A conversation with Virgil Williams is a lot like being in an electrical storm. His mind moves like lightening and has a similar impact on nearly everything he touches. His business ventures have ranged from construction to banking, from sealants for nuclear reactors to publishing, from service as the governor’s Chief of Staff to ownership of an Arena Football team.
“If I think about it, and it seems like it’d be fun to do, I jump in with both feet,” Williams said. “If I believe I can make it fun, profitable and successful, then I go for it.” It’s that commitment to putting his ideas into action that enabled Williams to turn a family paint contracting business with four employees into a multi-million dollar corporation that set the standards in industrial maintenance, all before he was 30 years old.
An Early Start
Williams’ career began while he was still studying industrial engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. During his senior year, he developed a 40-home subdivision, a gas station and a 12-unit apartment project. After graduation, he took the position of President of Williams Contracting, expanding the company’s interests into construction services, industrial contracting, environmental services and civil and industrial engineering. Williams Group International, Inc., is now an umbrella for 17 companies employing more than 5,000 people across the U.S. Far from being satisfied with that, Williams is constantly on the lookout for the next, the newest challenge. Additional ventures include real estate development, a custom cabinetry and millwork business and a variety of others.
Innovation is the Key
“I’m a fanatic for quality and precision in planning, strategy and execution,” Williams said. “If there’s a common thread among all my varied businesses and interests, it’s that they all have at base an entrepreneurial idea. I don’t like to do the same things other people do. I want to find a way to do things differently, to add value.”
A prime example of this philosophy is Williams’ experiences in the banking industry. He purchased his first bank in the early 1980s, and immediately began looking for ways to make the enterprise more customer friendly. He made the hours more accessible, kept drive-thrus open longer, established a “superteller” in the lobby as a central point for customers to get information.
“Traditional expansion was just too slow for me,” Williams said. “Historically, you’d build a branch, wait for it to build up a clientele from the neighborhood, and in three or four years you’d finally turn a profit, be ready to look at building another branch. I figured there had to be better options.”
He considered a storefront in shopping centers, or perhaps a kiosk in the parking lot. Then the brainstorm hit. “What’s the place people spend money most often, the one place everyone has to go? Grocery stores. And I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if we could put a branch in the grocery?” he said.
Williams went to the corporate headquarters of Kroger with a plan to open branch banks in three of their locations, with the exclusive option to expand if the idea was well-received. Kroger executives agreed, and customer response was enormous. Williams was soon negotiating for franchise rights to all of Georgia. “There were some people who made fun, they’d say, oh, that’s the bank between the deli and the bakery,” he said. “But we found that we could expand, profitably, seven times faster than building traditional branches. So I just said, you go ahead and laugh, I’ll make the money.”
See the print edition of Gwinnett Magazine for the full conversation with Virgil Williams