Great Lakes Boat Building School

Nikki, the “Can Do Kid”

Nikki the Can Do Kid

By Dave Murray

“She’ll work long hours and study real hard
With zest and zeal, she’ll pursue it.
I know she’ll not come home and I say I failed
This Can Do Kid can do it.”

When she was 18-years old, Nikki Storey was captured in verse by her grandfather, Otto, as the Can Do Kid. Now some two decades later as Executive Director of the Great Lakes Boat Building School, she is charged to ‘do it.’

She had been the business manager for just two months in 2015 when she was assigned a significant task.

“Mr. Reid (Joe Reid, Board chairman) asked me to develop a three-year financial sustainability plan to outline how the school could hit its goals,” she said. “I put it together quickly, about a couple of days, and when I handed it back to him and he read it over, he said, ‘someday you’ll be running this place.’”

Someday has arrived.

“Nikki fits my definition of an exceptional leader,” said Steve VanDam, Founder of VanDam Custom Boats and the GLBBS Program Advisory Chair. “She has taken the time to study leadership and good management practices and it shows.”

At 39, Nikki takes the helm of this 15-year old vessel called Great Lakes Boat Building School – A Marine Trades Institution. A new odyssey is about to begin as the school has united with Mercury Marine in an exclusive partnership that combines the Comprehensive Career Boat Building Program with Mercury’s Marine Service Technology program into the unique professional marine education and training center in the Great Lakes region.

“Nikki and I have built a strong relationship in a short amount of time,” said Nick Van Nocker, Mercury Marine Training Technology Manager. “Her passion about GLBBS and her career shines each time you work with her. She is determined to be successful, and I am excited to have a partnership with her. I look forward to what our two organizations can accomplish together for the marine industry.” An industry that saw $42 billion in sales in 2019.

Like the voyage of Odysseus, the seas ahead are filled with many challenges and risks. The Board has set 40 goals for the School’s coming year, and targeted seven milestones for their 5-year strategic plan.

Among the 40 goals are:

  • Meet enrollment of 12 for the Comprehensive Career Boat Building and 12 for the Marine Service Technology (with the 5-Year Milestone of 50 full-time students total)
  • Implement the Marine Service Technology program in September 2020
  • Develop 50 Educational Relationships (both secondary and post-secondary)
  • Develop 10 Marine Industry Relationships
    Implement Financial Aid (Nikki’s leading role in attaining accreditation opened the door for students to receive federal assistance), and more.

Among the milestones are:

  • Will have sufficient staff and faculty to meet the needs of the students
  • Will have sufficient student housing to support enrollment
    Will decrease reliance on donations to 20% of operational costs
  • Introduce and provide three new programs to the students in the next three years, such as fiberglass repair, composites and more
  • Have the appropriate facilities to support curriculum, students, faculty and operations
  • Generate revenue to meet or exceed all operational expenses

This is not a honey-do list. And a good captain knows how to get the most from her crew. With her background in human resources at Lake Superior State University and War Memorial Hospital, Nikki knows the importance of and how to build effective relationships; a skill she continues to hone with the diversity of people—Board members, faculty, students, and community—working alongside her.

In working with Van Nocker, Nikki said they developed a solid foundation for their partnership beyond just a working relationship. She was not content with Mercury Marine’s leadership coming to GLBBS to see what GLBBS offered. She insisted that she and lead instructor Matt Edmondson travel to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, Mercury’s home base, to meet with the Mercury leadership and observe their training facilities.

“We share the same goals and vision by providing quality, well-rounded technicians for marine employers,” she said. “We’ve developed a lasting partnership to serve the marine industry around the Great Lakes.”

And her relationship with her staff is equally important. She implemented Employee Success Sessions, which meet every two months aimed to nurture open communications.

“These sessions help me keep a thumb on the pulse of how my team is feeling and if there are any issues I need to address for them,” Nikki described. “It opens a dialogue between us where they can tell me what is going well for them and what they need to be successful in their job in providing outstanding service for students.”

She also began an Employee Appreciation program where staff tells who they would like her to recognize among them, be it students, staff or School friends, and she sends notes of thanks or gift certificates from local businesses to them for their work to support the school and help achieve the mission.

