fire may have kickstarted his career in Smithers sadly it would not last. corporation that Rudy worked for had to declare bankruptcy from some bad investments in Terrace. With a new-found confidence in his ability to adapt and to lead, Nielsen wasted no time getting to work on starting his own firm, Yellowhead Realty, in 1973.

“I started a real estate firm in Smithers, Yellowhead Realty, and got it up and running and was doing really good. Then I went back to Prince George and started Yellowhead there, with 3 more offices in other towns to follow. Within 5 years I was the largest realtor in Northern BC. I was doing great - I had about 16 companies going, because each new subdivision I started and developed would be another company. Northway Construction was my construction company - I built and renovated buildings. And then the crash came of ‘81. One day I was worth $7 million the next day, I owed $7 million, it happened that quick.

My creditors put me into receivership in 1981 and they took everything I had, except my dog. Always having been an outdoors guy, my outside skills had always been my escape to think things through. I had spent years in the Northern British Columbia Forest being with nature. Every time I had a weekend off, I'd be out fishing, hunting or just studying nature. So, I took my dog and I drove north up the highway in British Columbia to a very remote lake. I parked my truck, took my canoe off the truck, took my dog, my gun and my fishing rod and paddled to the other end of the lake. I then walked in the bush for about two days without stopping except at night, and then built myself a camp. All I usually take with me is salt and brown sugar. I stayed there for two weeks. I had built a lean to shoot some grouse and caught many fish all of which I shared with my dog. My focus was on a simple statement when doing anything you’re in doubt about is “WHEN LOST SIT DOWN AND THINK” I wasn’t lost but I sure had to think.

During those two weeks, the first thing I realized was that there was another important part of my life besides real estate. I still had my health, my mind, and my ambition, I just didn’t have any money. It took me a week to figure out that you do not really need all that other stuff. If you have your health and your mind and your dog to talk to, you have everything you need to be happy. With that thought and new direction in life, I went back, and I made a deal with my creditors to pay back the $1.8 million in 4 years. I moved to Vancouver and got a small room in a rooming house for $60 a month, a house which I shared with 14 people. And then I took off from there because I was a licensed appraiser, and I did a lot of appraising to pay my rent and buy groceries.”

Speaking with Nielsen it is hard to not be inspired by the sheer determination and self-belief with which he dusted himself off after losing everything. The ability to be able to fail, and sometimes fail fast, is something that Cascadia Report readers are no doubt familiar with. And he wasted no time in getting back on his feet.

“I knew that I had to put together the largest deal I could find to get back on my feet again. Ben Ginter, who was one of the largest industrialists at the time in British Columbia, had breweries, road construction, everything. I had completed a very large appraisal for him and after sending him a bill 4 times I gave up getting paid because at the time he was also in very tough financial position. I thought he sure doesn’t need any more creditors on him. He remembered this and phoned me up one day and said, ‘I want you to meet somebody. He said to me, I know you don't have enough money for a plane ticket to Vancouver, so there's a ticket at the airport for you, grab a plane and come down.’ There is someone I want you to meet. He is looking to buy the largest timber and recreational property portfolio in British Columbia. Ben picked me up at the airport, introduced me to the gentleman over lunch and I made a deal to go and find him the largest land portfolio in B.C

All my expenses were paid to go out and find a deal and in less the 30 days I found a company that owned the largest private land holding company in BC, about 280 properties in total. I put the deal together and my commission was just under $500,000. Shortly after and, now with some cash in my pocket, and with new goals and direction I did a number of other deals. I sold a large holding of condos around the Vancouver Golf Course and then two large high-rise apartments to clear all of my debt off.

I have always set weekly monthly and annual goals. I write them down in a place no one can see them. My new goal was to be the largest private landowner in BC.

So now with no debt, in just over a 10-year period I purchased around 400 deals and I even started purchasing old towns. I bought Nashville, Sheep Creek, and Ferguson, along with a few others. I would look for old, abandoned mining towns. There was a mining company who had a quarry back in the 1800s, and in those days the people lived at the mine, so I bought all these old towns that were just sitting on the books, doing nothing. I sold all these lots to people that wanted to park their motorhome or build a cabin there. I would take $500 or $1000 down and I’d lease the property and on the last payment I’d give them the title. I had bought over 400 properties, but my big goal had always been to purchase the 280-property estate that I had sold to that company 10 years prior which included several ranches, islands, resorts, and large timber holding, which gave me tremendous cash flow. In the end I met my big goal and purchased the 280-property estates, now increasing my property count to owning 680 properties.

I have bought a lot of land. I’ve been all over British Columbia and from the early days when I had no money, sleeping under my truck and supper usually a can of beans or a trout cooked over an open fire. I've been from the Alaska border to Vancouver Island many many times looking for these properties to buy.”

In his comfortable home, his dog appearing to briefly interrupt the interview, Nielsen appears to relish retelling his fantastic story of highs and lows. As someone who had it all, lost it, and got it all again, I wanted to find out what he had done differently the second time from when he first started out and tasted success.

