Founder, Chairman, and CEO, Williams Capital Group and Williams Capital Management
Don’t assume that the leader has all the answers. A leader has to empower and rely on his or her team.
Christopher J. Williams T’84 is the founder, chairman, and CEO of the Williams Capital Group and Williams Capital Management, one of the most active co-managers of U.S. investment-grade new issue debt financings. In 2002, Williams was selected by Fortune as one of the 50 most powerful African Americans in Corporate America. Crain’s New York Business, in 2003, listed him as one of the top 100 minority business leaders. Williams has also been the subject of numerous articles on management in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. What most people don’t know about Williams is that, at heart, he’s a gifted artist and designer who can bring a sense of craftsmanship to a profession known more by its numbers than its creativity.
Williams was raised in New Milford, Connecticut, a rural town on the western side of the state. He grew up in a modest single-family home on 40 acres and enjoyed hiking, trail-biking, and camping on the surrounding terrain. As he kept observing, he began drawing what he saw. He discovered he could re-create on paper, with technical precision, the trees and rocks and other elements of the landscape, but he also knew early on that some of his classmates were better artists—they could draw anything beautifully. Williams was more limited to angular things, so he thought architecture would be a good fit. He took an architecture course in high school, and then pursued that subject at Howard University.
After college, Williams was hired by the Architects Environmental Collaborative, an architecture firm in New Haven, Connecticut, and that’s where he found one of the keys to his later financial success. As he worked with the more senior architects and their clients, he discerned “a certain sequential thought process one follows in architecture, and it’s true of virtually any profession,” he says. “It’s the process of listening to what a client wants, accounting for the many constraints (budgetary, regulatory, topographical, engineering), and then going back and forth with a client to come up with something they will love.”
He uses the same process today when he meets with large corporations who want to discuss financing options. “Every time we meet with clients, they have unique objectives,” he says. “In capital markets, the goal is to structure the transaction in the manner that provides the lowest possible cost of financing by generating the greatest possible demand among investors.” There are cheaper structures that have additional risks (such as the risk of rising interest rates). There are different markets that attract specific investors. There’s a wide range of financing tools that come with varying degrees of flexibility. “Just as in architecture we have all these constraints that must be taken into account when designing a building,” Williams explains, “in finance I find a creative approach is also important.”
Williams ended up in the finance industry because he didn’t have great timing for a career in architecture. While working as an architect, interest rates remained extremely high and construction projects began drying up. Williams looked around. Firms in the northeast were reducing their staff sizes. He was at the bottom of the hierarchy. After talking to some friends and associates, he decided to apply to business schools. “I knew very little about what I wanted to do, other than obtaining a broader set of skills beyond the ability to design,” he says.
When Williams first visited Tuck, it was mostly just to take a look. He didn’t think it would be a good fit for him. But the school and its setting charmed him. He immediately felt the warmth and cohesion among the student body. He saw that the level of interaction between the students and the faculty, during the few days he was there, was deeper than what he saw when he visited other schools that were larger and located in cities. “As a student, it felt very good to be part of that type of community,” he recalls. “Very quickly, I felt at home and met people who ended up being good and lasting friends.”
In 1984, Wall Street was booming, and Williams had proven to himself that he could thrive in that environment. After graduation, he joined Lehman Brothers and in a few years was running its structured derivatives group. The rhythm of the business was unique: every day, Williams and his team examined the economy, looked at the relationship of various interest rates, currencies, and commodity prices, and then came up with a thesis that, if correct, would enable an investor to benefit significantly. At the same time, they tried to limit the downside if they were wrong. They accomplished this task through the use of financial derivatives, which were often packaged into securities. For example, if an investor expected U.S. interest rates to rise and European rates to stay low, Williams would build a security that earned an additional yield if the spread between the two interest rates widened.
In 1992, having learned a great deal about how to put together complex derivatives trades, Williams left Lehman to start a division of Jeffries and Company. Just two years later, Williams took the biggest risk of his life and launched Williams Capital Management with three colleagues from Lehman. Within weeks, he hired two more people, creating a core staff of five. Williams’s wife, Janice, joined the firm a year later. One of the first team members, a smart and technical trader from Lehman, was skeptical that the business plan—a high-value-added, high-margin firm that focused on personal service—was viable. “I remember he said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to work. But I don’t think you’re crazy, and therefore I’ll come with you,’” Williams says. “I guess that was a compliment that someone, despite the fact that they didn’t think it was going to work, had sufficient confidence in me that they were willing to take the leap.”
Williams Capital now has about 90 employees and stacks up well, in terms of trading volume, with the firms that are one level down from the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. But even with all that success, Williams retains a sense of humility about the financial business. “Whenever I look at our business and tell the story of how long we’ve been around, I feel good about it, but I’m never past the point of having a certain level of paranoia and caution,” Williams says.
Williams credits his Tuck education for shaping his skills in business and leadership. The rigorous curriculum gave him confidence in his technical business training, and he recalls reading case studies with nightmarish management stories about bad bosses, which have given him guideposts along his own path of management. “I think the training was certainly important in the sense that it made sure I could clearly understand what types of classic things can go wrong as a manager.” he says.
Williams’s steady hand, equanimity, and financial acumen eventually started attracting attention from corporate boards. First, Caesars Entertainment approached him, through Williams’s friend who is an attorney with a practice that represented independent board members. Then Williams joined the board of Walmart, a company he got to know closely through his work at Williams Capital. He served on the Walmart board for 10 years and worked as the chairman of its audit committee for the last four years of his term. Next he joined the board of Cox Enterprises, a private company that owns businesses in the cable, automotive, and media (television, radio, and newspaper) sectors. Today, Williams also serves on the boards of Clorox and Ameriprise Financial. In each case, although he was vetted by a search firm, it was Williams’s personal relationships that led to board invitations.
“It is a lot of work,” Williams says. “It’s something you juggle along with your day-to-day management responsibilities. It gives you a view into different management styles, challenges, and exposure to ways in which various issues and strategic plans are implemented and addressed. It has educated me as a manager, given me a broader perspective.”
Williams brought that broad perspective to the Tuck Board of Overseers in 2008, and he’s served as the chair since 2012. Jennifer Uhrig T’87 was on the board when Williams joined and has appreciated his easy-going style. “He’s willing to offer constructive criticism in a palatable way, which is critical,” she says. “He’s willing to step up and say something, but he always does it in a way that everybody’s comfortable with. That’s a talent: offering criticism in a way that doesn’t make people feel bad.”
Williams was the chair during an especially important time at Tuck: the transition from Paul Danos to Matthew Slaughter as dean. Once officially in his new role, Dean Slaughter worked closely with Williams to help refine the board’s processes and engagement—starting with his generous willingness to extend his term as board chair. “Chris’s counsel has been amazing,” Slaughter says. “Our regularly scheduled conversations have ranged from the highest levels of strategy formulation to the most detailed questions of day-to-day operations. I have learned so much about leadership from Chris—and, not surprisingly given who he is, have had the chance to do so with optimism and good cheer all along the way.”
Williams is stepping down from the board in 2018, but he plans to stay in close contact with the school and its community, to continue those relationships he has built over the past 36 years. Indeed, it’s a habit he honed at Tuck.
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