In all his years in business, Bruce Nilsen has never been as lonely as the Maytag repairman‚ though not for any reason having to do with repair. Bruce, the son of one of the founders of Nilsen’s Appliance, has a customer base spanning six decades and four generations.
“It’s just old-time business is what it is,” he says. “Pretty simple.”
That simple formula has resulted in 60 years of success, a milestone that will be celebrated this June.
Relaxed, in a white, modern chair set against the backdrop of a stainless steel kitchen, Bruce, 66, places a hand on his cheek and looks into the distance at nothing in particular, as if stepping down a dusty memory road. He began working at Nilsen’s when he was 11 or 12, he says, starting with sweeping the floors.
He tells of give-aways from the store’s past‚ when pigs, horses, and even a monkey went as prizes, as well as Easters gone by, when the shop would gift customers rabbits dyed the pastel shades of eggs.
“They sat right in front of the window in a little pen,” he said. “That was crazy.”
He said now, just as it was in its 1949 beginnings, Nilsen’s is a business built on competitive pricing and continuing customer care, on the repeat customer and on small-town, friendly rapport.
“When you come into our store it should be an experience that is a happy experience,” he said. “When you buy something you should have fun doing it.”
Nilsen’s Appliance Center, now located in Silverdale, was founded in North Kitsap as North Kitsap Appliance by Carl and Joe Nilsen, Bruce’s father and uncle. Since, it has become a second- and third-generation company, with Bruce’s wife Lynda and their daughters Michele and Lesley joining ranks.
“We’re all equal partners,” Bruce says, quickly amending his statement, “It’s minority owned, because women own 75 percent.”
Daughter Michele Wasson, 44, recalls her first days as a Nilsen’s employee, counting parts for inventory in the summers – “Every nut and bolt,” she recalls – and cleaning used appliances.
“Yuck!” she said.
She explained the family term, “All-skate,” which means a time when everyone pitches in, no matter when, what or where.
“It’s like the Bat Signal in the sky,” she said, gesturing an imaginary symbol in the clouds. “It takes a while to learn the lesson of all-skate, but once you learn it, it’s such a great gift to have.”
She adds doing business for yourself isn’t always as glamorous as it seems.
“That’s what it takes to run a family business,” she said. “The roof leaks, you’re the one that goes. Someone breaks into the store, you’re the one that goes. No matter what, you’re the one that goes.
“I don’t know if I could ever enjoy something that’s just handed to me.”
After its 1949 opening, Nilsen’s changed its name to The Brothers Appliance, when Carl, Joe, Bruce and Bruce’s brother Roger ran shop. It switched to Nilsen’s Appliance Center in the mid-1980s.
Nilsen’s ran a branch out of Port Orchard from 1989 to 2004, and opened a location in Silverdale in 1991. It closed its Poulsbo doors in 2007.
Bruce and Michele say more than color scheme has changed in appliances over the years: some items, though less clunky and more streamlined, lack longevity now. Others are more efficient, sophisticated.
Bruce recalls when his father and uncle first opened the store, working the counter themselves, taking only one day a week off.
“They worked six days a week just about their entire lives,” he said.
And what they taught him — what he and Michele say the store still strives for today — is to help customers no matter what their needs, be it a new washing machine or directions or the use of a telephone.
“If you’re going to be successful you have to have a hands-on approach,” Bruce said, passing on advice from his father. “He always said, ‘Solve a person’s problem, and gain a customer.'”
Celebrate a milestone
Join Nilsen’s Appliance Center in Silverdale for three days of giveaways June 1-3. For more information, call (360) 692-3500 or visit 3299 NW Randall Way.