By Allison Schaefers, HISociety Magazine
Great leaders like Brad Nicolai realize that a person can be moving fast, but they are traveling at zero velocity if they aren’t displaced from their original position. Like velocity, the 42-year-old is always direction aware. Being born the son of one of Hawai‘i’s self-made success stories, father Joe put Brad on the path to success. But he’s maximized that success with the opening of Velocity Honolulu, a lifestyle concept that has taken the company far from its 1961 start. The bright open spaces and shiny cars and motorcycles are like heaven or nirvana for the high circle travelers who can afford them and for the dreamers, who hope to get there one day.
The luxury car venue, which comes complete with restaurants, retail, spa services, meeting space and concierges, is miles ahead of the dirt lot at 1212 Ala Moana Blvd., where Joe Nicolai, the son of an Italian auto craftsman and technician, launched JN Group.
“My father lived in his car for two years on the dirt lot. He didn’t have money for inventory, so he started with consignment cars,” Brad says as he recalled his family’s 56-year history in Hawai‘i’s automotive industry. From that humble beginning, JN has grown into a company that retails 10 auto brands and 12 moto brands. The company has 377 employees, an extensive brick-and mortar network of showrooms and retail offerings and a 388- unit luxury condominium Symphony, which opened in June 2016.
Its newest location, Velocity, which spans the first four floors of Symphony, is home to 16 European auto brands. It also includes a lash salon, blow-dry bar, menswear collection and barbershop.
“It’s all about the consumer’s perception. We are always striving to exceed their expectations. They aren’t coming here just to buy a car,” Brad says. “We want to create a sense of community in a fun space. Just because we have this amazing building and wonderful European brands doesn’t mean that it’s not accessible to many people.”
Velocity’s food offerings will include a café with a bar, which is slated to open this December, and a restaurant with a private dining room and a wine shop anticipated to open in January. At the wheel of these endeavors are chefs Gianpaolo Raschi, who is responsible for the success of the Michelin star Ristorante Guido in Rimini, Italy, and Italian master chef Maurizio Roberti.
Brad says Velocity is a natural extension of the family’s investment in the commercial and residential development of Symphony, which his father envisioned as a place where owners and tenants could “live, work and play.” “The Velocity retail space further executes my father’s vision,” Brad says. “We wanted to showcase the lifestyle aspects of the automotive and motor sports experience to see where we could take our industry beyond the traditional approach.”
Brad says the company also plans to start construction on a moto café at the HNL Speed Shop, where an April 2018 opening is planned. He says the company also is partnering with Blue Tree Café at that site.
The accelerated expansion is a lot for any owner to take on, but Brad doesn’t plan to break anytime soon. “My parents taught me that there’s no substitute for hard work. My father was focused 100 percent on the business. My mother, Eleanor, was a schoolteacher, who taught at Likelike Elementary for 32 years.
She was third- generation Japanese raised in Nu‘uanu and was always focused on education and doing things the right way.”
Brad says he’s been going full-throttle since 14, when he got his first job working renting Jet Skis off Waikiki. He joined JN Group at 15 doing maintenance, cleaning bathrooms, washing cars and serving as a lot technician. “I was motivated to get a job at an early age. When you work at an early age, you certainly learn the value of a dollar,” he says. “I’ve probably washed more cars than anyone at this company.” Brad graduated from Punahou and Boston College and then earned a master’s degree at the University of Hawai‘i. After completing his education, he returned to the family business. By 2012, he was the company’s president. But friends, family and co-workers say his leadership style indicates that he hasn’t forgotten his years on the ground floor and in middle management.
Paul Clayton, director of retail operations for JN Group, says the younger Nicolai’s approach to business “is always putting people first.” For instance, Clayton says Brad took the unusual tack of doling out food to new employees from the food service line at a grand opening party after JN acquired Jaguar. After Brad finished serving, Clayton says he chose to sit with the mechanics, then the salesmen and finally the executives.
“The message was, ‘I’m not afraid to work side-by-side with you,’” Clayton says. “He wants people to understand that he’s there to make their lives better and great. He supports the people who believe in the big picture of this company. That’s why he’s one of my mentors and why I run to work every day.”
Dean Yamaguchi, who is a luxury consultant for Velocity, says his cousin Brad has had a “humble way” since they were children. “I’m impressed with his ability to show by example the right way of doing something. He doesn’t ever disrespect anyone or put them down,” Yamaguchi says. “He wants long-lasting relationships with his employees, his customers and the community.”
Last year, JN Group gave more than $300,000 to local charities. Amanda Price, director of annual giving for Hawai‘i Pacific Health, says Brad has supported Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women and Children for years. “He does so much for our organization and for other charities,” Price says. “We work with lots of different businesses and other car dealers, but never somewhere as forward-thinking. Velocity is just this incredible space and so is Cycle City where they even have an employee garden.”
Brad says JN Group uses the urban garden on a rooftop deck at Cycle City to cool the building and create a healthy environment for employees. The building’s energy efficiency includes everything from photovoltaics to water reclamation. “Cycle City alone saves more than 50,000 barrels of oil annually. All of our energy-efficient practices there translate into an economic savings of $250,0000 annually,” Brad shares. That 2005 project was an extension of the work the company began in 1999, when it decided to use photovolatics to offset JN Preowned’s day-time energy.
“He’s always had a big picture care for his community,” says Will Crowley, who is the director of real estate for Mid Pacific Asset Advisors LLC and has been Brad Nicolai’s childhood friend since fifth grade. “Most of what he does is centered around treating people like family.” Symphony also was Kaka‘ako’s first LEED certified building, a designation reserved for the most energy efficient construction. Velocity also uses photovoltaic and water reclamation.
Brad says he and wife Gina are trying to create a world that they are proud to leave to their children—9-year-old Isabella, 8-year-old Ryder and 5- year-old Jagger. They also want to ensure that they maintain the noblesse oblige that has been a major hallmark of JN Group’s roadmap to success. “Hawai‘i is a special place. Our natural resources can never be replaced. Because we’ve been in the community well over 50 years, we have a longer-term view,” Brad says. “If you are always looking at short-term returns, you’ll lose sight of the tremendous opportunity that you have to be a beacon for others to follow.”