When David Nichols Sr. started Nichols Fleet Equipment Inc. 25 years ago, he rented a 63-square-foot office and failure wasn’t an option.
He had never thought about becoming an entrepreneur, but he was at a career crossroads and had three children and a wife to support, he said.
“That’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. “I still had three baby birds in the nest. It was driven out of the necessity to provide for the family.”
Now, two of his three children-David “Buzz” Nichols Jr. and Nick Nichols-are working with their father and providing invaluable support and comfort, he said.
Nichols Sr. founded the company in 1991, built his own shop in 1997 and expanded in 2000. Now, the company is “busting at the seams,” he said.
“We’ve experienced phenomenal growth to the point that the topics of discussion now are how to continue to grow at the pace we are growing and maximize the use of this facility and [whether] it is time to start considering growth beyond this plant,” he said.
Nichols Sr. has grown the business from a one-man team to 23 employees today.
What Nichols Fleet does
Nichols Sr. said he has longtime friends who are still confused about what his company does.
“It’s a very quirky industry,” he said. “They think I’m in the trucking business.”
Nichols Jr. said one of his friends thought the company manufactured mud flaps. That’s not true, either.
The company takes incomplete vehicles-just a chassis and cab-and turns them into complete units.
The confusion comes because the general public assumes that garbage trucks, trucks with cranes and other large maintenance trucks come built that way.
Really, the trucks come with just a cab in the front, two rails and wheels. Nichols Fleet customizes the trucks for the customer’s needs. That might mean adding a crane or a specific set of tools.
The company caters to the heavy equipment industry and works with companies such as Komatsu, John Deere and Caterpillar, serving those companies’ dealers and distributors across the country.
Bouncing back after the recession
Today’s “water cooler” discussions between Nichols Sr. and his sons include talk about how to handle the growth the company has experienced since the recession.
The Great Recession was “devastating” for the company.
For Nichols Fleet, the slowdown started in 2007 and eased by the summer of 2010. It was three years of “extraordinarily challenging times,” Nichols Sr. said.
“Everyone saw their markets basically stop-road building, homebuilding, mining,” he said. “Everything came to a screeching halt.”
The company’s customers laid people off and saw as many as 50 percent of trucks sitting idle with no work to do, Nichols Sr. said.
During that time, Nichols Fleet cut back and changed focus. They did more service on trucks and helped customers rebuild old equipment. Instead of buying new trucks, customers were working to mend their old trucks.
Some of Nichols Sr.’s business friends didn’t make it through the recession, but Nichols Fleet has rebounded.
For Nichols Sr., being in business for 25 years is huge. And it’s been exciting to have his sons join his company.
Nichols Jr. started with the company in sales right out of college in 2006. Now, he oversees shop operations.
Nick was a high school teacher for eight years. For four years, he taught at McCallie School, where all three of them went to school.
“After eight years, I was looking to make a change and do something different, and I had an opportunity to do that here,” Nick said. “I do a little bit of everything-some sales and marketing and general office operations.”
Nichols Sr. said that working with family doesn’t always work, but he and his sons have a unique ability to discuss challenges and difficult topics.
“In business, you’re going to have tough things come up that you’ve got to talk about,” he said. “We may not agree on everything, but we can always walk out of here with a solution to a problem and everyone is good with it.”
Having his sons on board gives him confidants and time to get away more from business after 35 years of working.
“It’s nice to know that when I’m gone I’ve got two guys watching it,” he said.
Updated @ 10:32 a.m. on 2/8/16 to correct an error.