Richard Nelson calls himself a “troubleshooter,” and he’s not just referring to his years as a Hall of Famer on Chico State’s basketball team. He’s been cleaning up messes throughout a long and unusually diverse career that includes banking and running a bookstore as well as lofty government positions, including the deputy directorship of two state agencies.
Now that his son Richard Anthony has taken the helm as general manager of his primary source of income, Nelson’s Books & News, the 55-year-old father of five could probably slide into retirement (or at least semi-retirement) comfortably enough. But on May 1, he took over the president’s seat at the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce, where he’s exercising those troubleshooting skills once again.
“There are days,” chuckles Nelson, peering across his desk in the chamber’s West Sacramento office, “when I wonder what I’ve got myself into.” Budget woes, lackluster membership numbers and a lack of visibility are just a few of the pickles piled on his presidential plate. But Nelson is never one to leave a job undone, and his arrival at the chamber signals a chance to finish what he started during his first go-round as chamber president in 1986—a stint cut short when then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him executive director of small business for the California Department of Commerce. “I was only on board as [chamber] president for about 120 days, so I never got a chance to finish the task I had set out to do,” explains Nelson, who co-founded the chamber in 1984 and later joined the board of directors. “It’s still my baby, so to speak.”
Although he laughs to think he was once a power forward at “only” 6-foot-5, Nelson acknowledges that his size can be intimidating. “Because of my size and my deep voice, people are sometimes a little afraid of me,” he says. But it’s not physique alone that gives him a certain formidable presence; it’s also his bulletlike intensity. Looking crisp and professional in a button-down sky-blue shirt and tan slacks, Nelson fires off answers with speed and precision. But when he later confesses to being a “softie” about kids (and not just his own), his humanity begins to glow.
“He’s really all heart,” says Richard Anthony Nelson, who, at 29, is the second oldest of Nelson’s clan of five, who range in age from 14 to 35. “If you don’t know him, you might first look at him and think he’s a big tough guy. And it’s true that he’s shrewd in business and driven to succeed. But he’s not a sledgehammer by any means, and he’s always trying to help. He’s a good man and a great father, and also very much has the community’s interests at heart.”
The importance of giving back to the community is something Nelson learned early in life—mostly from his grandmother. Born on Christmas Eve 1949 in Houston, Nelson was 4 when he moved to the Bay Area with his paternal grandparents. His parents, Richard and Dorothy Nelson, arrived in California a few years later, but Nelson’s grandmother raised him until he was 6 or 7, “and even after that I spent most of my weekends and summers with her,” he says. “She influenced me considerably. She raised money for the church by baking cakes and pies, and if someone took a shot at the church, she’d never say anything, but she’d say to me, ‘You got to build something before you tear it down.’ That has always stayed with me.”
Nelson’s work ethic also was shaped early on. He was 10 when he began working in the mom-and-pop grocery stores owned by his father and his uncles, unloading delivery trucks, running the cash register and “learning the business upside down.” The customer service skills he learned as a youth stayed with him for life. After graduating from Berkeley High and attending Chico State, where he received a B.A. in sociology, Nelson built a reputation for turning grumpy patrons into pussycats while working as a teller at Bank of America in Chico. “When my manager saw that some of the people who had been the most difficult ended up being my best customers, he asked, ‘How do you do that?’” remembers Nelson. “I told him, ‘You have to have dialogue with people and develop a relationship.’” Nelson quickly rose up the ranks during his 16-year tenure with the behemoth banking institution, ultimately serving as branch manager at Country Club Plaza.
Ten years of government employment followed, but Nelson’s independent entrepreneurial spirit prevailed. In 1990, Nelson’s corporation, RSN & Associates, opened its first bookstore facility (in a partnership with Marriott) in Sacramento Metropolitan Airport (now Sacramento International Airport). Seven years later, Nelson broke off from Marriott and opened Nelson’s Books & News in the new Terminal A. “We’ve had consistent double-digit growth every year, even in spite of 9/11,” Nelson says. The financial rewards are matched, he says, by the intrinsic rewards of community ownership. “I like the fact that it’s a local vendor that’s Sacramento-owned, and not someone from Washington, D.C. or some other place,” Nelson says. “People see ‘Nelson’s Books’ and they may not know it’s me, but when they find out it’s me and that someone local owns it, it’s very rewarding.”
