Tartan Homes founder Wes Nicol ‘left his mark’ as champion of Ottawa entrepreneurship

When entrepreneur Wes Nicol addressed students at Carleton University’s convocation ceremony in 2006, he offered words of wisdom that couldn’t have been more appropriate coming from a man so humble and yet so accomplished.

"Do your job promptly and efficiently and without fanfare, and continue to volunteer,” the founder of Tartan Homes told graduates of his alma mater. “Look on any task that has been shunned by others as an opportunity.”

If anyone ever walked the talk when it came to such a statement, it was Mr. Nicol. A devoted husband and father who was as respected for his selfless desire to give back to the community as he was for his business achievements, the homebuilder and lawyer inspired generations of entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps.

Mr. Nicol, who was recognized for his contributions with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Best Ottawa Business Awards, died last Tuesday at the age of 85.

Carleton University business professor Tony Bailetti, who worked side by side with Mr. Nicol as director of the entrepreneurial institute that bears his name, remembered his friend as a man with exceptional business acumen who was devoted to helping young people strive to reach their potential.

“He really had a great heart,” Mr. Bailetti said. “He was very, very committed to those kids. That was his passion.”

Born in Vanier in 1931, Mr. Nicol later moved to Centretown with his family and graduated from Carleton in 1956.

After earning his law degree from Osgoode Hall, he opened a law office on Metcalfe Street. In 1966, he tapped into his entrepreneurial instincts and launched Tartan Homes.

The company – which is now owned by Mr. Nicol’s sons Bruce and Ian – soon grew into one of the region’s largest homebuilders. In addition to building thousands of homes in Ottawa, Tartan became the first local developer to expand to Florida in the 1970s.

Eventually, he took a turn as a high-tech entrepreneur, playing a key role in the beginnings of educational software developer AutoSkill International in 1990.

Doug Lazier, who joined Mr. Nicol’s law practice in 1978 and later became his partner in the firm, remembers his longtime colleague as a man of integrity who always treated employees and contractors fairly and had the innate ability to spot business opportunities others missed.

In the late 1980s, for example, Tartan began buying up land in Leitrim, at the time an area that was shunned by developers. Through Mr. Nicol’s persistence and vision, the thriving community of Findlay Creek Village emerged.

“Everyone told him he was crazy to be thinking of development in Leitrim,” Mr. Lazier said. “He was right in the end when everyone told him he was wrong and couldn’t do it.”

Frustrated with the lack of support for budding entrepreneurs at post-secondary institutions, Mr. Nicol created the Nicol Entrepreneurial Award in 1997 to support young businesspeople with funds from the Wesley and Mary Nicol Charitable Foundation. Today, the program has expanded to universities across the country and has awarded more than $1 million in prize money.

Five years ago, he and Mr. Bailetti founded Carleton’s Nicol Entrepreneurial Institute, “a blueprint for supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs” by offering internships and mentorship to aspiring businesspeople. The institute is designed to nurture and grow young entrepreneurial talent with a “no losers philosophy,” Mr. Nicol said at the time.

Mr. Bailetti said Mr. Nicol’s passion and attention to detail were second to none.

Just two years ago, he recalled, Mr. Nicol attended a series of 18 student business presentations at Carleton. The next day, he called Mr. Bailetti to offer his thoughts on every presentation – and amazed the professor with his ability to recite specific details about each one.

“I have trouble remembering (names) and I’m there every day of my life talking to those kids,” Mr. Bailetti said. “He knew exactly what they were trying to do. He really wanted to get in there and help.”

A Member of the Order of Canada, Mr. Nicol is survived by his wife of 58 years, Mary, his children Bruce, Heather, Ian and Janet, and 12 grandchildren.

“He was a person who left his mark,” Mr. Bailetti said. “He will be missed.”