Alumni Legend: Ab Nicholas
—Ab Nicholas (B.S. ’52, MBA ’55)
Ab Nicholas (B.S. ’52, MBA ’55) is not your typical businessperson—his personal business strategy is based not only on lessons learned in the classroom while earning his MBA at the Wisconsin School of Business, but also the life-changing experience of playing college basketball for the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an undergraduate.
Nicholas’s game plan—“do the best you can, and do what’s right”—has been wildly successful. As a basketball player for the university, Nicholas was twice named all-conference guard and once all-American guard, and by the time he graduated he was the highest scoring guard in the team’s history.
Off the court, he founded and still chairs Nicholas Company, an independent investment firm that currently manages $6.5 billion in six mutual funds.
An athletic scholarship that opened doors
Nicholas played just one year of varsity basketball in high school when the University of Wisconsin recruited him.
“I’m just an average guy who got lucky,” he says. “It was a great adventure playing for Wisconsin. As a young person, sports were always important to me.”
His athletic scholarship also provided opportunities beyond basketball. Nicholas majored in economics but he was unsure of his career goals—until he met finance Professor Frank Graner.
“Frank Graner was a wonderful lecturer and made the investment scene and the stock market come to life,” Nicholas says. “I got really interested in investments because of him, and by the time I was a junior I was pretty well set on where I wanted to go.”
—Ab Nicholas (B.S. ’52, MBA ’55)
The combination of basketball and business meshed well for Nicholas, and the busy schedule required him to plan his time very carefully. “It was a strenuous time but a good time, and I learned a lot about insurance, investments, corporations, finance, statistics, and public utilities,” he says. “And the competition at the highest level in college basketball was a challenge and very satisfying.”
Choosing an MBA over the NBA
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Nicholas served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. Later, he was offered the opportunity to play professional basketball for the Milwaukee Hawks, but decided instead to return to the Wisconsin School of Business to earn an MBA in finance.
“I felt like I had done what I wanted to do in basketball,” Nicholas says. “I loved it. I still love it, but I thought I should get on with my life. Besides, I was never built very strong, so I think professional basketball would have been hard for me.”
He’s been an investment analyst ever since, first at Northwestern National Insurance Co. and then at Marshall & Ilsley Corporation before founding Nicholas Company in 1967.
“I wanted to be on my own and see what I could do as an individual investment professional,” Nicholas says. “I love competing with others in the investment business. Maybe that’s where basketball helped me. It’s all about performing and doing a good job for your mutual fund investors.”
Nicholas says the School’s broad-based educational approach gave him the skills that he needed to tackle the myriad problems that arise in the investment business.
Nicholas founded and still chairs Nicholas Company, an independent investment firm that currently manages
in six mutual funds.
“One of the nice things about the investment business is you get into everything,” Nicholas says. “You get into every kind of company, every kind of management situation, every kind of thing that happens in the country and the world. It’s an ever-changing scene that is exciting every day.”
Strong, far-reaching support
“I never went into the investment business with the idea of trying to make a lot of money,” Nicholas says. “The only thing I thought of was doing the best I could, and everything flowed from that.”
Nicholas is grateful to the School for giving him the tools to succeed, and he has paid his gratitude forward in numerous ways through the years. In addition to serving on the Wisconsin School of Business Dean’s Advisory Board, he was a lead donor during Grainger Hall’s construction, and provided funding to establish the Nicholas Center for Corporate Finance and Investment Banking. In 2007, he was among the inaugural group of Wisconsin Naming Gift Partners who came together to make a groundbreaking gift that preserved the School’s name.
Nicholas and his wife Nancy Nicholas (B.S. ‘55) also have made several substantial gifts to the university. In addition to their recent gift of $50 million, the Nicholases pledged $10 million to complete the Kohl Center in 1998, with the practice gym named the Nicholas–Johnson Pavilion in recognition of their support. In 2011, they provided a lead gift of $8 million to launch the campaign to expand the School of Human Ecology building, which opened in 2012 as Nancy Nicholas Hall.
“My whole purpose is to give others a chance like I was given a chance,” Nicholas says. “I’ve done everything in my power to help others go to a great school and participate in all the activities I did that have helped me move ahead in life.”
To learn more about opportunities to support
future generations of Business Badgers