Nichols looks back on 90 years

Robert Francis

His first work at Freese and Nichols, now 63 summers ago, was as a rodman on survey crews. Then, a young Jim Nichols, would adjust and operate surveying instruments for the firm where he is now, at 90, chairman emeritus of the 119-year-old consulting company that provides engineering, architecture, environmental science, construction and planning services. “It’s a kind of high-sounding title, but doesn’t mean much, doesn’t have very many responsibilities,” says Nichols, who turned 90 in June. “You’ve noticed they’ve got me sequestered back here as far in the corner as you can possibly get,” he joked.

For Freese and Nichols CEO Bob Pence, the chairman emeritus is “a great role model for the young people around here.” Others in the organization describe his role with words such as “professional,” “wise” and “ethical.” It’s that last description that ties into one aspect of Nichols’ continued role in the organization, teaching classes around the state on professional ethics for Freese and Nichols University. FN University, as it is known, continues the mission of the firm’s founder, Maj. John B. Hawley, who believed that continuing education was essential to a professional engineering career. “Professional ethics is determining what’s right and what’s wrong,” Nichols said. “The Golden Rule is sort of a basic principle in professional ethics. But it means more. We strive to have our clients feel like we’re their trusted adviser whenever they have a problem that they are not able to solve themselves; we feel like we have accomplished part of our mission if they look at us as someone that they can call and contact and get good advice from.”

Education and ethics have helped Freese and Nichols to become known for service and innovation in a variety of market areas, including energy, higher education, military/government, and municipal and water districts/river authorities primarily in Texas, but also around the country. In 2010, the firm was the recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, becoming the first engineering and architectural firm to receive the award that promotes excellence in organizational performance and recognizes the achievements of U.S. organizations. Another achievement of the firm is simply that it is still around after all these years. Founded by Hawley in 1894, it became Hawley, Freese, and Nichols in 1930, and took the name Freese and Nichols in 1938, the Nichols then being Jim Nichols’ father, Marvin Nichols.

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“One of the things that I am most proud of is how we have transitioned the management of this company over the past 60 years that I have been here,” Nichols said. “We have an ownership transition plan and a management transition plan that has worked very well. Frequently, a number of people that have been in the same business that I’ve been in, that we’ve been in, the people that start the firm or build it up get to the point where they are ready to retire, and their only option is to sell out or merge with somebody else. We have taken a different track with our transition here.”

The transition plans works primarily by making more long-term employees shareholders, said Nichols. The firm now has about 45 shareholders and it’s a diverse group, he says. “We have the funding worked out, how we’re going to do it and our people, when they’re made shareholders; it’s worked out well with stability and that sort of thing,” he said. Currently with about 545 total employees, Freese and Nichols shows little sign of business drying up. If anything, the state of Texas may need the firm’s water expertise more than ever. “It’s going to become a bigger issue,” said Nichols. The recent loss in the Supreme Court in the Tarrant Regional Water District’s plans to use water from Oklahoma notwithstanding, there are other plans in place, Nichols said.

“They [Tarrant Regional Water District] have and are continually studying and planning for the future,” he said. “As we speak, they are doing the final designs on a major pipeline to connect Richland Creek and Cedar Creek with Lake Palestine, down in East Texas. This is a joint venture with the city of Dallas. So initially, this is the next step in increasing our water supply.” Nichols’ initial step out of college was not so easy, he admits. “When I came to work here, my father would distance himself from me because he didn’t want anybody to think that I was getting any favors,” he said. As a result, Simon Freese was more of a mentor in his engineering career than his father. “But my father was quite a guy and very well respected among his peers, and he was the first chairman of the water development board,” he said.

The Marvin C. Nichols Dam and Reservoir is named for his father. Jim Nichols was very involved in civic affairs for many years, becoming chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce one year. “I think that my father and I are the only father-son combination who have ever been chairman of the chamber of commerce here,” he said. While Nichols, a graduate of Texas A&M University, is proof of the value of an engineering career, engineering as a profession is finding it difficult to attract many young people. Nichols sees that as a big issue for his firm – and the country. “The enrollment in engineering schools has dropped significantly in the past several years,” he said. “Forty percent of the engineering graduates in this country are foreign students, which is disturbing because a lot of them go back to wherever it is they came from so we lose those assets.”

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One reason students are not studying engineering in college is because it is difficult. “The kids graduating from high school aren’t prepared with basic science to take engineering,” he said. “The engineering schools have reduced the amount of courses, particularly the science courses that you have to take, trying to get more students but that really hadn’t worked. “When I graduated with my master’s, I had to have about 150 hours of school. Now, I think it’s about 130, so when they turn these people out, they really aren’t prepared to be engineers.” That is another reason for the Freese and Nichols University, he said. Nichols says he’s enjoyed every minute of his career.

“We don’t have time to talk about all the sins that I’ve committed, but I don’t think of anything that really bugs me,” he joked. Getting more reflective, he said: “I think probably the biggest mistake I made was – and it was really true of my generation – is that we placed a higher priority on work than we should have. I should have placed a higher priority on my family and my kids. I think that’s occurred in our society and in our generation.” But Nichols is pleased that he believes he has helped the communities where he has worked become a little better off. “I kind of have a saying here: ‘We try to leave the wood pile a little higher than we found it.’ I think I’ve done that,” he said