In a time when workers change jobs more often than they buy cars, businessmen like Olza "Tony" Nicely are an endangered species.
Nicely, 48, started his career at Chevy Chase-based Geico Corp. as an endorsement clerk. Thirty years later, he has risen to chief executive of the firm's largest insurance subsidiary, Government Employees Insurance Co. He also serves as president of Geico General Insurance Co. and is a member of Geico Corp.'s board of directors.
Furthermore, he's been named heir to the top job at Geico Corp., which is one of the nation's most profitable property/casualty insurance firms.
Nicely, who received a college degree at age 44, attributes his rise to luck, family values, mentors and the products Geico sells.
"My grandfather always said if you find a company that sells a good product, you can be happy at that company," said Nicely, noting his grandfather worked for the same firm for 55 years and his father at one firm for 41 years.
"I've been quite lucky; I've been in the right place at the right time," said Nicely, who was born in rural Alleghany County, Va. "I've had a lot of swell people to work for."
Associates say Nicely, whose modesty is sincere, possesses a wealth of talents.
"This is a guy who has it all -- intelligence and great interpersonal and management skills," said Eugene Meyung, who held Nicely's titles at Geico before he retired. "He's a rare person to have all those skills."
"He has a marvelous talent for dealing with people," said William Snyder, chairman and chief executive of Geico Corp. "He's empathetic and he builds on people's strengths rather than picking out their weaknesses."
Rising through the ranks has given Nicely a perspective on the insurance business others don't have, associates said.
"It's not like he lives in an ivory tower," said Andi Covell, who was hired by Nicely 20 years ago and now is Geico's general counsel. "He's experienced a lot of the jobs he's overseeing so he can relate to the problems that arise."
Associates say Nicely's only weakness may be his desire to spend most of his time at work. "He has total dedication to perfection," said Ted Fones, assistant vice president for claims at Geico's Southeastern regional office in Macon, Ga., which Nicely once managed.
Nicely joined Geico in 1961 on the recommendation of a family friend, hoping to earn enough money to support his wife and new family and to pay for a college education.
"I came to Geico as a temporary position because I thought I wanted to be a civil engineer," he said. "But after being here a year I realized the insurance business wasn't so boring. I could see the type of product we have was one with a long life cycle."
In the beginning, Nicely also worked part-time as a shoe salesman and attended college. "There where times early on when I was home one night a week," said Nicely, who married his high school sweetheart, Sally, and has two grown children. "I have a supportive wife. She never complained."
Nicely joined the insurer during a period of rapid growth. But Geico's success in the 1960s was followed by a tumultuous period in the '70s.
Nicely survived the company's near-collapse in 1975, when half of the firm's 8,000 employees lost their jobs.
"A lot of people had to take demotions and a lot of people had to leave," said Meyung, who joined the firm in 1976. "But no one ever suggested Tony step down. Everyone saw he had great skills."
Promoted to regional vice president in 1980, Nicely oversaw Geico's southeastern operation in Macon. In 1985, he was named senior vice president and returned to the Chevy Chase headquarters.
He later was named executive vice president in 1987, president in 1 989 and chief executive in 1991.
While climbing the corporate ladder, Nicely continued attending college. He eventually attained a degree in business from Macon College in Georgia.
Nicely noted Geico offers tuition reimbursement to employees for college and insurance industry course work.
Said Snyder, "He's been model for everyone in the company who wants to progress but didn't have a degree."
"Anyone can get ahead at Geico as long as they work hard," said Nicely. "But I think there is a void in anybody's life who is in business and doesn't have an undergraduate degree."