Blount Williams’ tenacious thoughtfulness, in business and beyond
by Will Lingo
photographs by Geoff Wood
Ostensibly Blount Williams sells office furniture. In reality he is a builder.
Take his family’s company, for instance. Alfred Williams and Company has been a Raleigh institution for 150 years, and it’s still going strong, growing from its headquarters downtown to now cover the Carolinas and Tennessee. Williams has added his own chapter to his family’s history there.
But nowhere is Williams’ impact more obvious, once you know to look for it, than in his community work. His nonprofit involvement is diverse—the WakeMed Foundation, Wake Education Partnership, and Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, to name just a few—and his contributions go beyond simply serving on boards. He leverages the skills that have made him successful in business to bring meaningful action and change to the organizations he serves. He is strategic and visionary, but he doesn’t run people over when trying to execute a plan. He focuses on communication and collaboration, so that his leadership naturally moves people toward consensus.
This community building is perhaps best exemplified by Williams’ leadership in transforming Marbles Kids Museum. He began as a board member of Exploris, the original name for the museum when it opened in 1999. The so-called “global experience center” struggled to find its way, without a clear mission and saddled with debt. The failures of the museum made the relationship between the nonprofit and Wake County, which owns the downtown property, tense. Williams served on a task force to decide whether to close the museum or figure out a way to reinvigorate it.
Exploris eventually joined forces with a small but successful children’s museum called Playspace to form a reinvigorated museum with a clear focus on children, called Marbles. The new museum hired Sally Edwards as president and CEO of the organization, and watched the new entity take off. Williams was the chairman of the Marbles board of directors for two terms as it became a gem in the midst of downtown Raleigh’s rebirth.
“It’s such an important institution for our community, for our children, for downtown Raleigh,” Williams says. “But there was a lot of angst between the county and Exploris when things weren’t going well. At Marbles, that relationship has been transformed.
“It was fun to take something that was kind of souring and watch it become really good.”
Edwards met Williams as she was going through the recruitment and interview process to come to Marbles, and his intentionality and vision made an immediate impression.
“He is such a thoughtful leader, and to have always at the heart of his strategic thinking what is best for the community, it really helps everybody line up around a vision,” Edwards says. “He’s so smart that sometimes you don’t recognize how strategic he’s being.
“He’s not calculated, he’s intentional, helping people buy into a vision for the greater good, coming together for a common cause. And I think that’s true in his own organization, or the museum, or his church. People are inspired by Blount.”
Williams’ deep-rooted and widespread impact does, ultimately, go back to Alfred Williams and Company. Blount is the fifth generation of Williams leadership for a family that traces itself back to Raleigh’s earliest days. The first Alfred Williams was born in Franklin County in 1805 and came to Raleigh when he was 16, finding work as a clerk in a drugstore. By the time he was 22 he owned the place. He worked in various other businesses until the Civil War, and then in 1867 started a bookselling and publishing company that became the Alfred Williams Company, adding office supplies to answer a need in the market.
Over time the company dropped book publication and became a complete office outfitter, with office supplies, machines, and furniture. That was how the company sat in 1981, known by its current name of Alfred Williams and Company, when Williams’ father came calling.
Williams, after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, had fled Raleigh for Winston-Salem, working in commercial real estate there after getting his MBA at Wake Forest University. “I thought I would never come back,” he says, somewhat wryly as he sits in the CEO’s office of the company’s shiny downtown headquarters. “I always said I would never work for Alfred Williams and Co.”
But his father presented it as a challenge, and he saw a small, “typical family business” that was in need of more professional management. His father and uncle were the owners at the time, with office supply, office machine, and office furniture divisions. The transformation took about 10 years, but Williams eventually bought both his uncle’s and father’s shares of the business and sold off the office supply and machine divisions.
Williams decided the office furniture business had the most potential, and it was the area that interested him the most, as it transformed from simply selling furniture to helping a company think about its space, how design could benefit the business and its culture, and helping it achieve those goals.
“In 1981 we just took what the client said they wanted and decorated their office beautifully,” he says. “Now companies are a lot more thoughtful about the spaces they create. They’re more intentional.
“We’re not just in the furniture business, but we’re consulting with companies about their space, and making the company better. That kind of engagement is invigorating to me.”
Once he took ownership of the company, Williams drove further growth, and in 2008 he worked out a plan to merge his company with two others that would put offices in eight markets and cover the Carolinas and Tennessee. The deal was completed on July 1, 2008, but almost before the ink was dry, the Great Recession hit. The unified company, which had 220 employees at the time of the merger, was down to 150 within nine months.
“That was a really painful time, the toughest time in my life professionally,” Williams says. “At the same time, though, if we had been any one of those companies standing alone, then we would not have made it. We always had at least one market that drove our profitability while other markets recovered.”
Alfred Williams and Company always remained headquartered in Raleigh, and it has since moved back downtown, into a beautifully renovated building on Fayetteville Street that illustrates the company’s focus on open, bright, modern office design.
And while the company’s mission has expanded, from simply selling office furniture to consulting with businesses about what they want out of their space and how to achieve that, Williams says the most fundamental element of success has not changed: finding good people and letting them do their jobs.
The other thing that has not changed is the company’s focus on service to its community. It starts with Williams as the CEO and permeates down through the company’s org chart.
“Good corporate citizenship is really important,” Williams says. “… There’s the fulfillment for giving your time and talent to the community.”
Williams sets the example for the rest of his company to follow with his continual willingness to not only serve but to lead. As he sits in his office on a recent afternoon, surrounded not only be impeccably selected office furniture but also a wealth of family photos and paintings of horses (another passion), and reflects on his community service, the most recent challenge that jumps to mind is his service at Christ Episcopal Church, the downtown church where he was baptized.
He had been a loyal member for most of his life, but seven years ago the Rev. Jim Adams, the rector, called and asked Williams to run for vestry, the church’s lay leadership board. Williams won election and eventually acted as the leader of the group as it began an ambitious $10 million capital campaign to retire all of the church’s debt, undertake a huge renovation of the building, and build an endowment to use for outreach projects.
Williams says he was not sure what to expect but found it as rewarding as any service he has ever undertaken. “You’re at the table with your peers, and you’re contributing in your very best way, and you’re learning from each other and teaching each other and growing,” he says.
Adams says Williams’ attitude and his ability as a consensus builder made him an ideal leader for such a complex project, one that has to balance the many, varied interests that come up in a church. Good executive leadership, where everyone is heard but decisions still get made, can be hard for nonprofits of any kind to come by.
“Blount is one of the people who has that,” Adams says. “He’ll make a decision that may or may not please everybody but serves the church the best. And he’s just such a thoughtful guy and a good communicator that he’s very trusted.”
Thoughtfulness. Strategic thinking. Consensus. Collaboration. The same words come up over and over when you talk to people who have worked with Williams.
Mike Ferguson, a doctor at WakeMed and director of Wake Specialty Physicians ENT – Head and Neck Surgery, first served with Williams on the search committee that selected Donald Gintzig as the organization’s CEO, and later on the board of the WakeMed Foundation, when Williams was chairman.
“He is what he appears to be,” Ferguson says. “There is a kindness to his leadership. You never question his authority or ability, but he always delivered his message in a gentle way. He always achieved what he wanted to achieve, but he never did it with a heavy hand. You can’t find anybody who has spent any time with Blount who has anything bad to say about him.”
Ferguson says that aside from the quality of Williams’ leadership, his decisions about which causes and organizations to support also make a difference in the community.
“Because of his reputation and his standing in the community, his service was a huge help to WakeMed and the foundation,” Ferguson says. “His choosing to commit his time and talent put in motion a lot of really great things for WakeMed.”
The common thread, again, is building. And whether it’s his own company or a community organization he cares about, Williams likes to focus on creating a sustainable foundation for the future.
Intensely family-oriented, Williams and his wife Dargan raised four now-grown children in Raleigh, all of whom attended Wake County Public Schools and three of whom have returned to the city to raise their own families. They’ve added 12 grandchildren to the brood, and they’re increasingly the priority.
Today, at 63, Williams is thinking about the future of Alfred Williams and Company, and preparing the company for a non-Williams future. He is now the only family member in the company, and in 2015 he hired John McKinney as the president of the company, the first time someone outside the Williams family has occupied such a role. It’s been a good move, one Williams is proud of, he says. The company is back up to more than 200 employees, with annual sales north of $100 million. While Williams cherishes the family aspect, he is optimistic about the future; McKinney and his colleagues feel like family, and by now Williams’ work and his life interweave regularly.
“Early on, a lot of times I doubted my decision to come back,” Williams says now. “But if I’ve done something well as owner and leader, it’s run a good, medium-sized business that happens to have ownership concentrated with one family.”
Williams continues to take his work beyond the furniture business. He and his wife are restoring two houses on North Blount Street to use for offices and apartments. It has been his pet personal project for the past year, and he sees it not only as a nice investment property for his family but also as a way to preserve historic structures.
The thing that sets Williams apart, though, is his consistent track record of applying that same acumen to his work in the community, again and again. Another current focus is serving on the board of the Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy, the organization that will help Raleigh decide how to transform more than 300 acres in the heart of the city into what it calls “America’s next great public park.” Williams says, “I believe this endeavor will be transformational for the city of Raleigh and the state of North Carolina.”
Even when his current focus shifts, Williams remains involved with the organizations he serves for years after his official work has ended. At Marbles, for example, Edwards says that she continues to hear from Williams about ideas he picks up when he visits museums in other cities. He’s still involved and still a major sponsor. Marbles has gone from a seed of an idea to a successful museum with major expansion plans, and Williams has been central to the campaign to raise money for that as well.
“Blount has continued to reinvent his company, and we continue to reinvent Marbles,” Edwards says. “The confidence of someone like him inspires nonprofits.”
Perhaps the easiest way to sum up Williams’ appeal, whether in business or the community, is that people like him, and want to be liked by him. That comes across in just a short conversation, and in the way that organizations come back to him again and again for service and leadership.
And Williams always answers. Christ Church’s capital campaign was successful, of course, so Adams chose Williams to be part of the leadership for the new outreach fund. Who better to decide what to do with that money to benefit the community?
“I love the guy,” Adams says. “He is so community minded, so focused on common ground, and that’s the kind of thing that tends to be in short supply today.”