Otter Co-op CEO Jack Nicholson settles into an interview to discuss being named Business in Vancouver’s CEO of the year in the large-company category and admits that he feels a bit overwhelmed.
“I have looked at some of the people who have achieved this in the past, and it is very humbling,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
He is known in the community for being a modest and reliable guy who always does his part.
“I don’t know when he has time to sleep,” said Township of Langley Coun. Angie Quaale, who was president of the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce when Nicholson started his stint on the chamber’s board of directors. Nicholson is now the chamber’s president.
“He is always there for whatever cause, any community event,” Quaale said. “This is in terms of time and dollars – it is not just writing a cheque.”
Kristine Simpson, who was president of the chamber between 2013 and 2015, echoed Quaale.
“Jack is one of the most generous people I know, and I don’t mean financially but also with his time, his energy and with his enthusiasm,” she said. “He is truly one of the best human beings I’ve ever met.”
What earns Nicholson such a fan club is the way he approaches business.
The key to being a great leader, he told BIV, is to be supportive of staff and to have an open-door policy. He is aware that many people think that the CEO has to be the brains behind key corporate initiatives, but he does not necessarily agree.
“You have to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you,” Nicholson said. “Then make sure that you, as the CEO, are giving them the resources that they need to get their job done.”
Otter Co-op has 17 stores in B.C.; most of them are essentially gas stations. There is one grocery store: at 3650 248 Street in Aldergrove, which was the co-op’s first location in 1922. The 60,000-square-foot retail centre also has a pharmacy and departments for hardware and for clothing.
Otter Co-op is building an adjacent 10,000-square-foot liquor store, which will be the company’s first.
Nicholson said he has been scouting sites for future stores and that he is interested in opening a location in Metro Vancouver. The problem, he said, is the cost of the real estate in the region, particularly for a gas station.
The number of gas stations in downtown Vancouver has dwindled to one, and other parts of Metro Vancouver are rapidly also showing signs that the sector is struggling in the region’s pricey property market.
“We continue to look for a site for a food and pharmacy,” he said. “That is a little bit easier because usually it is leased properties and there is a lot more density in Vancouver, so that would help our business model. We just haven’t found the right location yet.”
The company’s origins in the early 20th century can be traced back to an initiative by a couple of dozen local farmers who realized that if they combined their purchases, they would have more power to pressure suppliers into giving them better prices.
Anybody today can buy products at the co-op, but those who have paid a one-time $10 fee are eligible to get dividends at the end of the year.
Those who buy gasoline, for example, get a cheque back at the end of the year equivalent to $0.06 for each litre of gasoline that they bought during the year.
That incentive might seem compelling enough for drivers to cough up the one-time $10 fee, particularly since they are able to get that money refunded if they decide to drop their membership. Yet only about 77% of Otter Co-op’s $224 million in total sales are to members. Most of that revenue comes from selling gasoline and petroleum.
About $58 million last year came from selling bulk petroleum to farmers and other commercial accounts, and delivering the purchases by tanker truck. Another $95 million worth of gasoline is sold to the general public.
“Last year we had just over 8% sales growth,” Nicholson said. “There were no new locations in 2017 so it was all same-store sales growth, and our team is pretty proud of that.”
He added that the company has notched record sales each year since 2010, when Nicholson joined the company. Back then, the company generated $117 million in annual revenue.
Nicholson’s jump to the Otter Co-op CEO suite was a natural move. He had been with the Riverbend Co-op in Outlook, Saskatchewan, where in four years he helped double sales to $40 million, he said.
Before that, his total of 28 years with various co-ops included a stint as general manager of the smaller Mayerthorpe Co-op and the role of retail adviser at Federated Co-operatives Ltd., the umbrella company owned by about 200 different co-ops.
Nicholson worked with 17 Alberta-based co-ops during his time in that province, and he advised them and acted as a liaison while working with their general managers and corporate boards on various projects.
“I got to work with co-ops that had up to $100 million in annual sales, so working at Federated Co-op was a good development opportunity for me.”
Outside work, he and his wife, Perri Anne, have four adult children between the ages of 20 and 28, two of whom live with their parents while attending university.
Nicholson loves to camp and go boating. He and his wife recently sold their sailboat and bought a power boat in its place.
Much of Nicholson’s activity outside work, however, is spent in the community and with charitable causes.
He went to Nepal a few years ago with the Rotary Club and helped build water wells, latrines and smokeless stoves for people there, he said.
“We already appreciate that we live in Canada, but going there definitely opens your eyes and shows you how much we have here to be blessed with.” •
Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2018 BC CEO Awards November 15, 2018, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.