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Nichols Brothers gets set to hire shipyard workers back

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders hopes to call back 50 or so workers to the Freeland shipyard within the next week, company officials said Thursday.

Matt Nichols, chief executive officer of Nichols Brothers, and company president Bryan Nichols have been calling the shipyard’s customers to work out employee wage deals to get workers back in the Freeland boatyard.

Citing financial troubles, Nichols Brothers laid off 185 workers on Nov. 2 and filed for bankruptcy two weeks later.

With the company’s assets tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, Nichols Brothers is working out deals with its customers to have the companies that have ordered ships to pay the shipyard workers directly.

There are at least two projects that need immediate completion, Bryan Nichols said.

“We are working with all of our customers to get the projects up and going. We’re hoping to have our first crew of 50 back on Monday, Dec. 3 for the Baydelta Maritime tug,” Nichols said.

“We’re real close on that. We’re not going to call the guys until the details are sorted out,” he added.

Nichols estimated that one of the two tugboats ordered by Baydelta could be finished within eight to 14 weeks if the shipyard can work out remaining issues with customers.

Another project in the yard that is close to completion is a tugboat with fire-fighting capability, owned by Minette Bay Ship Docking Ltd.

Nichols company officials are also currently in talks with other customers.

“We are working with three other customers right now on getting two more deals signed, which could mean by the end of the week, next week or following, having the majority of our crew back and working,” Nichols said.

One of the Nichols’ customers is the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority, which had contracted with the boatyard to construct two 149-passenger ferries.

Nichols said those projects are not due to be finished until late 2008 or early 2009, while a repair job on a catamaran and work on new tugs is expected to wrap up in late 2008 or early 2009.

Companies that have ordered vessels will issue paychecks to shipyard workers at Nichols Brothers, and will also cover the costs of equipment and materials.

“It is a way we can get our projects done while we are restructuring and a way we can get employees back to work,” Nichols said. “It is much better and less expensive to pay the employees directly than to lose a contract.”

“It is cheaper here. The guys already know what is going on,” Nichols added. “Our goal here was to figure out a way to get the employees back to work as soon as possible and to get our customers’ projects completed as soon as possible as well.”

“We are doing the best we can with what we have,” he said.

While the bankruptcy case is proceeding for Nichols Brothers, sale of the company is also moving forward.

During Nichol’s first bankruptcy hearing on Nov. 21, a bankruptcy court judge approved a loan from Ice Floe to Nichols Brothers that would help pay for 20 key employees to keep the shipyard going. Ice Floe is expected to receive an ownership stake in Nichols Brothers as part of the deal.

“We want people to understand that if there is a sale of the company, it is to someone who is interested in building boats here. We are not just selling off equipment and then leaving,” Nichols said.

“We are talking with multiple groups who are interested. Ice Floe will propose the asset purchase agreement. The way I understand, it is other companies can come in and overbid. In the end, they have a certain amount of time for that to happen, then it goes before the judge for approval.”

Under the loan approved by the bankruptcy judge, Matt and Bryan Nichols will receive nearly $5,300 a week from Nov. 16 to Jan. 4, according to court records.

Besides Bryan and Matt Nichols, only four of the 20 workers named in the bankruptcy payment plan will get a regular paycheck every week through Jan. 4. The list of workers included employees in the administration, engineering and operations departments.

Bryan Nichols said that he and his father’s employment was a requirement of Ice Floe’s Asset purchase agreement, and that other employees were also required to keep the yard somewhat in an operational status while the shipyard waits to fully reopen.

“I think there is a realization that the 43 years of my dad being here and me growing up in the shipyard, that there is definitely some value in what we’re doing here,” Nichols said.

That could change under new ownership, however.

“If somebody else over bids them, there is no guarantee that I have a job here unless that is in their proposal as well,” Nichols said.

Nichols said it was a difficult decision to file for bankruptcy.

“When we were in the courtroom last week, that was rock bottom for us, having to go through that,” he said.

“Things are starting to go the other direction now. It’s looking up,” Nichols said. “At the end of the day, there is still going to be a sale of the company. Things are progressing.”

Still, there is uncertainty.

“Once we get those projects out, our primary goal will be to keep rolling. What that spins off to has not been defined,” he said.

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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