Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Building a better entrepreneur

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.03.30
EDITION: Final
SECTION: Business
PAGE: D3
BYLINE: Andrew Mayeda
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Colour Photo: Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen / Wes Nicolput his money where his mouth was to establish an award to promote entrepreneurial thinking.

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Building a better entrepreneur

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Before he became one of Ottawa's most respected home builders and developers, Wes Nicol learned the value of education, of all places, in the Yukon and the Arctic Circle.

That's where he spent several summers doing surveying and road work to pay his way through Carleton University. Like many families who struggled through the Depression, his couldn't afford much financial assistance.

Mr. Nicol's appreciation for higher learning is one reason he founded the Wes Nicol Entrepreneurial Award, a business-plan competition endowed at Carleton University.

"I thought there was a need to recognize these kids. There are so many bright, budding entrepreneurs," said Mr. Nicol, founder of Tartan Homes, which has built roughly 8,000 homes across Ottawa.

Tomorrow, student entrepreneurs from six universities across Canada will throw their best pitches at a panel of seasoned judges at the Chateau Laurier. Their goal: Prove their business idea isn't just another pipe dream, but rather a commercially viable venture.

Nearly a decade ago, Mr. Nicol was finishing up as a board member at Carleton when he met Richard Stanton, then president of the Carleton student association. They came up with the concept for a business-plan competition.

"There weren't a lot of programs available at the time for young entrepreneurs who were looking for some guidance and seed funding to get their ideas off the ground," said Mr. Stanton, now national director of the competition.

Mr. Nicol established an endowment of over $220,000 at Carleton to fund the competition, which launched in 1997.

Since then it has grown from a small program for Carleton students to a national competition drawing teams from universities across the country.

The competition has helped encourage entrepreneurship at Carleton, said associate professor John Callahan. "There's a real entrepreneurial subculture developing in the engineering school, and the Nicol Award is a big part of that."

Mr. Nicol founded Tartan Homes in 1966 and grew it into one of the region's leading builders. A graduate of Carleton and Osgoode Law School in Toronto, he is also a partner in real-estate law firm Nicol and Lazier.

But at one point, he considered becoming a professor, said his eldest son, Bruce.

"You think the standard businessman might say the school of hard knocks is best. But he always had a deep respect for a classical education and higher learning," said Bruce, who runs Tartan Urban, which specializes in condominiums.

His father also believes in rewarding innovation, he added.

"He really sees free enterprise and the ability to be creative and try new ideas as the engine of the economy."

Certainly, Mr. Nicol wasn't afraid to encourage creativity among his children. Bruce is also an opera composer and his two sisters have arts training.

Over his career, Mr. Nicol has made his share of shrewd moves. In the mid-1990s, with the real-estate market tanking, Tartan pulled out of the home building business, focusing instead on development. But the company timed its return well, re-entering the market as the housing sector was taking off.

"When we mothballed it, the banks were really impressed. We were never really going broke," said Mr. Nicol. "They said we were being sensible for doing it."

Mr. Nicol has gradually scaled back his involvement, handing over the reins to Bruce and his other son, Ian, who is president of Tartan Homes. His law partner, Doug Lazier, runs the development side.

That has given him more time to spend on other interests, such as he and his wife's charitable foundation and the business-plan competition.

"I'd like to see it in every university in Canada," said Mr. Nicol. "Then we could have regional showdowns, sort of like the Vanier Cup."

This year, six schools will be represented: Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Carleton, the University of Ottawa, Queen's University, Brock University and the University of Manitoba. The teams have 20 minutes to present their plans to the judges, who will then quiz them for another 10 minutes.

Each of the regional winners has already received $6,000 in prize money. Second-place winners received $3,000, and third-place teams $1,000.

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