Nock voice of optimism for high-risk ventures

Managing EditorBOULDER – Denis Nock leans over the table, eyes alive, body tense. He nearly levitates above his chair as he answers the question.

“An entrepreneur has the passion to pursue a dream where there is clearly high risk involved,” Nock said. “An entrepreneur has an idea for a product or service and will go out and raise funds against all odds. He will not be denied.”

For two decades, Nock has cultivated the entrepreneurial spirit here using optimism, energy and experience as president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce and director of the University of Colorado’s Robert H. and Beverly A. Deming Center for Entrepreneurship. On Oct. 26, he’ll be honored with the 2000 Esprit Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award from the chamber.

Building things from scratch is Nock’s passion, and he has a deep admiration for the true entrepreneur. “You give up your high-paying job; work morning, noon and night in your basement refining your product; and then you enter a whole new phase of risk trying to market it. … Entrepreneur sounds so glamorous on the outside, but it’s one hurdle, one risk, one roadblock after another, and you’re always running out of money.

“It’s not for everybody,” Nock said. “Those who succeed are driven by passion, not money,” he said. “Very few successes are motivated by the dollar. It’s passion, obsession and determination … to do what ever it takes.”

Forget that the picture of entrepreneurism Nock paints resembles Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell.” Nock can make it seem like the adventure of a lifetime, and many have gladly followed him through the gates.

Nock doesn’t consider himself an entrepreneur, but his associates say everything about the 63-year-old retiree reveals the spirit is within him – a leader of risk-takers drawn to the fire. “Denis’ strength is his enormous drive and infectious enthusiasm,´ said Tom Washing, last year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award and Nock’s longtime colleague. “When he asks for your help, you can’t say no to him. When he calls, you just do it.”

It was that entrepreneurial spirit that created his first business coup, presiding over the Atco Surgical Co. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, growing it for six years and selling it for a tidy profit in 1967. “The company was owned by two sisters. When it sold, much to my surprise, they split the profits three ways.” To make that happen, Nock worked seven days a week, taking time off only to go to church and sleep. “It was a labor of love,” he said.

It was that entrepreneurial spirit that jettisoned Nock up the corporate ladder at Bristol-Meyer Corp in Syracuse, N.Y. and Warsaw, Ind. At 32, he became its youngest director of corporate planning. He spearheaded nine acquisitions during his tenure there.

That same spirit led Nock to Boulder County in 1980 to become president of Valleylab Inc. when it was an ailing company. He grew the business and sold it for $128 million in 1983. The deal made investors smile, and the sale afforded Nock a lifetime of financial freedom. “My ship came home during that process,” Nock said. “I had options. And as corny as it sounds, I said, ‘I’m very fortunate, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life giving back to the community.’ ”

And that he’s done – eight years as president and chief executive officer of the chamber and six years as director of the Center for Entrepreneurship. In both cases, his ability to involve people in projects and guide them to success has paid dividends.

Nock retired on May 31 from the center. During his reign, he elevated it from obscurity to national recognition as the country’s 17th ranked entrepreneurship program in the United States. “He took the program to the next level,´ said CU professor G. Dale Meyer, a founder and co-executive director of the center, who brought Nock on board as director. “Denis is absolutely so well networked,” Meyer added. “He’s so positive, so optimistic. People around him absorb his enthusiasm. … He’s seldom turned down for funding. He’s so credible.”

Meyer said Nock was instrumental in assembling the center’s 37-member advisory board and contributed his salary back to the center his last two years. “That’s a rare combination, being philanthropic and an innovator,” Meyer said.

Nock’s time at the chamber was spent turning it from a debt-ridden organization into an operation that is used as a model for other chambers of commerce across country.

When Nock became chamber president in 1986, the morale of the business community couldn’t have been much lower, he said. Nock waded through the aftermath of Storage Technology Corp.’s layoffs, which cost the county 9,000 jobs, he said. “It was gloom and doom in the downtown business community,” Nock recalled. “I saw this as a challenge. I decided to roll up my sleeves and become the voice of optimism.” He essentially turned the chamber into a business incubator, setting the stage for the high-tech boom in Boulder County in the late 1990s.

Understanding how to grow a business, plus experience as an investment banker served Nock well. (He also was a vice president for the First National Bank of Boulder, now Bank One.) But he contends that his success at the chamber and center came about because of the people in Boulder County. “We have a highly educated community here,” Nock said. “And the way they volunteer is amazing.”

Nock said what sets Boulder County apart from other counties is that it never chased companies to create economic development. “We figured out before it was in vogue to rely on the community’s assets. This county is loaded with the entrepreneurial spirit. … We’ve got a research university, a strong public school system, companies like IBM that serve as a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, all ingredients that will attract capital investments,” he said. Colorado is ranked No. 5 among states attracting venture capital, behind California, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. “Fifty percent of that comes to Boulder County,” Nock said. The number of high-tech companies and start-up dot-coms in Boulder County attest to that, he said.

While Boulder County is viewed politically as a no-growth community, Nock sees it another way. “Entrepreneurism is a new strength of this community. You aren’t going to slow the entrepreneurs down.”

And Nock, although retired, isn’t slowing down, either. He owns a second home in Arizona, but he may be hard pressed to find the time for it. He maintains an office at Sequel Venture Partners and just agreed to join an 11th board of directors. He also is in contact with CU grads, offering his entrepreneurial guidance. “I really enjoy that,” he said.