EOY at 30: What Milton Wong’s mentorship did for John DeHart and Nurse Next Door

Vancouver home health-care company Nurse Next Door owes a lot to its formidable founders Ken Sim and John DeHart, but also to their legendary mentor, Milton Wong

Fans of the eponymous 2004 movie starring Ashton Kutcher—or groupies of American theoretical meteorologist Edward Lorenz—are aware of the so-called “butterfly effect.” Lorenz coined the term back in 1972, making the case that a small occurrence—like a butterfly flapping its wings—could cause a massive one many miles away.

While there’s nothing small about the impact of legendary Vancouver financier Milton Wong, there’s little doubt that when the late chair of HSBC Canada (and the 2002 EY Lifetime Achievement Award winner) flapped his wings, great things stirred all around him. In many ways, the “Milt effect” is a case study in how the Entrepreneur of the Year program operates at its highest level.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wong served as a mentor to two young entrepreneurs, Ken Sim and John DeHart. Sim was working in finance at KPMG and CIBC at that time—first in Vancouver, then London—and when he returned home to Vancouver in 2000, he decided he wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial path and called up Wong for advice.

Meanwhile, tech entrepreneur John DeHart was also looking for a new career path. After graduating from Cornell University in the mid-’90s, he rode the tech wave to New York, Boston and London, starting a venture capital fund and launching several tech startups. “When I moved back to Canada, I wanted to build a company, but I also needed to do something purposeful,” recalls the Penticton native.

DeHart had a connection with Wong that went back to his childhood, as his uncle, Bob DeHart, had served as Wong’s business partner at M.K. Wong & Associates before it was sold to HSBC Canada. They talked regularly. “Milt loved chatting with young people—that’s how he kept his edge,” says DeHart. “Once I moved back to Vancouver, he was my first call.”

Seeing their potential, Wong connected the young men. Sim and DeHart met over coffee, bounced some ideas around, and over the ensuing weeks hatched a business plan for a new home health-care concept—one that seized on the demographic shift of aging in place. They then shared the plan with their mentor.

“The funny thing was, we weren’t there to pitch him or raise money,” recalls DeHart. “We just wanted to know if it was a good idea or not.” Five minutes into the conversation, Wong said it was the right business to be in—and that he would be their business partner. “He became chair that day… before we even started the company!”

Nurse Next Door (NND) officially launched in 2001, and within the year, Sim and DeHart found themselves sitting at the HSBC table when Wong won his EY Lifetime Achievement Award. “We were these two young entrepreneurs with barely any revenue,” recalls DeHart. “I remember looking at Ken and saying, ‘We’re gonna win that award someday.’” Four years later, in 2006, the pair were awarded the Emerging Entrepreneur prize; at that point, they had about 1,200 employees and 1,000 clients. It wouldn’t have happened, says DeHart, if Wong—flapping his wings—hadn’t inspired the pair to apply.

Gaining that EY recognition was a catalyst for NND’s exponential growth and inspired the founders’ pivotal decision to franchise, says DeHart. By the time NND won its next EY award in 2016—with CEO Cathy Thorpe and as the category winner in health-care services—the company had 140 franchises across North America, with five-year revenue growth of almost 200 percent.

But the business was changing, as was the partnership between Sim and DeHart. The pair had alternated the top role for years, but in 2014 they hired Thorpe to take over as president and CEO. And both founders started to pursue other interests: Sim launched the Rosemary Rocksalt bagel chain with his wife Teena Gupta—and then, in 2018, he launched a political path that eventually led to the Vancouver Mayor’s Office.

DeHart launched Live Well Exercise Clinic in 2015, with Sarah Hodson, before exiting that business in 2019; also that year, Sim bought out DeHart’s remaining stake in NND. As DeHart tells it: “The problem is that when I get involved in a business, I’m all in—it’s all I think about. And I just didn’t want to build another business.”

Today, the 51-year-old DeHart (who went to Cornell on a hockey scholarship) is enjoying the freedom of being “a sports dad,” driving his two girls—Aja, in Grade 8; and Daisy, in Grade 11—to their various practices. He’s also found a way to transfer his extensive franchising knowledge through his latest venture, the Franchise GrowthLab—an accelerator that has DeHart and a few NND alumni helping emerging franchises scale up. “The average franchise system in Canada has fewer than 10 franchises,” he says. “So we build the systems for them, using our diligence engine, and make investments in the ones we really like.”

Looking back at his EY experience, DeHart says that winning an EOY award—twice—helped pave the way to Nurse Next Door’s success. But it also served as validation and offered a sense of community in an otherwise lonely world. “The entrepreneurial life is very solitary,” says DeHart. “And we never think we’re good enough. I would encourage people to apply for the awards—even if you don’t think you’re ready.”

And don’t discount the profound impact of a mentor, too. “Milt was the Buddhist businessman,” DeHart says of Wong, who passed away in 2011. “He had this wisdom, this kindness, combined with a desire for everyone to do their best. I was lucky to have been mentored by him—and now I’m paying it forward.”