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Cover Story: Rudy Nielsen R.I. (B.C.), F.R.I.: Idea Man of Action

Val Wilson, The Scrivener, Winter 2013

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The Scrivener: You have had to start over a few times in your life. When was the first time?

Rudy: My mother and I emigrated from Holland after the Second World War. I was 9 years old. We left everything behind. I got off the boat in my jeans, a T-shirt, and the Christmas lights my grandfather had given my mother. I still put up those lights every year. They’re now over 80 years old!

The Scrivener: Please tell us about your first job.

Rudy: In my early 20s, I worked in the logging industry up north, driving a D-7 cat. After being left overnight by the crew bus in the freezing cold for the third time, I quit and changed my career to real estate. I got my Realtor’s licence in 1964.

In those days, a Realtor had to be 50 years old, male, and an ex-banker or someone equally weighty. A 23-year old  greenhorn didn’t get much respect. After 90 days, I realized I wasn’t going to get any residential, commercial, or industrial listings through that office. I also realized that to survive, I’d have to get into an area no one else wanted—and make money at it.

That was an important lesson for me to learn. I had to go after listings no other Realtors wanted. I sat down, made a plan, and realized that at that time, the answer was vacant residential lots. I borrowed $1500 from my mum and set to work.

In those days, there were no computers. Everything was on paper. I went to City Hall’s huge ledgers, looked at the lot titles, and made a map of the City Prince George. I figured out who owned each and every vacant residential lot in the city. Using a box of coloured pencils, I colour-coded the map and created binders that referenced each colour. For example, yellow for lot owners who lived in Prince George and orange for owners living in Vancouver and so on.

Once I created the data bank, I could now say to the owners of these lots that I had more knowledge about vacant residential lots and pricing in Prince George than anyone else in the world.

In 1964, vacant single-family lots sold between $500 and $1200. The commission was 10 percent or but $50 to $120 dollars per property. I had to split that with my real estate company, so I ended up with about $30 to $70 per lot. Even in those days, that wasn’t very much. Because of the low commission, most other Realtors avoided single-family vacant lots.

At the time, the pulp mills were going into Prince George and the market started to get very active. I made my first sale, my second sale, and pretty soon I was selling 10 lots a week.

If a contractor needed 10 lots for spec housing, I’d offer to reduce my commission and sell the lots in bulk but on the understanding that I’d get to list the spec houses upon completion. Because of that, I ended up with an inventory of newly built homes.

The Scrivener: How were things back at the real estate office?

Rudy: Within 2 years, they started to respect me. I got my own desk and was even asked to be a junior partner.I worked very hard; my car was my second office. I was showing listings or meeting with clients every day.

I decided to go into the recreational land business in 1972 by buying some islands in the Fraser River, not only as an investment to teach my two sons the ways of nature and how nature relates to the business world.

At that time, I had started my own real estate businesses, Yellowhead Realty with five offices around Northern British Columbia, and the NIHO Land & Cattle Company, which was my recreational investment company.

Over the past 49 years with my real estate companies, I’ve travelled the province in helicopters, float planes, quads, and trucks, all the way from the Alaska and Yukon borders to Vancouver, the Queen Charlottes— now Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island, and east to the Alberta border. I’ve been to every part of British Columbia looking for deals.

In the big crash of 1981, I lost $7 million. When the smoke cleared, I had nothing left and I owed $1.8 million.

I did not want to declare bankruptcy. I knew I would never be able repay everybody by selling houses and recreational land so I thought I’ve got to go after the biggest deal in BC or it’s going to take me forever to repay $1.8 million.

The biggest deal I knew of belonged to an American businessman named Bill Wineberg who had owned the largest land company in BC, with properties throughout the province. Bill had passed away and his estate wanted to sell off the remaining properties.

A few months later, I got a call from Ben Ginter, the largest roadbuilding contractor in BC at the time. He also owned a number of breweries. In the past, I had worked with Ben Ginter, providing appraisals on his properties.

