Power Players: Leading The Leaders

Though fully grounded in reality, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (MACOC), tries to see things as they can be, not as they are. Take his hobby of creating hand-turned wood bowls, for example. He scours his favorite rare wood warehouse looking for the right block of wood to take home and put on the lathe. When he’s finished, he has something unique, a combination of the raw material, his skill and his vision of what the wood could be. But one false move and the whole thing could be ruined. The same is true of Atlanta.

“Atlanta is very successful, but it can be a temporary paradise,” he says. “There are threats which can destroy its success that must be addressed – the water crisis, getting ahead of transportation, improving public schools. Most of the threats to our paradise have been brought on by our success.”

Williams should know. He’s played a role in encouraging thoughtful development and investment in Atlanta his entire career, the last 13 years as MACOC head. Representing a city with a population of more than five million is quite a coup for a guy from Obion, Tenn. – population 1,134.

“There were 13 kids in my high school graduating class,” says Williams. “I say it was the kind of town where you knew whose check was good and whose wasn’t.”

Williams went to Georgia Tech, where he majored in electrical engineering and took part in the school’s co-op program, working at Alcoa in Maryville, Tenn. While there he made an interesting discovery. “The engineers weren’t making the decisions,” Williams says. “All the business executives were.”

He deliberately shifted career paths, serving as the director for Mayor Ivan Allen’s Atlanta Urban Corps, a college intern program focused on developing government leaders, followed by a stint at the Harvard Business School.

“One of the best things I learned up there was that they put their britches on the same way we do down here,” he laughs. “I was struck by the intellectual superiority of the place and learned that common sense was just as important.”

Back in Atlanta in 1971, he served on the Action Forum, a group of two dozen of the most influential business leaders, black and white. “I was just a ‘gofer’ sitting in the corner, but it was an incredible experience and education for me,” says Williams. “They were the ‘big mules’ of Atlanta in there, a ‘Who’s Who’ of the 25 or so people running Atlanta at the time.”

Williams ended up working for one of the ‘big mules’ in the room, architect and developer John Portman. He remained with Portman and Associates for 22 years, rising to the position of chief operating officer.

While with Portman, Williams traveled the globe seeking out new sites for development. The Middle East was just opening up for development, and Williams was there.

“We didn’t have Power-Point,” he says. “I carried around a carousel slide tray and a three-ring binder to show potential clients.” In 1981, along with Portman’s son, Jack, Williams made one of the first business development forays into China. “It was nothing like it is now,” he recalls. “The city [Shanghai] was a sea of bikes, and everything was Mao green or blue.” Among other projects, Williams was involved in the early planning for the Shanghai Centre, a large mixed-use development that opened in 1990.

He also served as president of Central Atlanta Progress, where he urged and organized business leaders to make infrastructure improvements leading up to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. He solidified his leadership in the civic and business communities when he took on chamber job in 1997.

He has been tested. “Crisis is a great motivator,” he says. “It gets people together who wouldn’t normally act.” Williams was instrumental in getting the state and city to agree on a plan to pay for improvements to Atlanta’s crumbling water and sewer system. He helped form a coalition of private sector donors to keep Grady Hospital open and formed a nonprofit board to oversee operations. He continues to work tirelessly to encourage businesses, in the U.S. and abroad, to invest in Atlanta.

But in his downtime, Williams is found far from the madding crowd, in his garden, fishing a trout stream in Fannin County or in his workshop turning another bowl.

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