It was 38 years ago. John Nichols was a young man, 26 years old, working as a draftsman for the highway department. He had a wife, a child and hospital bills to pay.
Carter Schoolfield was a young lawyer. But his passion wasn't in the courtroom—like Nichols, his passion was on the water, preferably in a bass boat.
It was 1975 when Nichols had the chance to buy used pro staff boats from HydraSports, at the time the only manufacturer of low-profile, high-performance bass boats. Nichols brought them from Nashville to his backyard in Red Bank, where he would refurbish them and resell them, normally making about $500 per boat.
"My plan was to make some extra money to pay off some hospital bills and then go back to fishing because I was eat up with fishing then," Nichols said.
That was until Schoolfield interfered. The young attorney had purchased one of Nichols' refurbished boats.
Nichols said, "Carter called me and said, 'Hey, I've been thinking. Why don't we go over there and buy quite a few boats and see if we can make a little money on them?' I thought, 'OK, I'll do a few more months and make enough money to make a down payment on a house."
Before he could think twice, Schoolfield had cut a deal to buy 18 boats.
"The next thing I knew, there were two tractor-trailers at my house, and we unloaded boats all over my backyard," Nichols said. "It got to the point that when I would get off work as a draftsman at 4 o'clock, there would be people waiting on me at the house, and they wouldn't all leave until midnight. My wife was getting all aggravated. It got to the point that we either had to get into the boat business or get out."
Nichols Marine is born
The two "got in" and never looked back. With a substantial amount of sweat equity, they found property on Dayton Boulevard, just across the street from the current location of Nichols Marine.
"I enjoyed hunting and fishing since I was a little boy, and I always wanted to be in an outdoor-oriented business," Schoolfield said.
From the outset, Schoolfield and Nichols said they committed to a business model that set their dealership apart from all the other area boat dealerships.
"We catered almost exclusively to fishermen," Schoolfield said. "At that time, there were several other boat dealers, but they weren't catering to fishermen. At Nichols Marine, if a tournament angler brought a boat in for repair and it wasn't going to be ready for their next tournament, we'd give them a loaner boat to use so they could fish the tournament."
Nichols went on the road, visiting a dozen or more bass fishing clubs in the area at the time, sharing the message that they wanted their business.
They say within six weeks they knew they'd made the right decision. However, it soon became clear to the two entrepreneurs that if were going to talk the talk among bass anglers, they needed to walk the walk. In other words, they needed to sponsor their own bass tournament.
Creating the Chattanooga Bass Association
At the time, the dozen or more bass clubs in the area were each sponsoring their own tournaments with a lot of conflicting dates. Nichols and Schoolfield say they teamed up with two other area bass legends—Roy Dye and Shirley Gardenhire. Together, the men crafted the idea that was to become the Chattanooga Bass Association.
Nichols said that bass clubs were doing well to clear $200 on their tournaments at the time.
"Roy Dye had the idea to allow two bass clubs to run a CBA tournament each month. Nichols Marine would pay each club $500, far more than they were making doing their individual events. The idea blossomed, and Nichols said the CBA is still recognized as one of the most successful and longest-running local tournament circuits in the country.
Over the years, there has been an evolution of boats and boat brands at Nichols Marine, beginning with HydraSports to Venture and Astroglass, which made the Cheater SX.
"I'm here to tell you, we could not keep them they sold so fast," Nichols said. "We had a key role in making that boat line successful."
From there came ProCraft and Bullet, a bass boat brand that remains a favorite Nichols brand to this day, along with G3, Skeeter and Apex pontoons.
The two men said their 50/50 partnership was like a perfect marriage. Nichols said he was conservative, while Schoolfield was always ready to take a risk. The give and take was a perfect balance.
"But once we agreed to commit to a plan, we both backed it 100 percent," Nichols said.
Time to move on
Nichols said that in 1993, after 18 years in the boat business, he felt it was time to go another direction, in real estate. There was no animosity or hard feelings. Nichols sold his share, and he and Schoolfield parted good friends, which might have seemed an opportune time to rename "Nichols" Marine.
Schoolfield, however, a savvy businessman, knew that Nichols Marine had built significant branding and recognition, not just locally but across the country, hence he opted to keep John Nichols' name on the business the two had worked hard to build.
It wasn't long afterward that Schoolfield's son, Scott—in the insurance business at the time—came on board. Sounding a little bit like The Godfather, Carter said, "I sort of made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
A changing world
Scott's younger blood saw the need to diversify their line of boats, including more aluminum in the mix. But every boat or car dealer will tell you that the Internet has brought a new way of doing business.
"The Internet has turned the business upside down," Carter said. "I honestly believe that 50 percent of our sales now are sold via the Internet."
He said cyber shopping has made it critical for Nichols Marine to stay competitive.
"It used to be somebody might leave their house and be able to visit three boat dealers in a day if they were lucky," Nichols said. "Now, they can visit every boat dealer in the United States in an hour and never leave their desk."
But Nichols Marine tries to set itself apart by maintaining its commitment to fishermen. Recently, they offered a free seminar for anglers, taught by Jeff Reed, one of the area's foremost experts in new side-imaging, fish-finding technology.
Aaron Schoolfield, Carter's grandson and the third Schoolfield in the Nichols Marine stable, said they also sponsor the bass fishing team at UTC.
Who is the competition?
Carter said he doesn't consider other boat dealers his competition.
"My competitors are the people who sell golf clubs, sports equipment, motor homes, four-wheelers, ATVs ... all this other stuff that keeps people from going fishing," Carter said. "We've had several people ask us to sponsor golf tournaments. I don't have anything against golfers or golf tournaments, but why would we pour money into something that doesn't help our business?"
With a history nearly four decades deep and three generations of Schoolfields at the helm, it is likely that area fishermen and other boat buyers will have a friend on Dayton Boulevard for many years to come.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.