In true Nelson spirit, a percentage of the profit always goes back to the community. “I make sure we contribute to Sacramento-area activities, such as sponsoring girls basketball uniforms at Sacramento High School or giving to the local United Way,” Nelson says. And now that his son is running the show, he’s passing the torch. “I tell my son, ‘When you sit in this seat, you’ll understand that you give a certain amount of your profitability back to the community,’” he says. “It pays in the long run.”
Now that Nelson’s days are knee-deep in chamber business, he doesn’t show up much at the bookstore, “except maybe to pop in at 6 a.m. to see whether there are any fingerprints on the windows or at 10 p.m. to see how busy we are,” he says. He handles most of the business from his home office—a practice he started even before coming on board at the chamber. “I’ve been staying home part-time, so to speak, for six or seven years,” says Nelson, who is single (twice divorced) and lives in the Greenhaven/Pocket area.
It wasn’t easy, he says, to rev up for his new life at the chamber.
“It’s all about energy,” he says. “You know, you stay home part time for a number of years, and then get back into the mix where you’ve got a calendar that’s loaded up from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 in the evening. I have to make sure to take my vitamins.”
With budget-building and membership-growing his top priorities, Nelson is networking like crazy to enlist community support. He’s also working closely with other local ethnic chamber groups, such as the Hispanic Chamber and Asian Pacific Chamber, which in 2001 formed an alliance with the chamber. He is especially encouraged to have the opportunity to work with the Sacramento Metro Chamber, which was once a missing link.
“One of the reasons we started SBCC back in ’84 was because there was no real instrument to help people of color, and because we weren’t, for the most part, involved in the Metro Chamber,” Nelson notes. The chamber was formed, he explains, to specifically address the needs of local African-Americans, particularly in terms of providing a pathway to business opportunities.
Youths especially need guidance, says Nelson, who is working with local businesses to set up workshops that will teach young adults how to develop the financial finesse they need to succeed, starting with home ownership.
“African-Americans have one of the lowest rates of home ownership, and the No. 1 way of getting capital and building wealth tends to be home equity,” he says. “Young people have to understand that if you’re going to rent instead of own, you’re just throwing money away. We want to get young people to really look at home ownership, to turn their dreams into a plan of action.”
Nelson, meanwhile, isn’t collecting a dime for his work at the chamber. “I’m waiving my small salary for a few months, and I might waive it forever—what the heck?” he says. “I’m here because I’m committed to turning a corner and making a difference.” As for his length of term, only time will tell: Nelson signed on for two years as president/CEO, “but there’s a possibility I will extend it,” he says.
For however long he stays, no one doubts Nelson’s abilities to lead and succeed.
“I have great respect for Richard Nelson as a businessman, a mentor, a colleague and a friend,” says Velma Sykes, the chamber’s executive director. “He has a vision and propensity for doing business that I greatly admire, and he is extremely smart.”
As far as Nelson is concerned, one of the smartest things he’s ever done is to maintain close, loving relationships with all of his children. “I always tell them, ‘Just because I’m divorced, I’m not leaving you out there,’” he says. “I get frustrated when I see parents who get a divorce and also divorce the kids. My kids are mine, and we’re in this forever to the end, you know?”
Someday, Richard Nelson says, he hopes he’ll sit in a rocking chair, look back on his life and say, “I made a difference.” But if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, his days of quiet reverie won’t be here any time soon.
Richard Nelson: At a Glance
Born Dec. 24, 1949, in Houston. Currently single; twice divorced. Father of five: Keivin, 35; Richard Anthony, 29; Tamora, 26; Monique, 25; David, 14. Lives in the Greenhaven/Pocket area.
• Kings basketball (he’s a season ticket holder and former Kings Pro-Am player/coach); football; the swordfish and salad at Monterey Bay Canners; and, of course, his kids.
• President, RSN & Associates, Inc. (1989–present). Owner, Nelson’s Books & News, Sacramento International Airport
• Deputy director of community affairs, California Department of Housing & Community Development (1993–1997); Deputy director of economic development, California Department of Commerce (1991–1993); Executive director of small business, California Department of Commerce (1987–1991)
• Bank of America (1971–1987): Final post: branch manager, Country Club Plaza
• President/CEO, Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce (May 2005–present); co-founded the SBCC in 1984
• Sacramento Planning Commissioner (2002–2003)
• President, Oak Park Buccaneers youth football team (2003)
• Member, 100 Black Men of Sacramento (2002-present)
• Board of Trustee, National University, San Diego (1988–2003)
Education and other
• B.A., sociology, CSU, Chico (1972)
• Athletic Hall of Fame (basketball), CSU, Chico (1989)
• Honorary doctorate, National University (1991)