A Retirement, A Transition

May 18, 2015 -

New Nichols Company owners Barry Armbruster, Karla Powell, and John Paff have been longtime members of the agency’s management team.

After a year and a half of preparation, a lot can happen in 60 minutes.

At 3 p.m. last Friday afternoon— May 15, 2015—I walked into a law office in downtown Fort Wayne as the founder and owner of Nichols Company, a marketing firm now in its 23rd year of operation. There I met three colleagues. We sat around a conference table and signed an endless succession of documents.

We joked, ribbed the two attorneys about their documents’ hopelessly arcane language and way-too-long sentences, and all felt the beginning of closure after a long, involved process.

An hour later, I was back on the sunny street again, walking to my car, still founder of Nichols Company but no longer its owner. And I was pleased, full of a sense of possibility and new beginnings for all of us.

I had retired, passed both ownership and full leadership of the company to three employees I like, trust, and admire very much: Barry ArmbrusterKarla Powell, and John Paff. As things go in a complex world, such moments of pleasure and achievement are rare and a real blessing. I savored the moment.

Barry, Karla, and John are extraordinary people, different from one another, but drawing great strength from their diversity around one central purpose: to build on all that’s good about Nichols Company, to continue to provide (and to improve upon, as they see fit) the unique blend of services that has been the company’s niche for two-and-a-half decades. As anyone who has ever started a company, and worked for years to make it a success, will tell you, being able to pass that company on to good people is a real joy.

In the accompanying article, from my highly personal perspective, I tell you about these three extraordinary individuals who comprise the new Nichols partnership. But before you click on that material, allow me to clarify something—and also make a promise.

I said above that I had “retired” from Nichols Company. This is true. But I haven’t disassociated from the company—not by any means. I will work with the new owners to ensure a smooth transition, continue to work with some clients, continue to assist with sales, and, generally, be of use to an enterprise that has occupied the greater share of my attention for a long while.

And there’s this, too—and I may as well just say it publicly: I will stay out of the new owners’ way!

I’ve been guilty of any number of clichés in my time, and no doubt will continue to be, but there’s one I couldn’t abide being accused of, much less guilty of: the retired boss who just can’t accept that he’s not in charge anymore, who just can’t keep his nose out of his successors’ need to chart their own course.

Implicit in this obnoxious cliché of the old boss who can’t stand down is the old boss’s belief that his successors, any successors, couldn’t possibly do as well as he did. I’ve never suffered from any such illusion.

In fact, I’ve long understood that I had the gift of cussed tenacity that could keep a young company alive long enough not to fail as a young company. And, then, I also had the mother wit to employ good people and to engage their best talents to keep a young company going long enough to become an established company. The notion—the fantasy, the fiction—that I should also be the one to lead that mature company much beyond that never once entered my head. I always knew better.

Which brings me back to Barry, Karla, and John. Hiring each of them—Barry nearly 13 years ago, Karla just over 10 years ago, and John a bit over two years ago—I sought to compensate for deficiencies in myself that I knew could impair the company’s prospects. Put more bluntly: I’ve always had a pretty good idea of what I was good at, and an equally keen sense of what I was lousy at.

As the former generally fell short of the latter, I tried to embrace early the notion that my company’s success would depend upon regular infusions of skills I knew I didn’t and would never have. I needed people who shared the mission, liked the culture, and would respond to my encouragement to bring their gifts to bear on all we did. I’m happy to say this worked. I’ve been the lucky owner who always had key people I could trust, who could share in important decisions, who could set me to rights when I wasn’t thinking straight, and, also importantly, who could accept redirection when such was in order.

Each of the three new partners has brought his or her many gifts to Nichols. Our new ownership team—“new” as of a week ago—comprises people who have exerted significant leadership at Nichols since the day they each were hired. That’s something I always encouraged. That’s also something circumstances have compelled. Together with numerous other employees over the years, the new Nichols partners have made this company the success it is today. And I couldn’t be prouder of all of them.

Because they have always—and I do mean always, without reservation—risen to the challenge, I know they will continue to do so. And now that our transition is official, they’ll be in an even greater position to do so.

I welcome this. We all do.

And because our clients know this team—have worked with them and the others at Nichols and know what they’re capable of, know they’re good for their word and endlessly resourceful—I have no hesitation at stepping aside and starting to explore other adventures in life. In fact, I relish the opportunity.

I’m grateful to my wife and best friend, Mary Pat, for all her love and support during this transition—and, any number of times, for subsidizing my tired mind with her discerning intellect, while coming up with a great many good ideas strictly on her own. And my thanks as well to our lovely and tenacious daughters for much the same—Kate, Meghan, and Erin. I did no more to deserve such a good family than I did to deserve such a good employee team. But there you have it: sheer grace.

Now I need to make good on the promise I made earlier: to get out of the way, while standing ready to help in any way I can.

God bless us everyone.

By David Nichols