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Nolen Bids Farewell to McCombs

Jim Nolen retires from McCombsWhen distinguished senior lecturer of finance Jim Nolen retired this May, it capped off a 38-year stint at the McCombs School of Business, as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and faculty member.

Nolen, BBA ’74, MBA ’76, joined the McCombs faculty in 1980, teaching undergraduate classes with [the late professor emeritus] Ernest Walker. He eventually moved into graduate and executive education, and along the way became a student favorite. In 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek named him one of the country’s 10 most popular MBA professors.

So what did Nolen do on his first day of retirement?

“Worked,” he deadpanned. 

But on the second day?

“I slept in real late. I haven’t done that in a long time. I guess I was catching up on the sleep deprivation of 32 years.”

Nolen serves on the board of directors for companies including American Bank of Commerce, Balcones Resources, DocBookMD, and Centurion Medical Products. He is also president of CFO Services, Inc., a business consulting firm.

McCombs TODAY caught up with Nolen shortly after his final semester came to a close.

What drew you to teaching entrepreneurship and corporate finance?

I started out in accounting. It only took two classes to realize that it wasn’t for me. I liked the quantitative aspects of accounting, but—not being a detailed-oriented person—found that balance to the penny was too anal for me. Finance was like accounting, except you got to be more creative. Most creative accountants are in jail. Most creative finance people are rich. 

What makes a good teacher?

Passion. It helps if you can make it entertaining while still conveying the concepts. [Former McCombs lecturer] Mike Brandl taught microeconomics, which can be a really boring subject, but he did it with so much energy that the students really loved him. Sandy Leeds and John Doggett put so much work into the classes they teach and have great senses of humor. Bob Parrino and Ross Jennings are great teachers because they are so organized and efficient and can relate to the audience. 

You have to show that you care about your students, especially in graduate classes. At the graduate level, they’re paying a lot of money to come back. They actually enjoy rigorous classes, because they’re getting their money’s worth. I tried to attend many of the student events, so I got to know them on a personal level as well. 

How would you compare the McCombs you experienced as a student to the McCombs your students know today?

I taught only graduate classes for the last 15 years, so I will address the question from the MBA perspective. I have enjoyed teaching at a school that I probably could not have gotten into based on my SAT and GMAT scores. Today, most MBAs have 5 years work experience and are 28-years-old, instead of 22-years-old like I was. I wasn’t as goal-oriented as my current students, and at graduation I did not really know what industry or functional role I wanted to pursue. When I was at McCombs, most of the students were single males and mainly from Texas. Today, you see 30 percent women, 30 percent international students and many of the students are married and have a couple of kids.  

There’s also a bigger sense of a community, due to smaller class sizes and technology. When I was in school there were no cohorts. But now that those exist, students are able to bond more closely with their peers. 

You serve on the board of directors for several smaller companies. Why do you feel small businesses are important?

I worked with corporate America for nine months for a large oil company. I learned that I had no interest in working for a big, bureaucratic corporation; the advancement ladder was too high and I could not see the whole playing field. Small businesses are the growth engine in the United States, creating 70 percent of the new jobs and providing for 50 percent of the private sector payroll. As an owner or manager of a small firm, one gets to wear many hats and help create a culture instead of trying to fit into an existing culture.  

What characteristics do you believe a successful entrepreneur must have?

A tolerance for ambiguity. Most people want to know all the data. But a good entrepreneur moves quickly without all the data. They look at problems differently. Instead of seeing a problem or risk, they see opportunity or a way to mitigate the risk. And they are willing to take calculated risks. They are not afraid of failure. I am concerned about the avoidance of risk that seems to be characteristic of the Millennials. This is the generation that got sixth-place trophies—there are no losers. When I was growing up, there were only three places on the podium. If you were fourth, you did not get a participation trophy, and losing made you try harder the next time.

What will you miss most in retirement?

The students and my colleagues will be missed. What I won’t miss is grading or parking. I hate grading. Although I had teaching assistants as graders, I graded the 10-page case analysis midterms and finals myself because it gave me a very good understanding of the student’s knowledge of the subject matter. As they say, “You teach for free but they pay you to grade.” 

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#1 My sister graduated from UT

My sister graduated from UT about 3 or 4 years ago. She always spoke highly of Jim. I'll be sure to forward this to her!

#2 Best wishes Jim! Though I

Best wishes Jim! Though I imagine this will be a short retirement... Jim definitely has too much energy and passion to just relax and sleep in late. He is a phenomenal teacher and great mentor.

#3 Have vivid memories of

Have vivid memories of Nolen's SBF class while many of the others have faded over the years as time goes by and glad to interact with him periodically over the years. UT will miss his straight to the point style but definitely not forget the beauty of Dell's negative operating cycle...

#4 I graduated in 1999 and still

I graduated in 1999 and still vividly remember Prof. Nolen's class. Best of luck to Prof. Nolen and I feel fortunate to have been in his class.

#5 Jim, what a joy to be a "new

Jim, what a joy to be a "new friend" of yours. I am so sorry that we just met in 2010, when I returned to UT for a class reunion; what a loss for me. You epitomize the "best". You love people; are passionate about those with whom you engage, and about everything that you do. I know that you had an incalculable impact on many, many, young people, and that they are better, and more able, men and women because of that influence. YOU know, because of our conversations, that I'm just a little bit jealous of you! You and I know that I MIGHT have traveled a very similar UT journey as you have traveled, and journey with Dr. Walker...when I was his "assistant", and mentee...if I had accepted his invitation, in 1962, when I received my MBA, to keep teaching finance, go after a PhD, etc. You were nice to say that that "the only difference between you and me is that you LEFT, and I STAYED". However, I am VERY confident that I would have had NOWHERE near the impact that you have had! I wish you good health and a wonderful, fulfilling, retirement...although I just KNOW that you won't feel AT ALL retired much of the time, as you just keep on "giving". Best wishes, Jim!

#6 I could listen to Jim for

I could listen to Jim for hours. No lunch breaks. His insight, knowledge, personality, and rationality were the stuff of inspiration. It's a shame that future Longhorns will not experience someone so unforgetable. Thank you, sir!

#7 I was too risk adverse and

I was too risk adverse and focused on becoming a corporate lawyer to Jim's class in undergrad. When I finally saw some light and decided to go into consulting during my last semester, he provided me with solid guidance. I've reached out to him a few times since then about my starting my own financial advisory business. Jim is great. He dives into issues/ideas with me. Despite all his experience, his advice is plain speak common sense. McCombs Undergrad 2006

#8 Best wishes for Jim!! Jim was

Best wishes for Jim!! Jim was incredibly knowledgeable, experienced, approachable and FUN. My favorite MBA teacher with J.Doggett and S. Tomlinson. He is probably not really retiring just wanted to play more golf... Cheers, Marco MBA 2000

#9 Jim Nolen is friggin awesome!

Jim Nolen is friggin awesome! I took small business finance, barely passed, but loved it! Then he took me on as a Teaching Assistant and mentored me as a budding entrepreneur - 5 years later and 2 companies under my belt, I'm still applying his common sense approach to real business. Jim teaches young Longhorns about life - and how to do business right - lessons than made my time there well worth it! R/S Antonio Centeno MBA 07

#10 I was in his small business

I was in his small business finance class back in 86. He was one of the most inspiring profs I ever had. Loved attending his class and it's unfortunate he didn't teach any other class I could take. Great asset for UT for 32 years and a top educator. Many thanks Jim and all the best.

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