By Maria Saporta
After 17 years as president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Sam A. Williams told the organization’s executive committee at a specially-called meeting Tuesday morning that he will retire at the end of the year or when his replacement is hired.
Williams, 68, has been one of the leading voices of the Atlanta business community for decades — at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, three years as president of Central Atlanta Progress and 22 years at the Portman Companies.
In his role as president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Williams has been instrumental in a number of civic initiatives — helping save Grady Hospital; working to change the Georgia flag; meeting the standards of the Clean Water Act; trying to reduce congestion and increase investment in transportation; revamping the region’s economic development strategies; improving the area’s quality of life; and trying to improve the outcomes of students attending public schools.
“No one has done a better job in good times and in bad times than Sam Williams,” said Tom Bell, a developer and investor who chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2005. “In addition to Grady, in every issue that counts — quality of life, jobs education, economic development, Sam has played a critical role. Atlanta would not be where it is today without Sam Williams.”
Bell, who has also served as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Metro Atlanta Chamber is considered to the “No. 1 local chamber in the United States,” largest because of the leadership of Williams and his team.
Williams said that when he was originally hired in December 1996, his original agreement called for him to work until he was 65 years old. Then three years ago, the executive committee asked him to say on for another three years. Williams said it was important to him for the Chamber to complete its five-year strategic plan and complete the five-year Forward Atlanta campaign before he retired.
“This is my decision and my timing,” Williams said. “I wanted to make sure that the new business plan was in place, that we had the funding and that we structured our staff to carry out the plan.”
The Chamber, which has about 4,000 members and is a leading business organization in the state, has raised $28 million. Williams said he is committed to raising another $2 million by the end of the year.
“Throughout his career, Sam has made an extraordinary contribution to Atlanta,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who attended Tuesday’s executive committee meeting. “This is a moment when we should cheer for him and acknowledge his good works. I could not be more pleased that I had three years as mayor to work with him.”
Williams said he has always seen his role at the Chamber as being two-fold — helping the business community organize around fixing problems in the region as well as chasing economic development opportunities.
Traditionally — dating back at least six decades — the Metro Atlanta Chamber also has been one of the most progressive voices in the state by advocating for a tolerant position on integration by being a “city too busy to hate.”
The Chamber pushed for professional sports teams, it lobbied for public transit and MARTA, a global economic development mindset and a commitment to building Atlanta as an aviation hub.
The business community also aimed high for Atlanta — whether it was to attract the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the 1994 Super Bowl, the 2000 Super Bowl, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and numerous Final Four championships.
John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises who chaired the Chamber in 2011, said Williams had a way of engaging top business leaders — one quality that sets the business organization apart from others he has been involved with in other cities.
“When I first came to Atlanta, Sam reached out to my wife Mary and offered to help us make the transition to Atlanta,” Brock said. “We immediately connected because of our shared love for Georgia Tech.”
Brock also respected Williams for being willing to take on the “gut-wrenching” issues of Grady, the state flag and the T-Splost — the regional transportation sales tax.
“We were all disappointed in T-Splost results,” Brock said. “We all learned a lot of lessons from that experience. Some don’t turn out as positive as you’d like.”
One of the biggest controversies was the involvement of the business community with the Atlanta Public Schools through the administration of Superintendent Beverly Hall. Press reports uncovered widespread cheating in Atlanta’s schools on state tests, and the business community was portrayed as being too supportive of Hall despite the evidence.
“As information came out, the Chamber should have been more responsive,” Williams said. “Now we have to look to the future and do what’s best for the students today.”
Carol Tomé, chief financial officer of Home Depot who chaired the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2012, said it was a year of hits and misses with the biggest disappointment being the T-Splost and the highpoint being the Forward Atlanta plan, applauding the work that Williams had done.
She also said it was critical for the Chamber to have a succession plan so there would not be a disruption in the organization’s leadership.
“Sam has been a terrific asset,” Tomé said. “The way he has planned his retirement is the way you want it to be because it will ensure a smooth transition. It will be his legacy.”
Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power and the current chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said he has named a search committee. In addition to himself, it includes Brock; Tomé; Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, who is chair-elect of the Chamber; SunTrust’s Jenner Wood; Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; and AT&T’s Sylvia Russell. That group likely will select a search firm within the next couple of weeks.
“We are now focused on the future,” Bowers said. “We want to be sure we have the right leader for the times we are facing as a community. The legacy of the Chamber is one we have got to protect. It is a forward-looking entity that is focused on job creation and quality of life for metro Atlanta.”
Meanwhile, Williams said he will be available to help the new Chamber president through 2014 as needed during the transition.
“I have a new wife and three wonderful grandsons,” Williams said. “I’m going to be doing things in the community — consulting work, writing, teaching. That is my plan. I will continue to be involved.”