Mr. Nichol would mention Terri in his commercials, in which he appeared with his French bulldog Georgie Girl. “He always felt he could bring things to the public that were affordable, not just for the wealthy,” she says.
A perfectionist and workaholic, Mr. Nichol demanded results and could be tough on his team, says Jim White, who as vice-president of product development worked closely with him in the 1980s. He was responsible for Loblaw’s Insider’s Report, a chatty promotional magazine bearing Mr. Nichol’s photograph and signature that told the stories behind the grocer’s private-label foods. A micromanager, Mr. Nichol was a “detail freak” who read every word of the report and “would change stories if he didn’t think they were clever enough,” Mr. White says.
Mr. Nichol became obsessed with developing the perfect chocolate chip cookie to take on the leading Chips Ahoy. It took nine months and more than 100 samples before hitting on the right recipe for the Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie, still a top seller 25 years later. It contained 39.5 per cent real chocolate made with cocoa butter instead of vegetable oil, Mr. White says, and sold for $1.99 rather than the rival’s $2.49.
“He was like a dog with a bone: Until he perfected the product, he wasn’t prepared to let up,” says Paul Uys, a grocery consultant and former Loblaw executive who also worked with Mr. Nichol. “He was on a mission.”
Rare for mainstream grocers at the time, under Mr. Nichol, Loblaw introduced an environmentally friendly line of PC Green products and a line promoted as being healthy called Too Good to be True.
Mr. Nichol didn’t believe in focus groups, which are commonly used in the industry, feeling their findings resulted in “the lowest common denominator,” Mr. White says. Instead, he counted on his own taste buds. “Dave had a brilliant palate.”
Life after Loblaw
Still, in the early 1990s, Mr. Nichol began to feel undervalued at Loblaw. He and Mr. Weston failed to come to terms over his staying with the company, and he was lured by the prospect of a top job at Cott.
There he had visions of replicating his winning private-label formula by developing premium food products for retailers around the world. By pricing private labels 15 per cent lower than comparable national brands, he believed he could lure more customers and help shore up supermarkets’ profits, having eliminated the need to cover suppliers’ marketing and distribution costs. But he struggled without the backing of a giant such as Loblaw.
Galen G. Weston, who replaced his father as the head of Loblaw in 2006, borrowed heavily from the Nichol playbook as he took on the task of revamping the once-again troubled retailer amid intensifying competition. He began to appear in ads to tout the chain’s products, refocusing the business on food and private labels.
By then, Mr. Nichol and the elder Mr. Weston had reconciled. When Mr. Nichol was diagnosed with cancer in California, he underwent surgery and “almost died there,” Ms. Nichol says.
When he was strong enough to return to Toronto, Mr. Weston arranged for his private jet to pick him up in Los Angeles and fly him home, Ms. Nichol says. Mr. Weston continued to keep in touch. “They certainly had a very strong bond.”
Mr. Nichol went on to develop products at his own consultancy, though he was plagued by health problems in his last years, complicated by diabetes. He leaves his wife, Terri, two stepchildren, a brother and a sister and four grandchildren.
Even through illness he still loved to eat, and Ms. Nichol tried to comfort him with steamed lobster, veal tenderloin and other foods.
While at Loblaw, Mr. Nichol would sometimes bring home dishes from the company’s test kitchen for Terri to work on. “Every night was like a gourmet night,” she says. “That was always a big deal for him – coming home to a special meal.”
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