Dave Nichol had a knack for making bold bets that paid off in spades.
Case in point: More than three decades ago, the former executive at Loblaw Cos. Ltd. was walking by the firm’s purchasing offices when he spotted a supplier pitching pita breads to one of the grocer’s buyers. It was 1979, and the product was virtually unheard of in mainstream supermarkets.
Intrigued, Mr. Nichol intervened, tasted the flatbreads and, “within seconds,” decided to stock them in Loblaw stores under its fledgling No Name private label, recalls Sam Ajmera, owner of the bakery that made them and still a Loblaw vendor today.
“He said, ‘You’re going to be my pita bread man,’” says Mr. Ajmera. “We shook hands on it.”
Mr. Nichol, who died in Toronto on Sept. 22 of complications from diabetes at the age of 73, was known to a generation of Canadians as the face of Loblaw. Star of the grocer’s signature television commercials and Insider’s Report magazine, he was the folksy pitchman for then-exotic items such as salsa and Memories of Szechwan peanut sauce under Loblaw’s President’s Choice and No Name store brands.
But in the corporate world, he made his mark for doing even more. As an innovative product developer and food expert, he put a stamp of legitimacy on private labels, transforming them from humble, low-cost merchandise to must-have brands. In the process, he sped up the shift to retailers taking more control of their shelves and giving their own products prime space, pinching the previously reigning brand-name manufacturers.
“His marketing and food prowess brought the President’s Choice and No Name products to Canadians,” says W. Galen Weston, chairman of Loblaw parent George Weston Ltd. As boss of Loblaw at the time, Mr. Weston hired Mr. Nichol in 1972 to help revive the company’s fortunes.
“He travelled the world extensively to bring unique and affordable products to Canadians. He was a voracious food tester and only accepted the highest quality of products at great prices.”
Mr. Nichol had a nose for introducing new foods to people, says Mr. Ajmera, who became a friend and travelled with him to find new products.
Still, the No Name pita breads weren’t an instant success. Initially Mr. Nichol called them “sandwich pouches” because he felt consumers wouldn’t be familiar with pita breads. But customers were confused, thinking that “sandwich pouches” were sandwich bags. And the bread went stale if stored in the pantry for long periods, resulting in customer complaints, says Mr. Ajmera, co-founder of FGF Brands.
Mr. Nichol reintroduced the No Name product as pita bread, and it took off with the help of his backing. Years later, he promoted Mr. Ajmera’s President’s Choice Splendido pizza crust, which was an immediate hot seller, among others.
What some saw as flaws in Mr. Nichol – a big ego, impatience and a tendency to get bored quickly – worked in his favour at Loblaw, pushing him to constantly search further afield for the next big thing, says grocery consultant Tom Stephens, who worked with him at Loblaw in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He was as important to the food industry as Steve Jobs was to the computer and telephone industry,” Mr. Stephens says.
In 1993, Mr. Nichol left Loblaw for private-label beverage producer Cott Corp. His mandate was to bolster store brands for retailers globally, but he wasn’t able to achieve the same level of success or the high profile he had enjoyed at Loblaw.
An early passion for food
David Alexander Nichol was born Feb. 9, 1940, in Chatham, Ont., the youngest of four children. His father, John, a train station agent, and mother, Gladys, lived with their brood above a tire store. When John came home with the newborn, he told the three older children, “That guy is sure to put all you kids to shame,” according to The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice and the Making of Popular Taste by author Anne Kingston.
His father came from a poor family while his mother was raised on a well-off farm in Cedar Springs, Ont. Gladys was a skilled cook whose signature apple pie and roast beef helped draw boarders to the rooming house she ran in Chatham in the 1930s.
Young Dave picked up his mother’s passion for food. He learned early from her that “you can have good food and not have a lot of money,” says his widow, Terri Nichol.
Gladys had high expectations of her children. She was involved in the church of Christian Science and ensured that her children attended Sunday school. Dave found that getting high marks at school was a way to please her. His father, more reserved and a bookworm, was a family man who kept to himself.
The family moved often because of his father’s work. In many ways, Dave was raised like an only child. There were 10 years between him and his closest sibling, John, a star athlete who went on to become a Baptist preacher. Keeping out of trouble, Dave focused on succeeding at school. When another boy was given first-place honours in his high-school graduating class, Mr. Nichol, suspecting a mistake, wrote to the principal asking that the grades be reviewed. Mr. Nichol had indeed placed first. He didn’t ask that anybody be told, not even the other boy, simply that the records be corrected. “It was a rare moment of consideration for others,” his late sister Joanne is quoted as saying in The Edible Man.
At the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., Mr. Nichol was drawn to Mr. Weston, who came from a prominent family that owned a food and retail empire in Britain. They both studied business and became roommates. “I recall Dave’s mother being an extended mother to both of us, always ensuring our house was presentable, neat and tidy,” Mr. Weston says. “Dave was my best man at Hilary’s and my wedding in England, as was I for Dave’s first marriage in Vancouver. He was an excellent scholar, finishing in the top five at both Western and Harvard.”
Mr. Weston became a pivotal figure in Mr. Nichol’s life. The closest that Canada has to royalty, Mr. Weston and his wife, Hilary, move in wealthy and connected circles: he has played polo with Prince Charles; she is a former lieutenant-governor of Ontario. His friendship with Mr. Weston gave Mr. Nichol a window to a different world.
After earning an undergraduate law degree at the University of British Columbia and a post-graduate degree from Harvard Law School, Mr. Nichol worked at the prestigious consultancy McKinsey & Co. Then Mr. Weston asked him to help breathe new life into Loblaw. Controlled by the Weston family, the grocer was stumbling at the time. Along with Richard Currie, who went on to become chairman of telecommunications titan BCE Inc., they spearheaded a massive turnaround, focusing on lucrative private labels and newly designed stores.
As Mr. Weston says: “Working shoulder to shoulder with me, we saw the Loblaw business grow from 10 per cent of Canadian retail to 25 per cent,” referring to gains in its share of the grocery market.
A perfectionist with
‘a brilliant palate’
At Loblaw’s head office, Mr. Nichol met Terri, who worked as an executive receptionist on the 18th floor, two floors down from his office. For six months he asked her out, but she kept turning him down until finally she accepted. “He said, ‘I don’t want to marry you. I just want to take you to supper,’” she recalls with a laugh.
They eloped in Hawaii in 1978, both having been married previously. “David loved the attention of the press, but he wanted it to be private,” Ms. Nichol says. “He had a big ego, but under it all he was a family man.” She had two small children, Leigh and Michael. Inspired by their stepfather, Leigh is a brand strategist who worked at Loblaw for a couple of years, while Michael became a chef.
When she met Mr. Nichol, Terri didn’t know how to cook. So he sent her to France to learn. She travelled with him to food shows and beyond, hunting for new fare. “Galen really gave him carte blanche to explore that part of his life,” she says. “He didn’t put any restrictions on what he should do and what he shouldn’t do.”
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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