Nichols boat builders may return to work

No promises have been made, but even Nichols Brothers Boat Builders President Bryan Nichols is optimistic that workers will be back on the job before too long.

“I’m in sales so I’m always optimistic,” Nichols said Tuesday afternoon. “As a business person I’m very optimistic we’ll have our doors opening again in eight weeks or less.”

The company suddenly laid off its entire 250-person workforce Friday morning, causing great concern throughout the island. The tone of the announcement sounded to some like the company, founded in 1964, was closing its doors for good.

No company officials had talked to the press until Tuesday. Nichols said he’s been busy talking to possible financial backers and trying to work out problems with a lawsuit filed by Hornbeck Offshore Services in a dispute over a contract.

Meanwhile, Matt Nichols, the company’s chief executive officer, was in San Francisco Monday assuring customers there that the company has a future.

But it’s too early to celebrate, Bryan Nichols indicated. “There’s still a big hole there,” he said of cash flow problems alluded to in the company news release Friday. “We’re sitting in a hole we’re trying to fill.”

But the money problem seemed less troublesome than the lawsuit by Louisiana-based Hornbeck, which Nichols called “the toughest nut to crack.”

Positive thoughts from the top have filtered town to community leaders, who now believe workers could be hired back as soon as Nov. 30, a date floated by the state Employment Security Department.

Sheryl Hutchinson, communications director for Employment Security, said Tuesday that Nichols Brothers just that morning had estimated in writing that workers might be unemployed only until Nov. 30.

“That’s the most solid indication we have right now of the company’s intent,” she said.

Workers who qualify can start receiving unemployment benefits after a one-week waiting period, and in the case of a short layoff they don’t have to look for another job. To apply online visit go2ui.com or call 1-800-318-6022.

Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council, was also optimistic Tuesday that Nichols Brothers workers would be back on the job soon.

“The official line is they’re trying to reorganize,” Hart said.

She met Monday in Oak Harbor with Unemployment Security representatives and others, including state Rep. Barbara Bailey and a representative from U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen’s office.

“They’re reorganizing and trying to reopen the door,” Hart said.

Hart said she has also talked to a number of Nichols Brothers employees who are also optimistic. “People are pretty upbeat and think they will have a job,” she said.

The EDC was planning to host an informational meeting in Freeland next week for Nichols employees, but that idea was put on hold at the request of the company’s human resources department, perhaps because of the anticipated short layoff.

The picture for Nichols Brothers looked much bleaker Friday when the company sent out a brief news release, citing litigation and cash flow problems that “forced Nichols Brothers to make the difficult decision to close its doors.”

Asked if she is now optimistic that Nichols will reopen, Hart replied, “Definitely.”

Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke, whose district includes Nichols Brothers, said he had talked to Bryan Nichols, president of the company, and as a result he was hopeful South Whidbey’s largest private employer will be back in business.

“As I understand it, they’re trying to do some organizing and see if they can open up again,” he said. “They’ve been down in Seattle all weekend. I’m always optimistic. I’ve got to believe they’ll work their way through this.”

Nichols Brothers has been in financial difficulties before. More than 20 years ago, a community fund-raising campaign put them back in business after they closed their doors.

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