Full Nelson
By Wendy Hinman | Photos courtesy of Boys & Girls Club Carlsbad
Devoted family man, successfull proprietor, community philanthropist—Greg Nelson's life brims with blessings he passes on to others.

Carlsbad has had a remarkable history of investing in our children since its incorporation in 1952. That was the year the Boys Club (now the Boys & Girls Club) of Carlsbad was founded. Carlsbad High School opened in 1958 and the town rallied to put in lights for the new stadium. Little League was brought to town and Chase Field was built by the community and dedicated in 1962. Bill Baldwin, who worked hard for incorporation, said, “We were aware that we were founding fathers of a city. We wanted to do it right.” It is easy to understand that our children are the future, but not always easy to quantify our progress.

Greg Nelson validates the efforts of those who had given their time and money to build a better Carlsbad by beginning with our children. In 1959, Nelson’s single mother was working two jobs. She arranged for her boys, Greg and Doug, to walk to the Boys Club after school with the hope that they would be OK in her absence. “The Boys Club became our safe harbor,” Nelson says.

The Boys Club Years
What Greg and his brother went for—besides because Mom said so—was basketball and a place to belong. They found that, plus big brothers and father figures, Nelson says. He is always eager to give credit to the club for helping his mother raise him to become the man he is today. Several men there were influential to Nelson, and his primary mentor has been Doug Hall, a former club executive director.

At first Nelson thought he was just having fun at the club, but he was learning life skills and making friendships that would endure. “I had no idea that the place that kept my brother and me off the street would change my life,” Nelson says.

As Nelson grew up—he graduated from Carlsbad High in 1967—the Boys Club changed from a place to hang out to a place of employment. “My first job was sweeping the floor of the woodshop,” he says. Later, he would clean the locker room and perform whatever odd jobs needed to be done. Over time, he became aquatics director and athletic director. From 1977 to 1980, he was the executive director of the Boys Club, which changed its name to the Boys & Girls Club during his tenure. He was president of the board of directors in 1989 and is a lifetime member of the board.

Minding His Business
Two things were forged in him at the Boys Club: the joy of winning with principles and the value of teamwork. Nelson cofounded DonJoy, Inc. a company that manufactures and sells orthopedic devices. He sold the highly successful company in 1987 and left as president in 1995. He retired, briefly. He then cofounded BREG, also an orthopedic products developer. BREG was also an extremely successful company. Nelson sold BREG in 2003 and retired again.

He stretched this retirement into three years. Then, as he says, “I got bored.” Currently, Nelson is chairman and CEO of United Orthopedic Group, which has purchased 14 other companies that specialize in noninvasive orthopedic products and services. It employs more than 500 people with operations in nine states. “It is the largest company I’ve ever run,” Nelson says. And its three-year run has already seen more than $100 million in revenue.

The secret to Nelson’s success—besides quality products—is people. He translates CEO as “head cheerleader.” “I’ve always been lucky to find good people that work hard,” he says. “People are more important than numbers. Sharing the success is more important than gathering profits.”

How does he find these people? He looks for candidates who have a sense of personal pride, are willing to work more than eight hours a day and refuse to lose. “Business is just like being on the playground playing shirts and skins. Pick your guys and you hold the court.”

Joel Radtke is United Orthopedic Group’s CFO and a good example of Nelson’s philosophy; Nelson is as impressed with Radtke’s Harvard degree as he is with his leadership of the school’s golf team. Nelson knows about his leadership team’s athletic achievements and how those skills translate to the workplace. His son, Chad, works with the company: Nelson praises Chad for his principles and values as a husband and father, as well as for the fortitude Chad showed as a walk-on athlete who ended up playing four years as a starting guard on San Diego

Sharing the Blessing
Nelson uses the words “blessed” and “blessing” a lot. It is how he views his mother’s decision to sign him up for the Boys Club, it’s a key to his business success and it’s how he explains his 30-year marriage to Barbi and the well being of his four adult children, which includes daughters Brooke and Jenna.

Nelson is a Christian with a deep faith. He and Barbi attend Daybreak Community Church on Ambrosia Lane in Carlsbad. With those blessings sometimes comes more responsibility. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “The more you give, the more you are blessed. We have given when, if you’ll excuse the expression, we didn’t have a pot to pee in. We have been blessed.”

The Nelson Charitable Foundation gave $1 million toward the building of the Boys & Girls Club at Bressi Ranch. “You can’t ask people to give money unless you’ve reached deep yourself,” he says. “I’m not shy about asking citizens to give money. Over the years, the Boys & Girls Club has raised and spent more than $30 million. Private money. No government grants.”

Nelson also owns Gregorio’s, the family-friendly Italian restaurant in the Village Faire. In 2010, 100 percent of Gregorio’s profits goes to the Boys & Girls Club. “It’s hard in these economic times to give, but you have to eat; buy a pizza and support a charity at the same time.”

In 1991, Nelson was named Carlsbad’s Citizen of the Year. In 2006, he was named Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce Philanthropist of the Year. He waves these off a bit, giving credit to his wife. “I may get the recognition, but she holds it all together. She’s everyone’s angel. She has the biggest heart,” he says, adding that Barbi mentors a group of teenage girls at the Boys & Girls Club. There are more ways to give than money.

In 2008, Nelson was in his office when he got a phone call. His secretary said it was John Wooden on the other end of the line. Nelson thought it was a joke, but he heard that old coach’s voice. Wooden said Nelson was being inducted into the hall of fame. Now that had to be a joke. “I was a decent basketball player, but ….” It was the National Boys & Girls Club Alumni Hall of Fame, which includes the likes of Colin Powell, Jennifer Lopez and Denzel Washington. Nelson developed a friendship with Wooden and they would exchange poetry—which, of course, Nelson counts as a blessing. (Nelson has published a book of poetry, “Half Time.”)

The Nelson Charitable Foundation gives to more than just the Boys & Girls Club. It is a big supporter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and has helped put more than 25 kids through college and supported summer camps, church camps and Aztec Athletics. The foundation aids charities all over San Diego County, but Nelson likes to concentrate the effort in Carlsbad.

“We have a special city here. Our little, hidden jewel is not so hidden anymore. Our city fathers held us in discipline. They created a clean, safe, well-run city—good planning, great people, good values—with a lot of pride.” Those things are hard to quantify sometimes, but for Nelson, he has absolute faith.