No one could ever accuse Nolan Watson of being an underachiever.
That's just not the word you use to describe someone who's been a class valedictorian (twice), a BC Gold Medal winner on his CA qualification exam, a CFO of a multibillion-dollar mining company, a pioneering philanthropist, a successful entrepreneur and now, a BC CEO of the Year Award winner – particularly when he's done it all by the age of 33.
"It's nice to get an award," Watson said humbly. "But at the same time, I'm one of [those] guys who is [his own] strongest critic. I'm always striving to do a better job, and I know some of the mistakes I've made. And I plan on doing a better job in the future."
Watson grew up in Surrey, graduating from the University of British Columbia with a bachelor of commerce degree (with honours) in 2001. His career started at Deloitte and Touche, where he articled as a CA candidate. Clearly, it was something he was born to do: on his CA qualification exam (UFE), Watson earned the highest mark in Western Canada.
At the age of 26, Watson became the CFO of Silver Wheaton, one of the largest "pure-play" silver mining companies in the world. The accomplishment made him the youngest-ever CFO of a NYSE-listed company with a multibillion-dollar market capitalization.
Four years later, Watson set his eyes on a new challenge: creating his own company. In 2008, he founded Sandstorm Gold, a company that provides "volumetric production payments" – in essence, exchanging upfront cash payments for a percentage of mine production.
The innovative structure was a key feature behind Silver Wheaton's success, but it had never before been tried with other metals. To do it, Watson decided to model Sandstorm after an investment bank rather than a mining company.
"Mining companies have COOs; instead, we have multiple vice-presidents, each of whom is authorized to evaluate and negotiate deals. Mining companies have technical managers; instead, we have analysts," Watson said.
Despite his success as a CFO, Watson admits that making the jump to the CEO's office wasn't easy.
"People always tell you how hard it is; they always tell you about the sweat equity that you have to put in to launch something," he said. "No matter how much you prepare yourself mentally for it, you can never be prepared for it.
"It's kind of like having your first kid: you think you're ready to be a dad, but you're not. It's one of those things where you just have to dive in full force and give it everything you have and just keep going."
Watson attributes his success in large part to his hands-on management style. He and his team make a point of selecting each employee personally, without the help of ads or executive recruiters.
He has also instituted a unique career-development program that helps employees identify career goals and determine specific steps needed to achieve them. The result: since Sandstorm's founding, no employee has ever left the company.
Watson extends this people-focused attitude to his philanthropy. In 2005, Watson founded his own charity, Nations Cry.
The organization provides "Canadian-level" education to developing nations in Africa, including Sierra Leone, which is struggling to recover after [decades] of civil war. Watson foots the bill personally for all overhead and administrative expenses, leaving 100% of donations to be used on the ground.
"I believe that regardless of what country you live in, or what your gender is, or what your ethnicity is, a human being is a human being is a human being," Watson said. "Those of us who have been fortunate in life owe it to humanity to help out other people who haven't been as fortunate. That's basically what it boils down to." •
For more information on the November 20 gala awards dinner celebrating our CEOs of the Year, click here.