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.
Leading with Purpose: Bank of America CFO Alastair Borthwick T’93
Alastair Borthwick T’93, CFO at Bank of America, reflects on his Tuck experience and the people-first approach that drives his success as a financial leader.Read More
Why We Need More Women Entrepreneurs—And Investors
A conversation with venture capitalist Elizabeth Davis T’20, an investor with the Anthemis Group’s Female Innovators Lab.Read More
Not a Map—More of a Compass: Meet David Grain T’89
David Grain T’89, founder and CEO of Grain Management, talks his career journey and what drives him during a fireside chat with Dean Matthew Slaughter, titled “Minority Participation in Private Equity.”Read More
Meet Tuck Alumnus Jose Minaya T’00, CEO of Nuveen
A commitment to building diverse, inclusive, and equitable structures across organizations is personal for Jose Minaya T’00, who was named CEO of Nuveen in 2020.Read More
Meet Tuck Alumnus Richard Noyes of Bartlett Associates
Meet Tuck Alumnus Richard Noyes of Bartlett AssociatesRead More
Noreen Doyle T’74, chair of the Newmont Mining Corporation, was the first woman to chair the British Banker’s Association in its 96-year history.Read More
Preserving Culture Through Banking: Meet Dawson Her Many Horses T’10
Dawson Her Many Horses T’10, SVP & Native American business leader at Wells Fargo, helps Native American tribes protect their way of life.Read More
Tuck Alumnus Named Head of Goldman Sachs’ Global Securities
At Goldman Sachs’ Global Securities Division, Tuck Alumnus Jim Esposito orchestrates a global operation managing risk for asset managers, pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, corporations, and governments.Read More
Bringing Order to the Chaos
Solving complex problems is what's kept Diego Ferro T'93 in finance for 25 years. Here's what he's learned.Read More
T’98 Rick Cardenas’ first job was bussing tables at a Red Lobster. Fast forward 25 years and he’s now CFO of Darden Restaurants which, until 2014, owned Red Lobster.Read More
Fun Finance: Lindsey Drake T’11 talks about her role as a senior finance manager at Amazon Books.Read More
James “Jim” Lindstrom
Jim Lindstrom T’01 has a career of both investment and senior operational roles—a unique perspective to lead a multinational corporation in today’s dynamic environment.Read More
As managing director of the Boston Forum of Golden Seeds, a national network of angel investors funding early-stage companies led by women, Deb Kemper T'95 lives by the motto: be the change you want to see in the world.Read More
Kathryn Baker T'93 is a true expert on boards of directors. She has served on more than 20 of them over the last 16 years, ranging from oil and gas companies to Norway’s Central Bank to Tuck’s own European Advisory Board.Read More
The Chinese economy has grown tremendously since 1989, and so have the opportunities for enterprising Tuck graduates, like Jie Lian T'01.Read More
Not many people in ball bearing sales finish their careers in venture capital. For Mike Carusi T’93, now one of the most successful health care investors in Silicon Valley, that unlikely journey started with two eye-opening years at Tuck.Read More
Williams College chief investment officer Collette Chilton T’86 is helping deliver big returns for the Little Ivy.Read More
Investor. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Roger McNamee T’82 is all of these and more in a career that has taken him to the top of the tech world.Read More
Alain Karaoglan T’87 never could have predicted he would one day be chief operating officer of Voya Financial, a top-tier retirement plan provider with more than $500 billion in assets under management and administration.Read More
Navigating the present while honoring the past is a challenge for many Native people. Debbie Atuk T’04 has found a way to do both.Read More
After working in security sales for Goldman Sachs, Christopher Fox T'81 was drawn back to the public sector because he wanted to serve his community and for the intellectual challenge.Read More
At Tuck, Vicki Craver T'97 discovered a latent interest in financial strategy. Now, after a successful career at Goldman Sachs and raising a family, she applies her financial accumen to vetting nonprofit projects.Read More
Following five years in the mergers and acquisitions industry, Scott Frantz T'86 joined a few close friends in putting together a private equity and venture capital business.Read More
Sword, Rowe & Company CEO Daniel Rowe T’09 is blending his love of music into a successful career with the boutique merchant bank.Read More
In much of the Middle East and North Africa, cash is still king. PayPal’s Francis Barel T’05 wants to change that, and open people’s lives to the world along the way.Read More
One of Blair LaCorte T’90’s great skills as a leader is not only to guide a company from infancy to success, but to know when to set it—and himself—free.Read More