Nolen Bids Farewell to McCombs
When 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.”