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How adversity led to success at Onset Financial

The economic decline of the Great Recession in 2008 produced an opportunity for Justin Nielsen — CEO and founder of Onset Financial and Weber State University alumnus — to start one of the fastest-growing private finance companies in the nation.

Justin Nielsen.jpg
Justin Nielsen (Image from Wikimedia)

As part of WSU’s annual Ralph Nye Lecture Series, which discusses the experiences and success stories of regional and national business leaders, Nielsen spoke about how adversity and establishing a strong culture in the workplace led to company success.

Nielsen said trying to start a finance company during the Great Recession was so difficult, it was like having gale force winds hit him right in the teeth.

“That adversity was so important for us,” Nielsen said. “Just trying to start a financial company during a time when banks are in comatose and aren’t lending money. I needed bank money to start this company, and every bank that I knew said ‘we’re on hold until things turned around financially on a macro level.’”

Instead of seeking out bank money, Nielsen resorted to private equity loans to get the money he needed. The key difference between the two is that private equity loans generally have a higher interest rate, something that detoured people away.

After three years of working with private equity corporations, the economy began to pick back up, and the company that Nielsen started in the worst economic time since the Great Depression began to excel.

In 2018, Nielsen was named as a top CEO for Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest jobs and recruiting sites.

Nielsen attributed the company’s success to the culture they had established at Onset Financial.

“We have this amazing culture at Onset Financial. Let me give you an example,” Nielsen said. “We have a fitness specialist who comes in three days a week and gives everybody physical training. We just released a great video of all our people working out, and it’s funny when we announce to the company that we’re going to do a video of everybody working out. We get like 40 people out there when normally we get 20. So that just says something about the culture where everybody wants to be in our company videos.”

An attendee asked if diversity is something Onset Financial focuses on, noting the diversity among the company’s employees in a video Nielsen played.

“At the end of the day, we hire talent, and we have been blessed with the fact that the talent that has come to our front door is full of diversity. And I’m not just saying this to be politically correct,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen said the company’s decisions are not based on diversity but rather on individuals who apply.

For WSU student, Sean Inagaki, company culture is the most important thing he took away from the event.

“In order for your employees to put forth their best efforts, they need to be able to love where they’re going, partly because they’re spending more time there than anywhere else,” Inagaki said. “I’ve had experiences with jobs in the past where the culture just wasn’t there. I was miserable going to work and I was excited when I got to leave.”

To close out the lecture, Nielsen said the theme of the lecture is to say no. According to Nielsen, “no” is one of the most fundamental differences between people who are and aren’t successful in business.

“You have to be able to say no,” Nielsen said. “Businesses fail when leaders and employees don’t have the ability to say no. In fact, Steve Jobs would tell his executives before their weekly executive meeting ‘If you haven’t said no at least three times by the time you come to my meeting, then you can’t come.’”

Another attendee asked Nielsen about when he knew he found his passion for the work he is doing.

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“For each of you, and I get this question a lot, how did you know and when did you know that you found your passion?” Nielsen said. “I didn’t. What I knew is that you don’t follow your passion, you take it with you.

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