Nicola invests in people


By Kathryn Boothby

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A healthy corporate culture is the secret ingredient to success, says Jamie Duncan, chief operating officer with Nicola Wealth Management. Duncan should know: the company she helps pilot is growing in leaps and bounds and is considered one of the fastest-growing private investment counsel firms in the country. A dedication to nurturing its culture has not only brought business success, however; it has earned the organization Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award not once but four times.

When the firm began, ‘corporate culture’ was not a known phrase in the business realm the way it is today. That said, even back then, we always knew we had something special with our people and environment and it has been the glue that has helped our people to work together toward a common goal,” she says. “It may be hard to identify or difficult to articulate, but cultivating a great culture is the best thing an organization can do. If you get that right, it gives you a definite edge and it makes executing your strategy infinitely easier.

Founded in 1994 by John Nicola, the company began with just seven staff and $80 million in assets under management. His vision was to create a firm of shared value, built collaboratively and where everyone could benefit in its success. Today, nearly 190 employees manage more than $6 billion in assets.

The key to a sustainable, healthy culture is to keep your people engaged. “Nicola has a compelling story. As our firm evolves, our story continues to evolve.  The same thing happens with our employees, they have their own “stories” that continue to evolve as they go through different life stages. As we and they develop, we need to continue to ensure that our people both believe in what we are trying to build and that they continue to see where they add value and fit in as part of that. The conversation must be ongoing because the answers to those questions are fundamental to maintaining their ongoing engagement. Just as our clients are not cookie-cutter, the same can be said for our employees. It is important to get to know them and ensure they feel valued as individuals while giving them a consistent positive experience,” says Duncan. “We have grown quickly over the years and a large part of our success has come from developing people organically from within.

It all starts with getting the right people in the right seats on the bus from the get-go, says Amy Boyer, manager of people and culture. “When people thrive, the business thrives. That means ensuring we attract the right candidates and screen for cultural values including collaboration, service orientation, a drive for excellence, and a desire to give back.  We also define how success looks and check their career goals against our objectives.”

An entrepreneurial spirit is one of the top traits of those who succeed at Nicola, not the least because the firm’s roots are entrepreneurial. “We want our people to have ambition, take calculated risks and be relentlessly optimistic about all possibilities,” says Boyer. “We are also looking for a growth mindset and a desire to be part of a collaborative team. After all, optimism is contagious.”

Once they become part of the team, Nicola invests heavily in its people. The return is an impressive 93 per cent staff retention rate — far surpassing that seen in the broader financial community.

Employees are rewarded through competitive salaries, bonuses and a generous profit-sharing plan, which exceeded 30 per cent of annualized salaries last year. “From the very beginning, John Nicola envisioned a one-company concept where everyone worked together to build the organization. Profit-sharing is a measure of that. It’s about sharing the pie and everyone having a vested interest in seeing that the business succeeds. It is a meaningful part of the culture,” says Duncan.

To ensure every person has the opportunity for personal growth and development, professional development begins at the top. “We specifically focus on improving leadership and coaching skills, because they have a significant influence on engagement and culture,” adds Boyer. A six-part series of workshops helps managers to hone their mindset, knowledge and capacity to inspire and influence others to achieve excellence. It is a program that helps keep the corporate culture moving forward and trickling down. In addition to providing leadership training for managers, the firm also supports each employee with access to educational subsidies for courses and programs that relate to their role within the organization.

Recognition is tailored to the individual. Shortly after recruitment each person is asked to outline how they would like any recognition to be delivered. That can mean private or public events, gifts or announcements. “It is all part of understanding each employee and celebrating their successes in a way that makes them feel most comfortable,” explains Boyer.

Health and wellness goes beyond profit-sharing, professional development and recognition in Nicola’s people-first approach to success. Health benefits are supplemented with additional programs, including a 17-week maternity leave top-up, healthy snacks in the office, extended health benefits and programs such as meditation classes. An extensive employee assistance program offers counselling, resources as well as courses on parenting, managing stress and nutrition, among others.  It’s all connected to understanding employee’s needs and taking care of them.

Charitable giving is also a big part of the mix. “You make a living by what you earn. You make a life by what you give,” is an adage that speaks to Nicola’s belief that character and leadership go beyond the bottom line. “It directly expresses a commitment to giving back, which is part of the organization’s DNA. It encompasses employees, colleagues and the community,” says Boyer.

The Nicola Wealth Gives Back charitable committee is made up from a mix of all levels and areas of the firm.  The group helps foster a culture of giving both inside and outside of the organization and has a mandate to engage and support staff in reaching their charitable goals. Charitable fundraising is supported with matching funds from Nicola Wealth. Last year alone, over 50 charities benefited from the committee’s work and more than $600,000 was donated to registered Canadian charities.

Additionally, the company is a partner with WE charity. Last October, a four-day development trip to Ecuador saw a group of employees live, work and learn from a local community while helping to build school classrooms.  The trip was fully funded by Nicola Wealth, which supports ongoing development projects in the region. Employees earned entry in a draw for four places through their participation in organized charitable activities and volunteerism.

“As we continue to grow we are looking at ways to expand our giving and find more innovative ways to support our communities and further involve our employees as part of that process,” says Duncan. “The more successful we become, the more we can do to help others, and that will keep compounding in very positive ways. It all comes back to sharing the pie.”

While the company has seen rapid growth over the past decade, some things have remained the same. “As an organization gets bigger, it can sometimes create a natural drag against a healthy culture. We need to ensure that we don’t get complacent and take our great culture for granted.  Although we are a more a mature and structured organization, our founding values and guiding principals remain the same. That is because they offer a compelling story that stands the test of time. We remain independent. We deliver an exceptional service to clients. We value one another and want to work together to create something special that endures,” she says. “Our success is driven by having the right employees in the right place, understanding those individuals, and winning their hearts and minds so each can contribute to a healthy culture in their own way.”

By fully supporting employees in the workplace, ensuring their health and wellness, offering a sense of place and purpose, and giving back to the communities in which they live and beyond, Nicola Wealth has created not only a healthy culture but one of excellence. It is a culture that aligns with those of Canada’s most successful companies. And, it is one that will help the organization achieve its vision to become the gold standard for high-net-worth individuals across Canada.

This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Nicola Wealth.