Nickels Boats

Nickels Boats

February 2010

In 1999, while most of the world was enthralled with the Internet revolution and countless internet startups were growing at speeds unseen before, one small boat manufacturer in Michigan was facing the possibility of closing after 50 years of doing business.  Nickels Boats, a family-owned small business located in Fenton, was on the brink of financial collapse.  However, Hugh Armbruster, a long-time entrepreneur, saw the importance of the company to the local community and did not want to see the company close.  He decided to buy the business.  Facing an uphill battle, Armbruster has taken the company from financial turmoil to a thriving Michigan small business with the help of the MI-SBTDC.

Founded in the early 50’s by the Nickels family, Nickels boats has been producing specialty one-design sailboats (one-design boats are those which match class specifications but are varied from manufacturer to manufacturer based on deck layout, and rigging option, with hull shape remaining constant.)  When the business first opened, Nickels only sold one design of boat called the “Lightning.”  For many years, the company continued to be family-run, selling only Lighting boats until their time of struggle in 1999.  Armbruster had heard that the company was on the verge of closing and knowing that the company would need some changes, he bought the company anyway.

Nickel-Boats-Pic-242x300“I had owned and have been a part of many businesses in the past, but I did not have a lot of experience with a manufacturing business directly, ” Armbruster admitted.  In 2007, Hugh decided to contact the MI-SBTDC team at their Region 6 office.  “We needed help finding a direction and a focus.”  Harry Blecker, a MI-SBTDC consultant met with Armbruster to discuss how the MI-SBTDC could provide help to the business.  Blecker and Armbruster worked together to help the company target and achieve future goals of the company.  In 2009, Blecker directed Armbruster to the MI-SBTDC’s newly formed Growth Group called G2.

G2 was created to help prepare companies for the next stage of growth in their business.  G2 specialists offer several tools which can help business owners identify opportunities to grow.  During this time, Armbruster also met members of the new Manufacturing Assistance Team (MAT) who specialize in providing consulting to small and medium size manufacturing businesses.  The team was created in 2009 to help provide no-cost consulting in financial analysis, capital access and strategic planning to manufacturers facing economic distress.  Since their inception, the MAT has helped countless small business manufacturers get back on their feet.

“The consultants have been very helpful.  They provided us assistance in finding a direction for the business where we could be competitive,” said Armbruster.  “They were able to help us find information about the industry and even some of our competitors which helped us develop a strategy.”  When he took over the business in 1999, Nickels felt that there were opportunities to grow their product offering.  In the past ten years, they have expanded to 5 different boat lines including the “Buccaneer and Mutineer.”  Nickels focuses on offering the highest quality boats with exceptional customer service. On their website, customers can design and order their own boat online and receive information about pricing and scheduling.

“The MI-SBTDC was able to provide a lot of services that were not readily available to us or we were not even aware of,” recalled Armbruster.  “Their financial consulting allowed us to consider and implement different structures which were right for our business.”  While financial consulting is one of the MAT’s greatest strengths, they provide overall support to manufacturing business owners and employees in many different areas.  “They are a great sounding board for questions,” stated Armbruster.  “They helped me recognize my own limits, while at the same time, really helping us find ways to accomplish tasks efficiently.”

While business has been slower the past year, Nickels is looking to diversify by looking into other areas to grow the business.  “We have experienced good growth, but we are continually observing opportunities to expand our business, ” stated Armbruster.  They are exploring moving into international markets and creating greater international awareness for the company.

Along with boat manufacturing, Armbruster has started another business, AF Composites, a fiberglass parts manufacturer, which he believes will help the business diversify their customer base to other businesses.  Armbruster hopes that, with the help of the MI-SBTDC, this business will more fully develop as a separate entity and will provide employment opportunities to the community that supported Nickels Boats.  Armbruster recognizes the importance of keeping the long-standing tradition of the business going.  “We are still a family-run business just as it was 60 years ago when it started, ” Armbruster exclaims.

Ten years after taking ownership of the business, Armbruster offers some advice for small business owners.  “I encourage new business people and those wishing to grow their business to take advantage of the great resources that the MI-SBTDC has to offer.  They provide insight into topics that many business owners may not even be aware of.”

For more information on Nickels Boats, please visit their website at