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Mr. Tough Guy

Teresa Murphy, Canadian Real Estate, November 2008

Among the few hundred proven real estate and property investment experts in Canada, recreational real estate guru Rudy Nielsen is the only one to have outsmarted both black and grizzly bears - a number of times – while evaluating remote investment property.

One thing is certain – Nielsen likes to know exactly what he’s getting into before he considers buying or selling a recreational property. If this means being dropped by a float plane or helicopter onto a remote lake and hiking through wilderness with only a compass and what he carries on his back, he’s the guy who will do it.

Nielsen believes in getting the job done right, the first time, no matter what it takes. This is what’s required to succeed in one of the toughest industries in Canada. His hands-on attention to detail has helped him build a growing empire, the NIHO Group, which includes NIHO Land & Cattle Company, Landcor Data Corporation, and LandQuest Realty Corporation, together employing about 60 people.

“Nielsen may not yet be a household name in Canada, but his reputation as a recreational real estate rainmaker is growing among his loyal client base,” says Bill Phillips. A 34-year industry veteran and former president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, Phillips is part of the Whistler Real Estate Company and sits on the Real Estate Council of British Columbia, the government agency that licenses and disciplines realtors.

“These clients range from someone buying a view lot to municipalities selling whole towns,” explains Phillips. And indeed, Nielsen has bought and sold entire towns in recreational areas in BC including Nashton, Ferguson, and Sheep Creek. He also consulted on the sale of Kitsault.

Success has not merely landed in Nielsen’s lap. He has made a series of astute decisions throughout his career and has certainly seen his share of bad times. As a result, he explains, he has “a healthy respect for risk”.

Nielsen earnt his diploma in appraisal from the urban land division of the Faculty of Commerce at the University of British Columbia. In 1972, he opened his first real estate office in Prince George and by 1980, Nielsen was the high profile owner of Yellowhead Realty, with six offices and 60 salespeople throughout northern BC.

During his childhood, after immigrating from Holland, Nielsen had spent a lot of time on a remote ranch in the Omineca region before being sent to Vancouver’s St. George’s private school. Nielsen vividly remembers a time when his only friends were the horses on the ranch. “I often played alone in the bush, which taught me endurance, determination and the ability to shoot a bulls-eye out of a target at 300 feet,” he says.

He also had a larger-than-life personality – a good fit for the real estate industry. In the 1970s, his tough-guy persona, 100-hour work weeks and generosity made him a legend. “He was known as a competitive, bright guy with a lot of energy, who was making it big and willing to share his opportunities,” Phillips remembers.

Crashing halt

Then in 1980, interest rates accelerated and by 1981 reached as high as 21%, causing an economic recession. Sales and housing prices plummeted. As his business faltered, Nielsen scrambled to make his payroll. Staff bolted and sales people quit. Although he’d weathered a market downturn in 1975, this was different. By 1982 business came to a crashing halt. Nielsen was alone and $2 million in debt.

The ride was over.

With his 15-year old son Dean, Nielsen moved into a duplex in Prince George, holding on to the last real estate office building, hoping for better times. On Christmas Day, 1981, they had only enough cash to buy one 45 gallon tank of fuel, enough to heat the duplex or the office. At -38 degrees, both locations would freeze. They chose the office. They bought enough corn flakes to last two weeks at a discount store and that’s what they lived on.

Nielsen’s lawyer and his accountant advised him to declare bankruptcy. Instead, he headed north in a beater car with his canoe and dog. At the end of the road he reached Johanson Lake, where he paddled and then hiked, and for 10 days lived off the land, fishing and hunting grouse. There, he made his decision. He wouldn’t declare bankruptcy. He realized he still had the most important things in his life – his health, his motivation and ideas, his knowledge and his two great sons.

Back from the bush, searching for an opportunity, Nielsen got a call from a large industrialist who had once hired him as an appraiser and had never paid him. Hearing that Nielsen was broke, he flew him to Vancouver to meet an investor who planned to buy the largest land company in BC. Nielsen assembled the deal, earning $400,000 in commissions as the purchasing realtor. Three other large deals followed, and Nielsen paid off his debt, hung up his real estate license and began to focus on assembling his own personal land portfolio.

In the next few years, with his sons in tow, the Nielsens bought what they could afford - lots, frontages on lakes and rivers, ranches, islands, and mountainsides with large tracks of timber. They would buy a property, log it, sell the timber and invest the profits in more property. This was the birth of NIHO Land & Cattle Co.

Needing numbers

By 1988, Nielsen found that he couldn’t make fast enough decisions when establishing the value of land. He needed a quicker, more accurate way to evaluate and analyze properties to determine trends and hot spots. Such a product didn’t exist.

This need gave rise to Landcor Data Corporation. In an unusual move, Nielsen established a relationship with BC Assessment (BCA), the provincial Crown corporation that assesses all BC properties for tax purposes. Nielsen became the only licensed reseller of BCA data, which he began analyzing with sophisticated computer programs.

Landcor also provides custom reports, which include GIS mapping and air photos, using proprietary BC Assessment and Landcor data and tools.

“In an age of privatization, where business and government have often been seen as enemies, Landcor is a perfect example how public and private entities can form a more efficient, more profitable whole,” says Phillips.

Meanwhile, property owners and investors kept asking Nielsen to market and sell their properties, but because he was no longer a licensed Realtor he couldn’t help them. Instead, in 1996, he founded LandQuest, a real estate sales company focusing on development and trophy properties, ranches, marinas, resorts, fishing lodges, lakefront, oceanfront, islands, timbered properties, and big game outfitter territories.

Prime time

Today, Nielsen wears several hats, straddling his companies with the same attitude he has faced all of his life’s challenges—fearlessly.

At his headquarters in New Westminster, once BC’s capital city, and now an historic suburb, the décor is anything but corporate. Open the door to the NIHO Group on the second floor of a brick building and you think you’ve entered a movie. The reception area is chock full of ranch memorabilia – wagon wheels, a cow skull, leather chairs and photos of times gone by. Down the hall, past antlers, storm lanterns and photos of celebrity clients, the boardroom is ranch dining hall chic, with mix and match antique chairs around a long farmhouse table.

BC’s economic boom from the late 1990s to 2007 generated wealth throughout the province, and the spending power of real estate investors fuelled a recreational property boom. Nielsen’s companies have grown to serve these investors. His staff is a mix of computer, appraisal, statistics and marketing experts.

Several times a month, Nielsen travels to investment properties his clients own or plan to buy. He’s in demand for his ability to spot trends using his data. A decade ago, investors just wanted to sign a contract. Now, they want the numbers.

Despite his fascinating life story and numerous accomplishments, Nielsen is not as well-known as some other real estate personalities. But that may change.

“If you’ve got a town to sell or a ski resort to expand or you’re interested in buying the 500,000 acre Douglas Lake ranch near Kamloops, (as the Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart) did the a few years back) or even a small view lot, you’ll likely want to get in touch with him,” says Phillips.

Phillips attributes Nielsen’s success to obsessive hard work and the ability to adapt to and use technology. “He’s had tough times, but he’s a tough guy and he’s helped bring attention to an investment area once so overlooked, it didn’t have its own specialty,” he says.