FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Allan Nielsen
September 13, 2016
He’s a funny guy. Funny ha+ha, or funny ‘peculiar’? Both I think.
I’ve sort-of known him for a few years and the arranging of this interview took more than two years. And why?
I was curious for two reasons: as a follower of my daily column, he would often respond with comments that demonstrated ‘quick wit, highly intelligent, well informed – and sometimes completely wacky-off-the-wall’. And, many years ago I’d met his famous father – oil patch legend Arne Nielsen.
I wanted to meet him, interview him, get a sense of who he is and how his life has unfolded – eldest child of an icon in the same city where that icon shone so brightly. Obviously a large shadow, and large shoes. When we spoke and I first asked for this interview the words ‘sure’ and ‘maybe’ were used interchangeably – and so our protracted communication unfolded over time. Finally, the day came – we met in an air-conditioned Starbucks on a hot day and Allan Nielsen did not disappoint as an interesting guy, funny, and peculiar …
Allan is a recently retired, and very accomplished lawyer – his long career (43 years) spent entirely with BLG and its predecessor firm Howard Mackie. And. he notes among his accomplishments – representing lots of great clients, mentoring lots of young lawyers and … being thrown out of every bar in Calgary worthy of being thrown out of at one time or another.
Born in Edmonton while dad, the pride of Icelandic Standard, AB, was attending University of Alberta – the family moved a lot due to dad’s work. Mom, raised at Mayfield, was the stay-at-home type, with seven kids. She died at 47, when Allan was 25. Dad remarried (Valerie Nielsen) and had two more children. Allen, it seems, has ALWAYS shared a bedroom – at home with siblings, at university with a roommate and in marriage with his wife [he met his wife Margaret at U of A – ‘she was in engineering, and she stood out. She worked in oil & gas – with Aquitaine, and Esso – doing reservoir engineering].
He recalls his school days as 'progressively becoming a better student'. While in his last year of high schoolm when his family moved back to Calgary from Houston, he remained there to finish out his year – and then off to the University of Alberta where he entered the Science faculty to study physics but physics wasn’t for him. While he enjoyed geology courses, history grabbed his attention most. He earned a B.A.(Hons) and then went on to law school at U of A, articled at Howard Mackie (now BLG) and practiced there until his retirement in March 2015. His resume of business, community and board involvement is extensive. His work was in oil & gas, financings and the full range of corporate law. He says, “I really like the camaraderie – and was known as ‘best mentor’, and I believe I was”. He adds that his ‘group phone messages’ to everyone in the firm on Thursday mornings with his ‘joke of the week’ did not always endear him to everyone. Many, but not all.
Why are you successful? “law, in my experience, is a high-stress profession. My personality has made me valuable. I was no smarter than anyone else, but I got things done. The school of hard knocks teaches you much. And I’ve had a very understanding wife. Being from a big family had a lot of benefits – you have to get along with everybody every day.”
What has held you back? “the same things! Also, I wasn’t involved in lawyer organizations much, like the bar associations, law society matters – I wasn’t as interested in that. While my personality is ‘endearing’ to many, I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. And I can be rowdy – I’ve been a bit of a party animal.”
These days his ‘retirement’ as lawyer is official. He’s hung-up his shingle, is no longer licensed or doing legal work. He is however quite active – in volunteer work in the community and as a consultant providing business advise to small businesses. And still, he maintains, “I’m funnier that a lot of people are”. Entertaining? Absolutely. Eccentric? Oh sure, and funny. He really is …
A couple of hours interviewing someone doesn't allow 'getting to know someone' or fully understanding what makes someone tick - but some people open up more than others. Allan did open his vest, though understaning 'influences' of dad were not as freely shared. He recalls great fun on family vacations in a massive station wagon, camping trips and roughhousing with dad - and touching comments about his late brother. Otherwise, he exposes only what's on the surface. Thanks for glimpse ...
How do you see your business now – as a ‘business advisor’ – going forward over the next quarter?
… everyone is in financial distress. Lots of difficulties with long-term lenders. Lots of people are just trying to keep things going, to keep jobs for their employees. It’s not as bad as in the 80’s, but close! Lenders and shareholders – if companies have decent management, are better off sticking with them so you are seeing fewer bankruptcies.
And over the next five years?
… I think we’ll make a comeback. We’ll (Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray) do well – we’ll be a financial power corridor.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… doing business with our clients was important. If they used our services, we always tried to use theirs whenever we could. I always wanted to get good people who could do the job.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Allan Nielsen, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I was good at getting to know clients over time – got to know their characteristics. Often, I was just lucky.
… before – NO. I worked seven days a week for many years, and loved it.
Now, I think so …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… in the past, ‘where the next file was coming from’ and during my tenure as Managing Partner, personnel matters. Presently, I’m worried about Calgary, about Alberta – and where we are going, I’m worried about our governments in Ottawa and Alberta – where our city is positioned right now. Spending a lot less, in my opinion, would be a lot better for everybody …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Bill Howard and Jim Mackie – I got my work ethic from them.
… outdoor things. We used to hike a lot. Running. Travelling, and we intend to do a lot more – recent trip to Newfoundland, to Estonia and Latvia. And a driving trip to Vancouver … hadn’t done that in a very long time.
What do you read?
… books on hiking, history, geography and biographies. I’m not much of fiction reader.
… 2011 Infiniti G37Z. I used to have a 1969 Cougar … until 2013 when it was damaged in the flood. It was a great car, the old sequential signal lights and retractable headlights ...
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