Editorial: Nichols goes back to work

Island County received welcome news Friday when a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland.

Under new ownership, the company can immediately start rehiring workers and seeking new contracts.

One of the first contracts it will go after is from Washington State Ferries to build one or more smaller ferries suitable for the Keystone to Port Townsend route. Nichols Brothers built the the Steilacoom II, the fill-in ferry that will soon bring car ferry service back to the route, so it should have a good chance at landing the contract. Even without the ferry contract, company CEO Matt Nichols says there’s enough work in the pipeline to keep a crew of approximately 150 workers busy through the end of this year.

Dozens of Whidbey Island families have had a tough time since Nichols Brothers shut its doors in November, unable to raise operating capital due to a lawsuit. A few workers were hired back, but most of the families had to experience the holidays without their major source of income. Some unfortunately moved elsewhere to take advantage of other jobs in the boat building industry.

Regaining all those lost jobs will be a major boost to Island County’s economy. Some Nichols workers will celebrate by buying cars, trucks and houses after being afraid to spend any extra money for several months. Businesses will receive a badly-needed boost and the county’s tax receipts will improve.

Our only concern is the culture of the island. Under ownership of the Nichols family, the company was built into the fabric of the community. Decisions were made locally and the company was extraordinarily generous with its support of local charitable efforts, from 4-H to the American Legion and others too numerous to mention.

Will the new corporate owners be so generous and so in touch with the community? The controlling group, Treadstone Partners, LLC, is a Dallas-based private investment firm that, according to its Web site, “Makes investments in lower-to-middle market operating companies that are, typically, overleveraged, under-managed or confronting some other event-driven development. Investments are made across the capital structure and range from discounted bank debt to controlling equity interests.”

That doesn’t seem very warm and fuzzy, but maybe the managers will loosen up a little when they get a taste of life on Whidbey Island.

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