When people hear the phrase “public servant,” they first think of an elected official or government administrator. But that term can just as easily be applied to those serving in the corporate world, and there’s no better example in Michigan than James B. Nicholson, chairman of the board for PVS Chemicals, Inc. in Detroit.
For his decades of personal and financial support for a massive list of Southeast Michigan institutions and organizations, Nicholson has been awarded a 2017 MFG Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Growing your company and growing your community are not mutually exclusive,” said Nicholson, who has overseen the expansion of PVS Chemicals from a 100-person company serving metro Detroit to a worldwide supplier of industrial chemicals that employs about 1,300 people at locations in 10 states and Canada, Belgium and Thailand.
A good measure of that success can be traced to the Nicholson Nine, a list of guiding principles that Nicholson formulated after joining the company in 1972 that starts with “Safety is #1” and ends with “We Always Do What is Right.”
“It’s how we think about the world around us,” Nicholson said. “It’s a way for people to understand where we are coming from. Safety is at the top of the list. Like the airlines, we work in a business where the consequences of doing something wrong can be quite terrible. So safety is what we are all about.”
Many of Nicholson’s accomplishments are rooted in his deep affinity for the Detroit area. He and his wife, Ann, spearheaded the creation of the 33-acre Nicholson Nature Center in Clinton Township in 2009 at the same site where Nicholson swam in the Clinton River as a kid. He joined the YMCA board at the age of 32 as a young executive at PVS Chemicals and went on to participate in a host of other philanthropic, artistic, educational and corporate boards throughout his career.
Among them are the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, McGregor Fund, YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Detroit Public Television, Business Leaders for Michigan, Detroit Regional Chamber, DMC Foundation, Michigan Colleges Foundation, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago and The Futures Foundation.
Many credit Nicholson with providing critical assistance to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) when the organization was experiencing financial difficulties and during the $100 million fundraising effort for the Max M. Fisher Music Center.
“All great cities have great symphonies,” said Nicholson, who shares credit with his wife for their community service. “Detroit has one of the top three halls in the world with regard to acoustic quality, and we were in danger of losing the DSO. So I did my best to make sure that it prospered. We’ve gone through some rough times, but it’s doing quite well at the moment.”
He is particularly proud of preserving a historic piece of Detroit with the purchase and renovation of the former headquarters of the Fruehauf Corp., inventor of the semi-truck trailer and, at one time, the largest truck-trailer manufacturer in North America. Fruehauf filed for bankruptcy in 1997.
When he bought the sprawling Fruehauf headquarters on Harper Avenue in 1992, Nicholson said at the time that he “couldn’t let such a beautiful building go to waste.” He went on to convert 350,000 square feet of the building into headquarters for PVS Chemicals. “It would have been stripped very quickly had it gone vacant,” he said. “Empty buildings in Detroit don’t last very long.”
As a lifelong participant in industrial and trade organizations such as MMA and the American Chemistry Council, Nicholson said he is proud that his four sons also work at PVS Chemicals and have shown strong interest in manufacturing. His oldest son, Jim, was past chairman of the MMA for several years.
Regarding his philanthropic pursuits over the years, Nicholson said “those that can be involved should be involved” to improve their communities and “you can’t ask others to do something until you’ve done it yourself.”
For him, Detroit is home.
“I like the Midwest, and I like Detroit in particular,” Nicholson said. “The quality of life here is really very high. Our housing prices are reasonable and we have four professional sports teams, an opera, an art institute — all of these amenities readily available to us.
“We recruit all over the world, and, once we get people here, they want to stay here.”