Island boat builder closes

Island County’s economy suffered a blow Friday when Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland announced it was ceasing operations immediately.

“With great sadness, Nichols Brothers president, Matt Nichols, met with employees this morning to make the announcement,” states a news release issued Friday afternoon.

The company has had its ups and downs over the years, but generally employed 200 or more workers to build a variety of aluminum boats. It was best known for its high speed passenger catamarans and small cruise ships, but also turned out military boats, tugboats, fishing boats and other work boats.

The closure also affects Nichols Brothers’ Langley operations, where boats underwent sea trials, christenings and finishing touches.

Nichols Brothers was often described as Island County’s largest private employer.

The boat yard on Holmes Harbor in Freeland was widely supported in the community, but did have its critics who fought the company over environmental issues through the years.

Employee layoffs have always been part of working at Nichols Brothers, where business was often boom or bust depending on boat orders. But this may be the end for the company, not just another layoff.

The company blames its demise on several factors. “Nichols Brothers has faced significant financial challenges in recent years and has sought additional capital to assist in restructuring the company,” the news release states. “These efforts have been unsuccessful, due in part to pending litigation, and cash flow challenges ultimately forced Nichols Brothers to make the difficult decision to close its doors.”

Shock of the announcement spread quickly through the South Whidbey community. Virginia Bloom, a member of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce board of directors, described the news as “amazing,” saying “we’ve done business with them for years,” referring to her office supply store.

Besides the 200 lost jobs, Bloom said the community will be hurt by “the trickle down effect,” as family members quit spending, businesses suffer and workers move away for other jobs. That could impact the schools.

“It’s a huge loss for the community in general,” Bloom said, pointing out that Nichols Brothers was also a large charitable giver, supporting a myriad of non-profit organizations in the community.

The company was started by family patriarch Frank Nichols in 1964. One of his sons, Matt Nichols, took over running the company, and his son, Bryan Nichols, has been overseeing day-to-day operations in recent years.

“Nichols Brothers is grateful to its dedicated employees, and its loyal customers and suppliers who have worked with the company over the past 43 years,” concludes the news release.

Matt and Bryan Nichols did not immediately return phone calls asking for elaboration.

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