Freese and Nichols’ Leaders and Legacies: Jim Nichols
By Bob Pence, Chairman of the Board
As part of our 125th Anniversary celebration, we’re recognizing past leaders whose vision continues to drive us forward.
Our first president following Freese and Nichols’ incorporation in 1976, Jim Nichols was precise, principled and kind. He once shared that he personally verified our brag in Century in the Works that when flying at 10,000 feet across Texas you could always have a Freese and Nichols project in sight.
Jim also cautioned against flying over large areas where our clients were located. If you drive, he would point out, you could call on all those clients along the way and visit them about their needs and how Freese and Nichols could serve them. “The thing I enjoy about engineering,” he said, “is that you can travel around and see the results of (our) projects. There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that people are better off as a result of our efforts.”
Jim served as company president for 11 years, followed by 14 years as Board Chairman and 14 as a Chairman Emeritus. Well into his 90s, Jim remained a presence at Freese and Nichols: advising project teams, consulting with clients and teaching professional ethics classes.
I started here in 1978, and I never saw Jim do anything that was not in the best interest of this company… he acted ethically in all circumstances.
Doing the RIght Thing
Ron Lemons, who served as our Chief Operating Officer from 2002 to 2015, recalls that when he was a project manager, “I was stationed at a construction site for a design project when the contractor, with the client’s urging, suggested I accept a trip that included some educational benefit. I declined, but they continued to press, and finally they called Jim Nichols. He told me my behavior was fine and to carry on. After the project was completed, the client received a call from an investigator about that contractor. When the client explained that everything on their particular project with this contractor had been handled directly by Freese and Nichols, the investigator responded, ‘Oh, you’re fine, then. Everything with them is clean.'”
Water and Aviation
During his career, Jim’s real genius emerged in client relationships. He was a managing partner and developed key relationships in our services to CRMWD (Colorado Municipal Water District) and the City of Abilene, among our West Texas clients, Jim was instrumental in providing dependable water supplies to communities across the state. For West Texas, Jim helped create multi-city water districts; raised project funding; and designed dams, pipelines and pump stations.
Jim’s influence extended to aviation and to municipal leadership: he played a key role in the creation of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and led Freese and Nichols’ development of the original infrastructure there in the 1970s. His contributions are recognized at the airport’s Founders Plaza.
Tough Times, Tough Choices
Jim was Chairman in 2001, as the engineering business across the country took a downturn following 9-11. To save the company and avoid layoff, principals’ salaries were cut 10 percent and associates’ salaries were reduced by 5 percent. Even through that time, there was no fingerpointing and Jim led a unified effort to exhibit leadership for all employees. We got through it together.
Advancements in Technology and the Community
In a nod to Jim’s leadership in regional and national issues, Jim was interviewed in Municipal Water Leader in 2014. Asked about the most effective engineering innovation in water resources over his career, Jim named the advent of the computer. “When I came on board, the largest part of our workforce was dedicated to drawing schematics by hand. Now we have CAD technicians. The advancements in technology are truly amazing,” he said.
Jim served as Chairman of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers and as President of the Texas Water Conservation Association. He held leadership roles for the Texas A&M Research Foundation and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, and he often could be found volunteering with the Panther Boys’ Club,YMCA or Girl Scouts. His dedication was so exemplary our company award for employee service to our communities bears his name.