For this blog entry, I thought it could be engaging, enlightening, and fun to do a lightning interview with Luther alum, B.J. Nichols. He’s a Decorah native, one of the nicest and funniest people I know, and he shares my unabashed appreciation for Adam Sandler’s film, "The Waterboy." What’s more, B.J.’s path after Luther has taken him into a fascinating field of work that I didn’t previously know existed. I think it’s vital to convey stories like his so that current Luther students as well as alums still navigating their vocations can imagine new possibilities for themselves.
Andy: To start with a bit of current context, would you describe your work in just a few sentences?
B.J.: I am a partner in the Fraud Investigation and Dispute Services practice at Ernst & Young. Specifically I focus on helping companies, state and local governments, and eligible not-for-profits recover financially after disasters around the world. That means helping them get money from commercial insurance companies and, when eligible, FEMA and other federal disaster grant programs. Right now we are focused on helping Florida recover from Hurricane Matthew where I have clients like a major city, municipal utility authority, a high end resort, and a hospital.
Never in a million years did I think I would wind up as a partner at a big 4 accounting firm - an absurd notion multiple past department chairs of the Luther Economics and Business Department at Luther would back up. I even ended up as a CPA despite having taken only fairly basic accounting classes while at Luther (take that Mona!). I got my MBA from Babson College outside Boston in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and started with the firm following grad school.
As far as Luther goes, I am a townie and grew up at the end of the Olson Hall driveway riding bikes through campus, playing video games in what used to be the bowling alley in the Union, and sledding Sunnyside regularly. The house across the street from us was a major football party house as was Vanaheim down the street - so I had role models from an early age.
I started at Luther in the fall of '93 and majored in business management with a minor in Spanish. Mona Nelson was my advisor and I am pretty sure she assumed I would be lucky to eventually make assistant manager at the Whippy Dip. This was before the Olin building. At that time most business classes were held at a variety of shacks and sheds around campus with names like TOHS (The old health service) and the Korsrud Annex (which I think is where they used to park the mowers in the summer when we didn't have classes there). More importantly to me at the time the Pub (now Roscoe's) was still open, the Cavern had closed at this point, and Orsey's and Cowboy's were in their hey-days. Kum and Go (now Decorah Mart) still served chili cheese nachos 24/7.
I lived in Ylvi my freshman year, Miller my sophomore, and off campus in the Rugby House my junior and senior years (208 Ohio - don't go looking for it, they had to burn it down after we moved out for public health reasons we won't go into here).
Andy: What is your most memorable course at Luther and why?
B.J.: International Business taught by Uwe Rudolf - International business! There was such a class - I think I still have the book somewhere. The term doesn't even have meaning any longer - everything we do is international. I still read "The Wall Street Journal" daily because of the habit that got started in this class. I also remember the many guest speakers and real world case studies we discussed.
My other favorites were J-term study abroad opportunities which I would encourage everyone and anyone to take full advantage of. More on those later.
Andy: When you were at Luther, what sorts of communities were you part of and why were they important to you?
B.J.: I was the captain of the men's rugby team which was a great learning experience. We got some minor support from the school, but pretty much fended for ourselves. With no official coach, the team officers had to really step up and lead. We epitomized a work hard play hard culture. We had great success on the field and always had fun off the field too.
Andy: A lot has changed since you and I were in college. What are a couple of things you'd recommend current students try to get out of their time at Luther? If you can, touch on both academics and the non-academic aspects of being a college student. We've talked before about how success at work, especially when your work involves connecting and collaborating with lots of different people, requires flexibility, some knowledge of history and culture, curiosity, and the ability to ask questions and create conversations. Would you expand on that a bit and think about how your college experience gave you some introduction to and practice of these things?
B.J.: The liberal arts education was really a great fit for me and is so badly needed these days. To me that means a broad base of knowledge to provide you context for thinking, demonstrated ability to think critically and independently, and an aptitude for synthesizing information from disparate sources.
A big part of what I do is helping people reach agreement on a very touchy subject - MONEY! I think the liberal arts education helped me understand there are more than one valid perspective on any given problem. Even if I don't agree with those other perspectives, if I can't articulate my counterparts' views I'm not going to be able to communicate a persuasive case for my own.
One of the biggest influences on me during my time at Luther were the international travel opportunities - the exposure to different people, cultures, and the broader world has definitely had a huge impact on me, my life, and my career. I was lucky to get a number of opportunities including:
- Israel with Richard Simon Hanson to study the world of the Bible.
- Japan, Hong Kong, and China with Uwe Rudolf and then Germany, France and Switzerland. Our trip to study "Asia in Transition" in 1997 was an incredible experience. The pace of change in China was really picking up steam, and Hong Kong was preparing to revert from British control to China. Getting to meet locals, visit businesses, and stay in homes were some of the highlights that I still look back on fondly.
- Costa Rica - I also designed my own internship one summer where I worked in a hotel and got a chance to tour the country.
These are two things that I can draw a direct line from what I do now back to some of the unique experiences I had while at Luther. It's difficult sometimes to commit the time and money to these types of adventures - but they are so formative and provide such long term benefit that I would encourage anyone to take advantage of similar programs as much as they can.
I still regularly work on matters in Asia, including recent projects in China and Japan. The exposure and experience I had at Luther both directly through travel and indirectly through other classwork make me a more effective advisor to my clients.
Andy: Thanks for your time and insights, B.J.!
B.J.: Glad to share; thanks for asking, and for being sure we referenced "The Waterboy" at least once, now twice!