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How the robo-adviser co-founder starts her days, supports her team and upholds a culture of kindness

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Tea Nicola is the co-founder of WealthBar, which makes financial services tailored to the ultra-wealthy available to everyday Canadians.Kia Porter/The Globe and Mail

Tea Nicola, co-founder of WealthBar, admits to wanting to be a kind of folk hero.

In 2014, she and her husband, Chris Nicola, co-founded the robo-adviser, the first full-service platform of its kind in the country. Having previously worked in wealth management, she wanted to make the kind of financial services tailored to the ultra-wealthy available to everyday Canadians.

“I felt like finance needed a boost of benevolence to be honest,” she says. “I wanted to be Robin Hood, in my own way.”

But there was more to the formation of the Vancouver-based company than just delivering high-quality, low-cost investments portfolios to the other 99 percent.

“We wanted to create a company where people are going to be happy and people are going to want to come to work,” Nicola says between sips of a double espresso, double long.

Nicola grew up in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990s and left her home city of Banja Luka in 1992. She spent her 16th birthday in a refugee camp in Toronto, before moving in with her mom, an English teacher, who had previously split from her dad. She went on to earn a degree in mechanical and metallurgical engineering from Queen’s University, where she was one of two women in a class of 30, before entering the field of financial services. She worked at Nicola Wealth Management (run by her father-in-law, John Nicola) before taking on an adviser coaching role at Sun Life Financial.

For Nicola, “coffee is an absolute must” in the mornings

When Tea Nicola orders breakfast at OEB Breakfast Co. in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, there’s no wavering: two farm fresh eggs over hard, with a side of heirloom tomatoes at room temperature.

At home, she and her husband have the morning routine down to a science: First, between 5 and 6 a.m., one of them makes lattes (hers with lactose-free milk) using their commercial espresso machine, and brings the drink to the other in bed. “Coffee is an absolute must,” she says. “I do not function decaffeinated.”

On alternating days, one goes to the gym while the other gets their two children, two and eight years old, fed and out the door.

Nicola says she eats lightly in the mornings, if at all. Her ideal breakfast would be a can of mackerel with mayonnaise and crackers eaten at work around 10 or 10:30 a.m. Only if she’s very hungry will she have eggs (never runny) and tomatoes. You won’t see her having pancakes, waffles, or cereal.

“That’s the Croatian in me,” she says. “Having grown up in Europe, we never ate sugar at breakfast. I’m happiest with a piece of cold cuts, toast and a pickle. Give me that for breakfast any day of the week.”

After hearing from so many friends that they needed financial advice but didn’t have the hefty funds that most wealth management firms require to invest, Tea and Chris Nicola decided to develop a new approach. “We thought, ‘maybe it’s time for us to figure out a way to deliver that same level of professionalism and that level of investment sophistication without the overhead – bring it down to $1,000 as opposed to a million,” she says. “That was the beginning of WealthBar.”

Today, Nicola oversees the strategic direction of the firm, which has grown to 42 people and has more than $375-million in assets under management.

But the success of WealthBar can be attributed to more than finance and tech. It can also be traced to the supportive work environment that Nicola strives to create, one she describes as a “culture of healthy management.”

If there’s truth to the expression ‘people don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad managers,’ Nicola says simply: “Don’t be that manager.”

WealthBar employees have flexibility, for example; every employee is allowed to work from home one day a week. On Fridays, lunch is catered, and staff are invited to order what they want off different restaurant menus (up to a certain limit). Everyone eats together at two long tables in the boardroom.

And every week, Nicola sets aside 30 minutes to connect with her nine direct reports.

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Tea Nicola, pictured here with writer Gail Johnson (right), enjoys breakfast at OEB Breakfast Co. in Vancouver’s Yaletown district. Her typical order: two farm fresh eggs over hard, with a side of heirloom tomatoes at room temperature.The Globe and Mail

“I treat [one-on-one meetings] as a safe space,” Nicola says. “There’s not much they can do that can get them fired short of telling me they broke the law. They can complain, whine, vent; they can tell me they can’t do something or they need more training. They can tell me if they’re stressed or frustrated – all of that stuff. We talk about it: What can we do to fix it?”

It’s also the time when she provides the team with feedback – but she tends to focus on employees’ strengths, not weaknesses. “Focusing people on what they’re bad at is what creates anxiety, and that leads to negativity toward the workplace. We try to distribute the workload so that the majority of everybody’s work is in an area they’re strong at … I think the combination of those is what ends up keeping people here. We basically have no employee attrition.”

When things do go wrong, staff are encouraged to raise their hands and say they made a mistake admit their mistakes, Nicola explains. But the company strives to combat a culture of blame: With each mistake, her team does a root cause analysis to see if the error was systemic and to determine how it can be avoided in the future.

These kinds of progressive approaches might be at odds with what most people associate with the cutthroat world of finance and investing. Any Wall Street-like notion that the more someone is beaten down the more zeal they’re going to have to succeed doesn’t exist at her company, and doesn’t work anyway, Nicola says.

“Building WealthBar was a lot of work, but I’m really proud,” Nicola says. “People really like working here … When there’s camaraderie, you’re going to be far more collaborative and productive. You have those relationships to fall back on.”

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