Lisa Gordon, Canadian Mortgage Broker, Winter 2019
In Rudy Nielsen’s office, a big fish swims in an aquarium filled with smaller fish. It’s a visual reminder for the successful 77-year old real estate entrepreneur to always be the big fish whenever he goes into a new venture.
Today, there’s no doubt that mantra has served him well. Nielsen is the founder and president of the NIHO Group of Companies (“NIHO” is a contraction of Nielsen Holdings), which includes three distinct divisions:
- NIHO Land & Cattle Company, founded in 1972, specializes in rural, recreational and investment property sales and subdivision development.
- Nielsen founded LandQuest Realty Corp.in 1996, and brought on a partner to sell recreational properties such as ranches, fishing resorts, ski hills, lakeside cabins and farms— except urban residential properties
- Landcor Data Corporation is an online residential appraisal service that uses an automatic valuation model envisioned and designed by Nielsen; it went live in 2000.
Despite his impressive achievements, Nielsen is a modest man who says his wilderness survival skills have translated into boardroom successes. Raised in Prince George by a trapper father, the 16-year-old Nielsen was tasked each fall with hunting enough meat to get his family through the winter.
Fresh out of high school, he cruised timber for the B.C. Forest Service in the 1960's in remote northern British Columbia. The process involves taking a sample tree count that can be used to estimate how much total timber is in the forest.
“They’d take you out and drop you off and come back several weeks later. It was a really good experience for me, and I got to really love nature. You learned to cook, be your own doctor, and jack of all trades,” he recalls.
In fact, Nielsen says he relates his everyday business to nature more often than not.
“When you have a problem, the key is to sit down, relax and think. That’s exactly what you do if you ever get lost in nature,” he says.
“Until I got a bit too old and my wife made me stay home, I’d do survival trips by myself or with my sons. I’d have a floatplane or helicopter drop me off in northern B.C. and take no food, only brown sugar, salt and Tang. I’d go in the creek to make a trap and catch fish, shoot ptarmigan or grouse, and smoke them. I’d be gone for two weeks and I had to make this last.”
He says he learned on those trips that all creatures—humans included—are focused on survival.
REAL ESTATE ROOTS
It’s a lesson that has served Nielsen well since he started his career as a Realtor in 1964. From there, he opened NIHO Land & Cattle Company when he purchased a string of islands in the Fraser River near Prince George. He obtained a diploma in Urban Land Economics in Appraising from the University of British Columbia that same year.
“I taught my kids how to trap a rabbit and catch a grouse on those islands. Then I bought another piece of property and then another. Pretty soon, I began logging the timber from my own properties and created a good cash flow. I was also looking 30 years down the road, so I built roads into most of my properties and subdivided lots, et cetera. Over the years, I sold those properties.”
In 1989, Nielsen did his biggest deal, which included 251 properties in one purchase. The lodges, islands, and timber properties, along with the subsequent purchase of the fourth-biggest recreational land company in B.C., made him the largest single private recreational landowner in the province.
“I ran those companies. I’d be logging, subdividing, and spent a lot of time out in the field in my beat-up old Bronco,” he remembers. “I’d have a can of beans and a sleeping bag, and I’d sleep under the truck. Then I got a pickup and a tent, and as I built up my capital, I got a new pickup and finally I built up to larger deals and could stay in a motel!”
Because of his forestry experience and his UBC appraiser education, those deals were custom-made for Nielsen, who also learned that it pays to be the best in the world at something nobody else was doing.
As a young man in real estate, he became a self-made expert in residential lots. In 1965 he created his own real estate firm.
“I went to the registry office and searched titles to create maps by colouring in (with 20 different coloured pencils) every lot in Prince George where there was an empty lot and no house,” he recalled. “In one room, I had maps of B.C. with pins on each lot that were colour coded and catalogued—I was known as the guy who knew more about residential lots in Prince George than anyone in the world…that was my motto.”
In 1998, someone bet Nielsen that he could not build an automated system to appraise houses. That was the beginning of Landcor, which is based on an automatic computer valuation formula.
“You can put in any residential address in B.C., and in four seconds it generates a report,” he explains. “I get updated with all the sales every Monday. I know what’s happening in B.C. on a weekly basis.”
Landcor can analyze mortgage portfolios, for example, or look for specific properties with detailed parameters.
A self-termed “data junkie,” Nielsen thrives on the challenge of taking raw information and turning it into something useful. “When I go to see clients, I still love asking what else can I develop for them to make their jobs easier and take more risk out of their jobs?”
While NIHO Group is big on research and development, he admits that his ideas don’t always work. “You accept it and try something else.”
LEARNING FROM THE LAND
Nielsen has had many close calls in the wilderness, and each one has taught him to be thankful.
“Out there, you’re on your own wits. I’ve had situations where grizzlies have charged me full speed. There were times I couldn’t hunt for food because of sudden snowstorms. But my whole thing is that everyone should appreciate what they’ve got. The best way to do that, for me, is to go on these wilderness adventures,” he says.
“I don’t worry about what I don’t have. When I come back to the city again, I appreciate absolutely everything I do have.”
He also learned not to panic. “Patience is the key thing in real estate. No matter what the stress is, don’t panic. When you can’t sell a piece of property, remember, there is always a buyer out there.”
Nielsen’s love of data comes in handy when predicting the future of the B.C. real estate market. He accurately forecasted the crash of 2008 using a simple graph that shows B.C. real estate sales volume going back 30 years.
“I watch the sales volume and the number of sales. I also track gold prices, employment/ unemployment, and seven or eight different indicators. I overlay these on my main sheet and I look at the past 30 years, and I look at what I think is going to happen next year,” he says.
STICK TO THE PLAN
Nielsen offers some advice for those who are just entering the mortgage industry: “Success in any industry requires having a plan and sticking to it. Define what you’re going to do and how,” he recommends.
“Put in a CRM [customer-relationship management] system to keep track of every client. All through the day, I have an old fashioned daytimer beside me. I write as I talk, and it goes into my CRM system. I have 55,000 people in there. When someone calls me, I know who they are.”
Finally, like the fish tank at the beginning of this story, his office is big on visual reminders. A big John Wayne-type bowie knife is embedded in Nielsen’s desk. “It reminds me every day to build a fort – to do something better than anyone else in the world.”
He credits a great deal of his success to the understanding and support of his wife, Joanne, who runs NIHO Land & Cattle Company at his side.
Most importantly, though, are clearly defined goals and the drive to reach for them. “I write my goals down. I have daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, annual goals. You should never share them with anybody. Stick to it and aim at a reasonable goal. It’s important to reward yourself with a present each time you achieve your goals,” he says.
In the wilderness, that reasonable goal could be as simple as using your wits to survive until the next morning. He who survives lives to fight another day. Like Nielsen says, it’s really not all that different from the business world, when you stop to think about it.