So now it’s 1982. The phone rings. It’s Ginter: “Rudy, I know you’re in tough shape. There’s a return airline ticket for you at the airport. Grab the afternoon plane. I’ll pick you up. I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.”

Ben picked me up at the Vancouver Airport in his great big Chrysler and drove us to his hotel. He introduced me to a person from a big Canadian insurance company who tells me that he wants to buy the “largest tracts of private timber properties in British Columbia.”

I knew about the Wineberg estate and now, thanks to Ben, I had a potential purchaser. I viewed the entire portfolio of properties by helicopters, float planes, and by truck. I appraised 220 properties in just 90 days and put together a package with the best deal for the potential buyer. They were impressed; they instructed me to put in an offer and close the deal on their behalf.

My net commission was $480,000. Back in 1982, that was a lot of money. I started to pay back the debt I owed.

From there I closed a number of other large deals and in 2 years, I had repaid the $1.8 million. I started buying more land for NIHO; by 1992 NIHO owned about 400 properties throughout the province.

The Scrivener: Please tell us about Landcor.

Rudy: Through my appraising experience, I had built a system for NIHO to analyze properties. I thought I could develop an automated system for appraising a house by computer and that’s how Landcor started. To begin this process, I knew I needed the help of the professor who taught my appraisal courses at UBC. With a team of programmers, we developed an AVM—Automated Valuation Model—that works on hedonic regression.

The Scrivener: What was the response to your new Landcor program?

Rudy: It was a hard sell. I was out personally arranging meetings, trying to convince financial institutions that this was a product that could assist them in their lending process.

Today we can do an AVM or AVP in less than 7 seconds. All you need is a civic address, legal description, and a PID or Roll Number and we can generate a two-page report that shows the value and other important information about that property.
Landcor has information on all properties in BC—1.9 million properties. Our data is updated with all sales on a weekly basis.
Three members of my team are always analyzing data. BC’s best year for residential sales was 2007 with $64 billion worth of sales and about 162,000 transactions. The last 3 years, we’ve been running just under 100,000 transactions earning $40 to $50 billion in sales. We keep track of all that.

Landcor has almost 8 million sales going back to 1972 and provides a full list of products and services including custom reporting. We have recently incorporated mapping tools and demographics. For example, we can tell the ideal square footage for houses in a new subdivision in Maple Ridge or the best-selling condos downtown. We can calculate the square footage you should be building, the price range you should be in, and where your market is.

The Scrivener: What important factors are driving the real estate market?

Rudy: Rapid transit is so important. There’s more land out in Maple Ridge, which means families can still find a single-family house in the right price range. Another factor is immigration, foreign buyers who are mainly Chinese.

The Scrivener: How important is the stability of government to the value of land in BC?

Rudy: It’s very important. Remember, in British Columbia 95 percent of the land is Crown and 5 percent is private. The government isn’t selling land as it has in the past. In the Lower Mainland, land is very  precious. We are bordered by rivers, mountains, and most important, the ALR—Agricultural Land Reserve. It’s not like Calgary where you can buy 100 acres and subdivide it into lots. That’s why more high rises and condos are being built instead of single-family dwellings, because of the shortage of affordable land.

The Scrivener: What other factors make the market buoyant?

Rudy: In Canada we’ve got a majority government. We’ve got the most regulated banks in the world. In Western Canada, from Saskatchewan to BC, we have many natural resources. We’re really stable.

Here in the Lower Mainland, the only real “natural negative” is the rain. But I think we should get down on our hands and knees and kiss the ground when it starts raining. Rain is part of our cycle. It fills the aquifers. It fills the wells. It puts snow on the mountains so your creeks run and the rivers flow in the Summer.

We have lots of water, unlike some countries where you can’t even sprinkle your lawn, let alone grow food. We’ve got all that. We have four seasons. BC is the greatest place in the world.