Before the receivership, when I built up Yellowhead, I had paid $10,000 for my silver inlaid desk. The Sheriff got it of course as I watched them haul it out. The desk in my office today is $140, and it is made of six 2X6s planed and stained brown. I have a great big John Wayne bowie knife stuck into my desk. And on the wall, I have a picture of John Wayne. Everything I do now has a meaning behind it. You don't need a fancy desk $10,000 desk. I've had this desk for 35 years now and that's all I need.

The bowie knife is to remind me of John Wayne on the wall, the first thing he ever did was build a fort. When I started again from zero my fort was the bush and outdoors in Northern BC. I knew I could build a log cabin, catch a bunch of fish and shoot a moose, I'm fine with that. That was my first fort.

My next fort was an apartment I rented in Vancouver, which then a can of beans in the cupboard and then to a case of beans in the cupboard. And finally, I got a house with a mortgage then no mortgage. I just kept expanding my fort.

I also have a great big aquarium in the office and there's only one big fish and a whole bunch of small ones. It reminds me that whatever you do in life set a goal to become the big fish. “Know something better than anyone else in the world making sure you're the big fish. When I went into the recreational land business, maximizing the land by selectively logging the developing subdivisions, nobody else was doing it. I was the big fish.

I met my wife when I was broke and I didn't even have a car. I had supper with some friends and it’s there where I met her. She had to drive me home to my very cheap apartment. She is the most perfect partner a person could hope for, she is an unbelievable human being. I chased her around for 2 years just to have lunch with her and finally I talked her into coming on board. It was her credit card, her car and her paycheck that helped me get going again - she had a $5,000 line of credit which we used to buy the first computer for Landcor. So, I owe a lot to her and we've never looked back. She runs NIHO now and I run Landcor with my CEO. I was very fortunate to have met her because they don't make them like that anymore. Her mother brought her up right. She taught me that you just don't throw things away, if you’re going to buy something make sure it lasts for a while. A lot of my success goes to her.”

Having been fortunate enough to experience every inch of beautiful British Columbia and to have enjoyed both the natural wonder and the trappings of a successful career (twice over!) It seemed clear to me that Nielsen is better placed than most to provide advice to entrepreneurs that are just starting out on how to avoid the pitfalls that may lie in wait for them.

“I said it before, you have to always have a fort. If you're lucky like me and find a wife like mine your already ahead. Then together you build up forts with rented apartment or condo and then into a house with a mortgage and then house with no mortgage. Always have some cash handy so you're not stuck for money. And then look at what you really want to do in life, what you enjoy. Because you're only here once, you don't get a second run at this so make sure whatever you do you enjoy doing it.

Being an entrepreneur, manager or president is the loneliest job in the world because you have to keep your feelings to yourself. Especially in pandemic times like this. As human beings we're not made to be locked up in our homes, we are meant to be a social society and we need to be able to talk and meet with people face to face. Some of the people that call me are so down, I feel so sorry for them. I’d like to jump in my car and go and tell them things aren't really that bad, it will get better.

If you are a young person wondering what you want to do with your life you should do as I did WHEN LOST SIT DOWN AND THINK. Be really focused on what you want to do with in life. In many cases it’s a rocky road to start with but if you stick to your goals, you’ll soon find pavement. Everyone has their ups and downs; it doesn’t matter how smart or determined you are. The secret to success is to try to pick yourself up when you are down too far or also if you’re going up too far. Because crashing down and suddenly going back up is not what you want to do. This can happen to straight commissioned salespeople like realtors. So, if you haven't made a sale for five months and you're down and you keep going down, with mortgage payments, car payments, groceries or kids’ clothes and you feel like you’re not going to make it and then suddenly you make a big deal of say $30,000 in commissions, you're straight up. That is just dangerous. Make sure you put some money away and don't get caught in that downturn.”

With a note in my diary to never buy a $10,000 silver inlaid desk, however much I may be tempted, I asked Nielsen for his final thoughts on his incredible journey, and what in had kept him in BC despite his trials and tribulations along the way.

“This pandemic will be over, and we will get going again. But it's going to be tough, it’s not going to be overnight. You have to be cautious. Keep your powder dry, put some money away at all times. If you get $100 take $10, sock it away. Stash some money away somewhere. Just don't touch it, put it in an envelope and hide it. And if you're lucky like me and forget where you put it, then it stays there.

What worries me most is the debt all governments are piling up and the existing and coming divide between the rich and the poor. Some individuals and companies are making a fortune, while others are in food line ups or waiting for government subsidies.

I love BC and I think we’ve got everything you could possibly want. We have the outdoors, the cities and beautiful scenery, everything. I'm originally from Holland and I got out during the Second World War. I was skin and bones and was on vitamin B shots for a number of months as I was very undernourished. The Germans took all our food and took over the hotel my grandparents owned in Rotterdam. I was given one piece of bread a day with lard left over bacon grease from the Germans bacon. When it rained, I would catch snails in the garden and my grandfather would boil them for dinner.

When I arrived in Canada, I had one pair of pants and two t-shirts. The way I look at life now is if I have three t-shirts and four pairs of pants and a McDonalds hamburger in my hand, I'm ahead and a winner.”

You can find out more about Landcor and Rudy Neilsen here: