Leading Through Change
Stephen Williams, a former BB&T board member, talks about dealing with change and the importance of a growth mindset.
Welcome to the BB&T Leadership Series. Today we're glad to have with us Steve Williams, a very, very successful businessman. Most of his experience is with a convenience store chain, dealing in, of course, petroleum, but restaurants, and all types of activities around that actually, your dad, I think, Steve, started.
And then you worked with your dad for a number of years and you became president, like, in 1995. And then after that a few years later, Steve's dad retired and Steve ran the company. And then I think it was like early 2000s, you sold a part of the company to the Hess companies.
And then you were still the president and CEO of WilcoHess. And then just a few years ago, you sold the rest to Hess, and now you're pursuing some other things, which we can talk about. So a really, really big business. It was, at the end, close to 400 or over 400 convenience stores and gas stations in seven or eight states.
Eight states. Really, really big operation, sir. Thanks for joining us on the Leadership Series.
Thank you for the opportunity, Kelly.
So let's start out by just talking a little bit about something that has been written a lot about, and that is are leaders born, or are they grown or developed?
I think some leaders are born out of necessity. Whether it's an issue in a family or, sadly, if there was a tragedy, a son or a daughter has to step up, or a parent does it for leadership for succession planning, so to speak.
I know with my father, for my brother and I, when we were little kids, we would go to business meetings with him and my sisters would go out on the beach with our mother. And all the other kids would play, and my dad would make my brother and I get up at 6:00 am, put on our nice clothes, brush our teeth, comb our hair, and go to the business meeting.
And we had to behave, take notes, and listen at six, seven, eight years old. But he made us understand how to shake people's hands, look people in the eye, become engaged. And then as we evolved in working in our company for my dad, he actually put us in leadership positions.
And candidly, there were times that we were over crews and we were 13 or 14 years old and the people that we were in charge of were in their 30s. But he taught us to be leaders and taught us to make decisions. And he didn't care if it was a right or wrong decision. He said, make a decision.
So I think it's some of both. I think some of it's out of necessity, and I think some people just have that natural leadership ability that people will follow intuitively.
Many people, like myself, have always worked for public companies and never had a chance or the challenge of working with their dads. What was it like working with your dad? Mr. Tab Williams was one of my heroes and one of the most successful and nicest people you ever would have know. But what was it like working for your dad?
Family businesses can be great or they can be awful. Fortunately, I had a great situation. It wasn't personal with my dad, it was business. He told you what he expected, and then he expected you to do it. And, you know, with the love of a father and a son and a son and a father, you don't want to let the other party down, so you did whatever you could to make sure you met their expectations.
But I think parents and family businesses, you're tougher on each other than you would be in a public company. You can say things to each other that you might not be able to in a public company. But if it's handled right, it's a great experience.
And I've talked to a lot of people who think that the son or daughter works for their dad in the business and it's always a sugarcoated job. It's easy. They don't have to work. That wasn't the case with you, was it?
They didn't work for my dad. You know, he was a firm believer that you earned your stripes. And we started off at six or seven years old and put us out on the crews. And whether it was digging ditches, or pouring concrete, or jackhammering up concrete slabs, he said that the only way you could eventually lead a company is that you could show that you weren't ordained to be in charge. That you had earned the opportunity to run the company.
And honestly, we knew our father, my brother and I, that if we weren't able to perform, he wasn't necessarily going to put us in charge, and he made that very clear. So we knew that it wasn't a given. That we had to prove the ability to run his company.
Right. Let me talk a little bit about change, Steve. You know, the world we're living in today is going through dramatic change in every form and fashion, and my experience has been that leaders are tested most when they're going through substantial periods of change. Talk a little bit about the industry that you're in, the petroleum industry, and how it changed over your many years of working in that industry.
Wow. I mean, I can remember when my mom and dad first got in the business in the early '60s. They sold gasoline, motor oil, change tires. It was all full-serve And then my father went out and heard about this new phenomenon called self-serve on the west coast, took the family out, and came back and changed his business model because he saw he could sell more fuel at a lower cost to operate and hopefully increase profits.
Well, a lot of the naysayers in North Carolina told my dad, said, Tab, enjoyed seeing you as a competitor. You're not going to stay in business. Well, lo and behold, he pivoted and did that and was very successful with it. Then come the late '60s, early '70s, 7-Eleven, which was strictly convenience, no gasoline, got into the gasoline business AND started using that as a loss leader.
My father said, OK, we're now going to get into the convenience store business or we're going to be out of business in five years. So my dad, even though he wasn't a learned man—I mean, he graduated from college, but had a business degree in agriculture. He always knew you had to change or you didn't survive.
And what you talk about, the growth mindset here at BB&T, staying static is not an option or you won't survive as rapidly as it's changing. And in today's world, we've been out of the retail petroleum business for several years, but huge consolidations, much more focus on food service, which we were in, we were growing, but it's all economies of scale and additional revenue sources.
I'm sure it had to be a really hard decision to sell the family business. And even though you did it in two parts, it was still a really, really big decision, I'm sure. Talk about the emotions and challenges you had to go through as the final decision maker. You had family members that had interest, but you were the CEO, you were the one calling the shots. How was that?
It was probably the most difficult period of my life because I felt like, in some respects, I was letting my mother and father down. But forward looking, it was probably the best decision for our family. We either had to get significantly larger to compete or we had to get significantly smaller to cut our costs. Staying as is wasn't an option.
And we spent countless hours and days evaluating the pros and cons. And I had a son that was getting ready to come join us in the business, and that's probably the part that hurts the most. That he couldn't have come in and potentially be the third generation to work at our company.
But I think when you get into a family business, not so much a public business, you have to take the emotion of, well, we've always done this. We've been doing it for 50 years. We had just celebrated our 50th anniversary. And that's wonderful, but you have to put that on the side and look at it in a true business decision.
And I think once we took the emotion out of the equation, it was clear what direction we needed to go with our family, and everybody was on board with the decision.
Right. Let's talk a minute about maybe the hardest kind of leadership, and that is in community leadership. You've been a community leader. I know you were very active for a long time in the Winston-Salem Alliance, which, for the audience, is an economic development group. But talk about your experience in that area.
I think the key thing in non-profits is that you have to be, if you're leading it, very respectful of people's time and commitment. And not just the volunteers that are taking time away from their business, but I think also the staff. And so when you have a meeting, I think there needs to be a distinct agenda, a distinct follow up, and a commitment to get things done because people will lose interest very quickly.
And not just financially, but I'm talking about more in time commitment, willing to make calls, be involved if they don't see any productivity because they wouldn't be successful if they were just going to sit there in their businesses. They want to see things move forward.
So when we did it—and I know the other chairman that followed me did the same thing. And that wasn't anything that I instituted. I just think that was the leadership of the people that were chairing it was, let's make things happen. And right or wrong, move forward because you'll keep people engaged. Activity, I'm a firm believer, breeds activity.
As we move toward the end of this leadership series video, I want to talk about what's maybe the most important thing, and that is why we are all here. You've heard me talk about this great book called Man's Search for Meaning, which was written by Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. Made it three years through Auschwitz. An incredible book about his actual day to day existence there.
But in that book he talked about—and it was a phrase that I still remember where he said, if you know your why, you can endure any how. Kind of paraphrased, if you know your purpose in life, you can deal with the challenges in life. But if you're not clear about why you're here, what your purpose in life is, then it makes it hard to get up every morning. Particularly, if there's an obstacle in the way, it's easy to just give up and quit.
You're in a bit of a transition in your life as you move from your years of CEO executive and I know you're beginning to think about some different things in life. How do you think about your why?
My wife and I have decided that we really want to try to make a difference in the world. And I gave her the book that you gave me, The Butterfly Effect, and it's had an amazing impact on my life, that little things can generate big things on the back end.
And obviously, education is a huge need in this country. And there's a number of people that can afford, you know, whether it's community, technical college, or four year schools. There's a number of our children in this country that either can't afford it or they're saddled with so much debt, they can't get ahead in life. Not for a very, very long period of time.
So we're going to set something up. We're literally in the process of talking about that. And to be able to start helping children be able to attend—whether it's to get their plumber's license, their HVAC license, to get their drafting license, surveyor's, whatever it may be, give them an opportunity in life to be successful in their career path.
And I feel so strongly about it because, you know, I was blessed. I had parents that worked hard. And not that these kids don't have parents that work hard, but I was able to go to school and get an education. I wasn't saddled with debt. Well, it's time for me to kind of return and give something back to the community, and I feel so strongly about it.
That's fantastic. What the viewers have just heard is a clear example of understanding why you are here and being passionate about it. And that's two of the most important characteristics of outstanding leaders is that they understand why they're here and they're very passionate about accomplishing what they are trying to do to solve that need, that purpose.
As you and I have talked, I completely share that. We have a major, major problem in this country today, and it's going to take a lot of leaders like yourself to be willing to make that kind of commitment to get out there and improve the educational system. Sadly, today in the public school system, 2/3 of the third graders can't read, which is so sad.
We want to help do some mentoring. So be able to go sit with some kids if they're seniors and say, OK, you know, when you go interview for a job, if I'm the employer, I know that's the best you're ever going to be. Give them a little bit of guidance in life.
Not dictating to them, but just give them assistance and guidance to have an opportunity to maybe get the job of their dream, but also in addition to help them with education as well.
Fantastic. Well, at BB&T, our why, our purpose is to make the world a better place to live. And our viewers just heard an outstanding way to make the world a better place to live.
So thank you, Steve Williams, for being on the Leadership Series. Thank you for being such an outstanding business person and outstanding human being, and a special thank you for looking forward to what you're going to do to help those kids. Thanks for being with us.
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