The Scrivener: Is there a better system of land registry than the Torrens system in BC?

Rudy: No. The Torrens system came from Australia and I believe it’s the best system there is.

The Scrivener: How would you change land ownership in BC to be more transparent?

Rudy: I would encourage the government to sell off more Crown land to make more land available to private owners.

I do believe in the Agricultural Land Reserve. I don’t think we should take that away. We need that. We’ve got to look at our own food base because there’s no doubt that there is a world food shortage is coming— more from the lack of water than anything else. What people don’t understand is that it’s not the water a person drinks. That’s 1 percent of the water. It’s the water needed to grow the grain to feed the chickens and the cows. It’s the water for the crops that we’ll eat.

The south-western States are running out of water and have tremendous water shortages. North Dakota has had a drought for 4 years. Ranchers are selling cattle at half price because they’ve got no water to produce hay.

Water is vital. In my lifetime, I think there will be wars fought over water versus oil. I just sold a piece of property, sight unseen, to a guy from LA, because it had a lake on it. He said, “I’m looking at the future. I’m buying it so I’ll have my own water supply.”

The Scrivener: If there was one piece of infrastructure you would put in place now to benefit the economy and the growing value of land, what would it be and where?

Rudy: I’ll go back to making more Crown land available so we can have more affordable housing. The reason prices are so high in BC isn’t due to construction costs, it’s because land is so expensive.

The Scrivener: What areas of BC do you consider prime for investment and development?

Rudy: It all depends on your pocketbook. If you are not the type of person who can take stress on money matters, don’t invest. Put your money in the bank and get RRSPs and GICs. Don’t get into real estate. Risk is what it’s all about—how much risk can you take and still sleep at night?

The Scrivener: What areas are The Next Big Thing in BC?

Rudy: To sense the opportunities, look at where something is going to happen before it happens. Kitimat, Terrace, and Rupert are opening up. Prince George recently built the third-largest commercial runway in Canada. The Peace River is booming with the oil and gas industry.

The Scrivener: What do you see for Vancouver Island?

Rudy: I think Vancouver Island is stable. It’s very slow right now but it will go back up again. The next couple of years in BC are going to see slow growth but then the economic climate will be better. I’d invest in BC rather than anywhere else in the world.

The Scrivener: What is the key to success in recreational land?

Rudy: Patience. “Don’t wait to buy land; buy land and wait”

Scrivener: If the land business is so lucrative, why isn’t everyone in it?

Rudy: There’s a big difference between giving a person information and seeing the individual act on the information. When it comes time to write the cheque, you’ve got your house mortgaged, you’ve borrowed from your bank, or you’ve got your family involved. That separates the do-ers from the don’t-ers.

The Scrivener: If you were advising students about investing in land in BC, what would the longterm strategy be  . . energy or environment?

Rudy: Energy.

The Scrivener: How do you feel about pipelines?

Rudy: I have mixed feelings. We need the pipelines to keep the economy strong for BC, to provide good infrastructures such as new bridges, roads, taking care of the homeless, schools, hospitals, and so on. It takes money and one way to get that money is to open up our ports, like Prince Rupert and Kitimat, with pipelines. That’s one side of it.

The other side is I used to hunt in those areas every year. The Spatsizi Plateau is one of the most beautiful areas in all of British Columbia. I’d go in by float plane, then hike for 2 weeks. I just love getting out there. I was sitting there one day with my feet hanging over a cliff and I heard a bunch of voices—I flew all the way in here and walked for days and I hear voices? The guys below were with the railroad. It shocked me that they were building a railroad through that beautiful park.

I’m a real outdoors guy. I love camping. I love northern British Columbia. There’s no place like it in the world. I have mixed feelings about having a pipeline go through the North with a possible oil spill. That said, a well-regulated pipeline would be very good for our economy.

