Matt Nichols passes the torch to his sons

Matt Nichols, left, talks with CADA Development Director Sallie Damber Thursday after announcing his two sons will take over as co-presidents of Nichols Brother Boat Builders. - Jennifer Conway
Matt Nichols, left, talks with CADA Development Director Sallie Damber Thursday after announcing his two sons will take over as co-presidents of Nichols Brother Boat Builders.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway

Matt Nichols is passing the torch.

After intimating for years that he was getting ready to turn Nichols Brothers Boat Builders over to his two sons, Bryan and Justin, Nichols, the company's president, announced this week that he is ready to do just that.

At a Business After Hours social gathering Thursday, Nichols said he will pass the presidency of Nichols Brothers to his sons.

"I've been thinking about it pretty hard, and it's a great time," said Nichols in an interview Friday.

Nichols passes the title after serving as president of the company for 32 years. He steps down as his boatyard puts the finishing touches on its largest project ever, the recently completed Empress of the North cruise ship, and begins a new life as a military contractor as it starts to build the Navy's new "X-Craft" catamaran.

Justin Nichols, 32, earned an industrial engineering degree from the University of Washington in 2002 and joined Nichols Brothers shortly thereafter. Bryan Nichols, 30, earned an associate's degree in business from Edmonds Community College. Both are currently vice presidents of the company and will serve as co-presidents of Nichols Brothers.

Nichols said he will remain chairman of the closely-held corporation's board of directors and CEO of the company. But at age 56, he said he felt it was time to "dovetail" the next generation of Nichols' into their new positions.

With both of his sons now working at the company, Matt Nichols said he is ready to make the change.

"The timing was perfect," he said.

Nichols said he will continue to be an active part of the company, and reassured people Thursday that he will remain an active part of the day-to-day activity at the yard.

"Hopefully I can guide the next generation for the next 20 years," Nichols said Friday.

Currently, Nichols Brother Boat Builders employs approximately 355 people. At the After Hours meeting Thursday, Nichols said he hopes the company can continue to do enough work to retain all of them.

Nichols Brothers was started as Nichols Boat Works in 1939 by Mark Nichols in Hood River, Ore. According an official published history of the company, Mark Nichols set up shop with his brother Luke on the Columbia River and began building tugboats.

Mark's Nichols' son, Frank, moved with his wife Peggy and their 11 children -- including Matt and his brother, Archie -- to Whidbey Island in 1964. Frank Nichols purchased land and a vacant machine shop on Holmes Harbor, and began building small tug and fishing boats.

In 1972, brothers Matt and Archie Nichols took over the business, with Matt as president and Archie as vice president. They ran the business together until 1996, when Matt Nichols bought out his brother's share. Archie has since worked as a consultant for the company.

At Thursday's meeting, one South Whidbey resident voiced concern to Nichols, worried that Nichols Brothers was being run out of town. The man asked Nichols whether he needed any help to pay fines levied by the state, county and Army Corps of Engineers for permitting violations surrounding the June launch of the Empress of the North.

Nichols laughed and said he was doing everything possible to avoid a situation like that in the future. He said he is working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to design an appropriate launching system past the protected eel grass beds in front of his boat yard.

Nichols said the Empress of the North's launching system had cost approximately $1.5 million. He hopes to recycle the system for future launches.

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