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Guy Nichols: Transforming Institutions

Source: Oceanus Magazine

Guy Nichols never shied away from tough jobs. And he never lost sight of the fact that an organization needs all its people, not just those at the top.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Nichols led New England Electric System through oil shortages, strikes, deregulation, and public jitters over nuclear power. By the time he left the job, he had transformed the publicly traded power company from one with some of the highest prices and operating costs in New England to one of the most efficient, customer-friendly, and profitable. For this, he was named “New Englander of the Year” in 1984.

Yet even after he became chief executive, he was legendary for visiting employees in the plants and at construction sites, never forgetting his roots as a foreman and civil engineer. “I grew up in the operating and distribution side of the industry,” Nichols said. “The most interesting job I ever had was serving as a general foreman because you were building things all the time.”

His tenure as Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from 1985 to 1995 followed a similar arc. He worked with three directors—John Steele, Craig Dorman, and Bob Gagosian—saw two of the Institution’s three ships get retrofitted and refurbished, and helped WHOI become more selective and competitive in its recruiting and tenure practices. He provided counsel as WHOI transitioned from a Cold War funding model fed only by federal dollars to a blend of government grants and private donations in the leaner 1990s.

“Guy was the steadying hand during a time of apprehension,” said Jim Clark, long-time chairman of the WHOI Corporation. “He kept the Institution on course during rather hectic and distracting times.” He also helped lead the Institution’s first capital campaign, which raised nearly $55 million.

“Guy has worked tirelessly for WHOI,” said Gagosian, who became director of WHOI on Nichols’ watch. “He asks the right questions and can make the tough decisions, and he deserves a lot of credit for the current shape of the Institution.”

All that time, he went down into the village of Woods Hole to have coffee with WHOI staff before heading off to executive committee meetings.

“I liked going to the local coffee shop to find out what WHOI people were thinking about,” Nichols recalled. “I always enjoyed asking Henry Stommel, Stan Watson, or Holger Jannasch about the latest idea they were kicking around,” he said, referring to three WHOI scientific giants.

Though he has been associated with WHOI for three decades, he still looks at every new science talk with the wonder of his first visit. “It’s the scientists and engineers that attract me,” Nichols said. “I have been fascinated by the instruments that the WHOI shops produce and put to work under terrible conditions. For anybody who’s tried to keep the relatively simple electronics aboard a sailboat operational, you get impressed by the engineering of WHOI.”

His leadership has continued though his official tenure has ended. Nichols and Clark co-founded WHOI’s Paul M. Fye Society for planned giving, and Nichols was the first donor to the pooled income fund.

“WHOI continues to be very reliant on federal funding, yet it is very difficult for the government to fund ideas in their initial stages,” Nichols said. “I think it is important that we provide WHOI with unrestricted funds to support the initial stages of research that may turn out to be a disaster but also may turn out to be a great idea.”

Through charitable bequests, life income gifts, and trusts, members of the Paul M. Fye Society help build the WHOI endowment and promote the next generation of ocean explorers. For more information, contact Lesley Reilly, director of planned giving, at 508-289-3313 or lreilly@whoi.edu.

Originally published: June 30, 2005