But just keeping the north as a park for tourism will not make much money. If you open up Prince Rupert and Kitimat, that’s big-time stuff. Millions and millions of dollars will be added to our economy

The Scrivener: Foreign investment?

Rudy: Foreign investment is important. We’re still such a small country; we need foreign investment and we’ve got some pretty serious players coming in here. I support keeping our doors open for foreign investment because even though we have some of the largest contractors in Canada, some of the projects we have on the go are going to take a lot of capital. Just like the United States, we need foreign investment.

The Scrivener: And China?

Rudy: China will come in and invest in British Columbia. We already see a lot of investments from  Mainland China, not only in commercial areas but in residential, as well.

The Scrivener: Do you read?

Rudy: I am an avid reader and am often reading two books at a time. I enjoy both nonfiction and fiction. I enjoyed the book on Napoleon, his battle strategies, and how he outflanked everyone.

The Scrivener: Are you interested in sports?

Rudy: I ran for the Vancouver Olympic Club and won Sportsman of the Year for St. George’s School in 1960. I attended coaching sessions at the University of Guelph for 2 years in a row and became qualified as a junior Olympic coach. I started the Prince George track and field club and taught kids and teachers how to do track and field. I was also nominated for Sportsman of the Year in Prince George.

In my younger years, I used to chase black bears up a tree, for sport, not to hurt them. I would be walking along with my sons or my wife; we’d see a bear and right away I’d rip open my coat or shirt. I made myself “big” and dropped down into a low position and made strange noises. The bear would look at me . . .

The Scrivener: And then?

Rudy: I’d run full speed at the bear, yelling, and it would run up a tree. It’s been 10 years since I last  chased a bear. I had to promise my wife that I’d stop doing that.


The Scrivener: What about horses?

Rudy: I got my love of horses at age 10 in a remote hunting and fishing lodge in Northern BC when I was a boy. My mom was working there. My job was cleaning fish and looking after the horses. I got 10 to 25 cents in tips a day from cleaning fish. I would clean maybe 200 trout a day. At that time, there were no limits on how many you could catch. I had to clean and smoke all those fish because there were no freezing facilities; I would be up half the night. Today, I can clean a trout faster than anyone.

My only relaxation was the horses. I’d sneak apples and sugar lumps to one old horse named Blackie. One day I got on his back. Every day early in the morning, the horses would head into the mountains to graze and come back at night. Pretty soon I started start feeding and riding all the horses, moving from back to back. Dynamite was always the lead horse—nobody but me could ride that damn horse.

The Scrivener: Great name!

Rudy: I got on Dynamite—finally. No saddle, no halter, just a small piece of rope—an Indian halter. I’d use my knees to steer. It took me a week to learn how to ride him. One day I was ready to show my mom. I went galloping up to the lodge on Dynamite with the whole herd of horses thundering behind me. When my mum saw me she was so surprised, she dropped the dish she was washing.

The Scrivener:: Please tell us about your charity work.

Rudy: I believe in giving back. I’m linked into about 12 charities including  “Save the Cheetah Fund” in Kenya. I’ve donated money to one village to build two cattle dips. Cows and goats and sheep in Kenya get ticks and 25 percent of the herds die. Cattle dips kill the insects.

The dip is a big trench with water and chemicals. You push the animal in and it’s got to swim through the trench. No more ticks. Instead of focusing on the insects and disease, the villagers were killing all the cheetahs because the cats hunted a few goats and pigs. The idea was that we would put in the cattle dips to save the cattle and in turn, they would not kill the cheetahs.

The Scrivener: Do you invest in the stock market?

Rudy: I don’t touch the stock market. I stick with what I do best— real estate.

The Scrivener: How do you diversify your holdings?

Rudy: I diversify by area and by price. I have different types of properties for sale ranging in price and size from small five-acre lots to large acreages and even ranches.

The Scrivener: Might you take the Landcor model across the country?