“I don’t like being called the boss,” she said with that smile that can light a room. “I work to collaborate with my team. I want them to see I work hard and yet I want them to know I am here to support them in their roles. Everyone plays a part in the success of our students and programs. I’ll also let you know what’s on my mind, and if you say you will do something, I trust and expect you will.”

Of course, if you don’t do what you said you’d do, you will hear something else that’s on her mind. Some of that will be the resounding waves of her laughter, something she admits she likes to do.

“Great leadership is focused on the success of the team rather than the self,” said VanDam. “One of Nikki’s many outstanding traits is her passionate success on the entire GLBBS team.”

That team includes the students.

“There’s a misconception that our focus is on the boat building,” Nikki said. “Our focus is on the student. That’s why we are here. That’s what we are about. I was drawn to the marine industry for the opportunity to make an impact by supporting students who seek a marine industry career. It is exhilarating to participate in a field where the industry is constantly evolving, and you have a great opportunity to make a direct impact on someone’s life through a career.”

She’s also reaching out to secondary school administrators through a career tech program for high school students in small engine maintenance and repair that begins this fall. Students can gauge their interest in Marine Technology through this free program, and any student who attends a Small Engine CTE Program throughout the state is automatically offered a $2,500 scholarship to reduce their tuition costs when they enroll in a post-secondary program at GLBBS.

As Chairman Reid pointed out, that ability to relate to students, to listen to them, is a key facet for prospective students, too, especially as GLBBS and Mercury University ratchet up their recruitment to meet their goals.

“She’s very approachable and she will actually listen to each student,” he said. “She will work with them (she’s already shown that) to find a solution to their concerns that is satisfying to the student and maintains the integrity of the school.”He added, “The primary function of a school is to provide the student with the quality education to go into the marketplace and build a successful career. That’s the morality of a school. That’s why we knew Nikki was the right person because it is a passion for her. Our goals are ambitious, but she is incredibly tenacious, and she has the heart and mind to do it. I think she could have helped Noah build his ark.”

For the past five years, students from GLBBS have enjoyed a 100% job placement rate upon graduation from the school.

The other team member is the Board of Directors, and her relationship with them is as strong as a trucker’s hitch knot. She credits Reid with mentoring her over the years, and she has had to lean on Board members in some of the stormier days.

“There were many days when I called Greg (Greg Malcho, the former treasurer of the Board who passed away recently, a loss Nikki still feels) and told him I was concerned about the financial status of the school, and we may have to close the doors,” she recalled. “Greg would always in a calm, reassuring way, say he’s gone to the Board before and said the same things and someone has always stepped up to help, and that we would get through this storm. And he was right. The Les Cheneaux Island supporters and community have always stood behind the school and its success is attributed to that support. ” She knew then she has a good relationship with the Board.

Long hours, ambitious goals, an expanding multi-faceted program with significant spotlight attention can be a source for burnout, particularly for a single mother with two teenage boys at home, and a daughter and grandson in Grand Rapids. But for Nikki, it isn’t just a job.

“I’m having fun and working here energizes and motivates me,” she said with that assuring smile.

And for her long hours, her passion and commitment to making GLBBS not just a success but “the educational training center for the marine industry in Great Lakes,” Nikki will be honored in Boating Industry’s “40 Under 40” annual profile of the “best young leaders from all segments of the marine industry.”

Taking the helm of this new Great Lakes venture may appear as daunting as the trials of Odysseus. Navigating the rocky shoals and turbulent waters of financial stability, recruitment and housing of students, hiring and retaining a quality crew, informing and assuring the Board of Directors, maintaining and upgrading the vessel and equipment, steering the right courses on a new map, being on top of ever changing currents, and garnering the support of communities and ports along the journey requires a strong, firmly set inner gyroscope, or as the poet William Blake called it-a firm persuasion, especially as unknown storms and waves swell up on the wine-dark sea.

But boats and education are not made for harbors. Only by sailing that open sea together will they all realize the “amazing career opportunities that exist in the marine industry,” an industry as old (and new) as any mariner or dreamer wishing to sail the seas.

More than 20 years ago one weathered mariner sized up this ship’s captain and wrote his words upon her sails:

“I know she’ll not come home and say I failed,
This Can Do Kid can do it.”

In the words of Dave Murray he is “just a local resident who is still learning to row a little boat”.

Thank you – Dave for volunteering your time and supporting the Stem2Stern publication.