These are good days at Nichols Fleet Equipment Inc.
The utility truck sales and service company is coming off a record financial year, and on Wednesday celebrated 25 years of business in Chattanooga.
Cards signed by Nichols' customers from across the country sat on display on David Nichols' desk on Wednesday, sent in from places like Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio for the occasion.
"It's humbling, quite frankly," said Nichols.
Nichols is the founder and president of Nichols Fleet Equipment, which he started in 1991 when he found himself out of work — with three kids at home. Previously, Nichols had worked in construction, right out of school. He did that for three years, then went to work for a regional equipment provider and service.
"At which point I had to evaluate what my next move was," he remembers.
Twenty-five years later, here Nichols sits, surrounded by the taxidermied spoils of successful hunting trips and his two boys, Nick and David, Jr., more often just called Buzz.
"Had I known what laid out there, I probably would have been too scared to do it," the eldest Nichols said of going into business for himself. "I did it out of necessity. I had to have an income."
Nichols has grown into a trusted distributor for work trucks nationwide. The company assembles utility trucks at its office and warehouse property off 31st Street in Chattanooga. Nichols sells and services a variety of utility trucks, including boom trucks, mechanics trucks and general utility trucks, to name a few.
Nick Nichols on Wednesday snatched a pair of toy trucks from a shelf in his father's office. Imagine this, he said, and he put one hand on a toy dozer.
"This is out working on Highway 27, right?" he said.
But the dozer breaks down. And its operator can't get it back to a shop for repairs. So he calls for a mechanic, who then shows up in a truck equipped with boxes and tools to get a broken-down dozer working, right there on the side of the road.
The mechanic's truck is the type Nichols Equipment assembles and sells.
"He's got whatever he needs to get this," Nick said, patting the dozer," back up and running."
The David Nichols, Sr., said having his sons working at the family business is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job these days. He never asked them to join Nichols Equipment.
Buzz came because he wanted to give back to his father for all the years he poured into the business, and he wound up loving the work and staying.
Nick came after teaching high school English for eight years.
The Nichols men say it's been a good fit for them.
"There are things (Nick) likes and is good at that I don't really want any part of," said Buzz.
"Having them here has lifted a tremendous burden off of me," said David, Sr.
The eldest Nichols said it's hard to say how much business Nichols Equipment does because it offers a mix of new product sales and equipment servicing options. He did say new product sales make up the largest percentage of the company's business.
And part of the record year in 2015 he attributed to new product sales which "came roaring back" following the Great Recession, when many fleet owners stopped buying new.
In some cases, fleet owners stopped even paying for servicing.
But now over that hump, Nichols recently rolled out a new website and has expanded its presence on social media — while maintaining its emphasis on quality. Every truck assembled by Nichols carries the stamp and signature of the employee who put it together.
Who knows what the next 25 years will hold. The eldest Nichols doesn't, and has never, believed in the idea of the exit strategy.
In fact, when a banker asked Nichols in 1991 what his exit strategy was for the business he proposed, Nichols couldn't believe the question. There was no Plan B.
"I said, 'I have no exit strategy, because there is no exit strategy for me,'" he remembers.
And he got the money.
Contact staff writer Alex Green at email@example.com or 423-757-6480.