Rudy: I don’t know if I want to expand at this stage of my life. There are more than 12 million properties throughout Canada. Ontario alone has more than 4 million properties. That’s a lot.

The Scrivener: What has helped you to understand people in business?

Rudy: I took several courses in body language down in the States from Dr. Jody Sweet. She taught me how to “take power” at meetings and how to read people’s emotions to get the advantage.

The Scrivener: There’s a saying: Do what you love and the money will come.

Rudy: Exactly. That is my motto because I’ve always done what I like to do. I was never really after the money. The money comes.

The Scrivener: How do you start your day?

Rudy: I get out of bed, jump in the shower, and think about all the good things that have happened to me and all the things I have. What I don’t have, I don’t worry about. I love my wife. I love my dog. I love our home. I like everything. When I get that all settled in my mind, I’m a happy person and I leave the shower.

The Scrivener: What if you’re having a bad day later or feeling stressed?

Rudy: I go for a walk. And I like to work in the garden. We have a one acre lot and no gardener. I’ve  planted more than 700 plants and trees. I love my hostas.

The Scrivener: Do you record your goals?

Rudy: Yes. I did it even when I was going broke. Every Sunday night, I hand-write my goals for the day and the week in the diary at my desk.

My most important item is my tape recorder, which I have with me 24/7 and use to take down notes and ideas and record my daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals. That information goes into my CRM system. We’ve been keeping up our contact list for over 25 years.

Everybody’s got great ideas. The difference is that I record and log all my ideas so I can carry them out. Every morning, the latest tape goes to Julie, my assistant. She enters the information into four sections: Meetings I’ve had, Things to do (including personal stuff), Marketing, and Ideas. It then goes into my “Patton plan,” as in George Patton, the American Army General who always attacked. I think the world of him. John Wayne, too!

The Scrivener: What makes you an effective leader?

Rudy: Being a CEO is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It’s a lonely job and not many people are
built for it. You always have to be “up” and positive.

Part of my function is to keep everybody in a good mood. I’m dedicated to my staff because everything is teamwork. For all the years I’ve been in business—next year, it will be 50—I always say good morning to all my staff. I treat everyone here as a team player. We have lots of meetings to bounce ideas around. We look at what’s crazy and what’s good—sometimes they’re the same thing—then we follow the Patton Plan: Attack and take and hold more ground.

The Scrivener: Please tell us about your team. How many people are on it?

Rudy: Just under 50, including Realtors around the province. I’ve got the best team in Canada. I enjoy coming to work and love talking with my staff. Everybody gets along; we communicate a lot to stay on top of things.

I pick my people carefully. They’re very loyal. Another part of my job is to make sure I earn that loyalty and that we’re all working in the same direction.

Along with excellent staff, we’re got a lot of great accounts and I do my best to be proactive. I love our clients. As much as I can, I go out with my sales manager to listen to our clients. We don’t tell them, “This is what we’re going to do or build.” We ask, “What can we build and develop to make your job easier?”

The development team takes it from there. I ask them, “Can we make this thing happen like this?” My favourite part is presenting our concept to the clients and seeing their reaction and listening to their comments.

The Scrivener: There’s an engraved rock on your desk that says “Never, never quit!”

Rudy: I don’t. Once I take on something, I’m really dedicated. I go for it. Nothing slows me down. That’s how I close deals.

The Scrivener: Please tell us about the beautiful 60-gallon fish tank here in your office.

Rudy: I’m a visual person. I watch my fish and see how relaxed they are and that helps me unwind a bit. They’re also a reminder that you need to be the big fish in a small pond.

One Friday night, the power went off. Monday morning, the fish were upside down, I thought they were all dead. Then I saw movement. That big carp was the only fish still alive. He’s like me. I had the whole world come down around me but I’m a survivor.

Whatever you go through in life, make sure you’re the biggest. Don’t be second or third. To me, second or third is “last.” There’s only room for one to be first.