1979 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The harder you work, the greater your confidence."
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nicholas was just seven when his father, a salesman, underwent surgery that left him permanently disabled. That, coupled with the Depression, left him with minimum abilities to support his family. Nicholas's mother went to work as a seamstress in a factory to support her husband and their four children. Young Nicholas began working at age eight, operating a paper route in the morning and selling papers on a corner after school. Later, he sacked potatoes at the local grocery story, sold magazine subscriptions, cut grass, shoveled snow, and installed blinds. "Work was more or less a matter of survival for me," he says.
When he finished high school, Nicholas and his sister insisted that their mother leave her job. They promised to support her, and were able to honor their pledge for the rest of her life. In 1942, he was drafted into the Air Corps. Unfortunately, he became disabled when he bailed out of an airplane over China, and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross by the time he was discharged. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled at Northwestern University to earn a business degree.
While attending Northwestern University's School of Business, Nicholas operated candy vending and coin changing machines. His business grew to the point that he had 125 candy machines and was selling 90,000 candy bars a month. He added to his income by making and delivering sandwiches in the late evening hours, managing laundry and flower concessions, and repairing radios. By the time he graduated from Northwestern Law School in 1952, he was clearing about $1,000 a month. "America really is the land of opportunity," he says. "It's only here that you can gather all the resources available to you and, with just your own energy and a spirit of optimism, build a successful business."
Nicholas spent one year in Chicago as an attorney and then worked in a succession of high-level sales and marketing positions with several Fortune 500 companies. In 1963, he returned to the practice of law. At the same time, he was acquiring businesses and was involved in venture capital.
At age 53, he and two partners purchased Beech-Nut Baby Food from Squibb. Nicholas was the chairman, CEO, and president of the company, which at the time was ranked third in the baby food industry. His decision to remove salt, sugar, artificial flavors, MSG, and HVP from Beech-Nut's baby food revived the company's lagging sales. By the time he sold the company to Nestle in 1979, Beech-Nut had moved to second place in baby food sales.
Hard work remains his prescription for success. "It's not something you just casually apply," he says. "It's day in and day out diligence." Of his Horatio Alger Award, Nicholas says, "I am excited by the energy that has catapulted the Association into the zenith of all Associations. The scholarship program is exemplary and I applaud it."* Deceased