By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, June 7, 2013
Fifty years ago, Sam Williams came to Atlanta for the first time as a Georgia Tech freshman from a small Tennessee town of 900 people “where you knew whose check was good and whose husband wasn’t.”
When his parents dropped him off at the doorstep of his Tech dorm, Williams saw Atlanta as “a great big, scary place.” He was a young man leaving the farm and a 4-H scholarship in Tennessee to study electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.
Within four years, Williams had been elected president of Georgia Tech’s student body, and he was leading protests on the steps of City Hall demanding that student interns be hired for meaningful city jobs.
A tall, lanky man — George Berry — emerged from City Hall asking who was leading the protest and asked for a private meeting. When Williams and Berry were meeting, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. walked by and asked: “Are you the whippersnapper causing all this? Why don’t you come and help me fix it?”
Williams, who’s been president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber since December 1996, has been in a fix-it mode ever since. At a meeting of the Chamber’s executive committee on June 4, Williams, 68, announced he will be retiring at the end of the year.
Williams then sat down with Atlanta Business Chronicle for an extensive interview reflecting on his lengthy tenure in Atlanta’s business and civic communities as well as his roller coaster ride during his 17 years at the Chamber.
After working with Mayor Allen to set up the Atlanta Urban Corps, Williams decided to go to the Harvard Business School. “I realized engineers weren’t making the decisions,” Williams said. “Business people were making the decisions.”
One of the themes in Williams’ life has been to be in a position where he can have an impact on his chosen hometown.
After Harvard, he returned to Atlanta in 1971, serving as the first staff person for Research Atlanta and the staff person for a biracial business group, the Atlanta Action Forum.
That was when Williams first began working on efforts to improve the Atlanta Public Schools — an issue that has followed him and the business community ever since.
“The problems are still the same,” Williams said. “They just morph into different forms with different players.”
Working at Research Atlanta and the Action Forum placed Williams on the front row of history — watching the city’s most important business leaders wrestle with the challenges of a shifting political and economic power structure.
Williams then went to work for Atlanta architect and developer John Portman — helping build an enterprise with a global footprint while developing a new downtown Atlanta skyline.
He became actively involved with civic organizations — serving on the boards of the Chamber, Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Along the way, he developed a rapport with Pete Correll, then-CEO of Georgia-Pacific Corp., who was a leading player at CAP. Correll convinced Williams to leave Portman after 22 years to become CAP’s president as Atlanta was preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Then the Metro Atlanta Chamber job became available. Once again, Correll was a key leader on that board.
“It was an organization on a bigger scale, and I was following Pete,” Williams said. “Pete told me, ‘If you think we had fun at CAP, we’ll really have fun at the Chamber.’ ”
But under Williams, the Chamber decided it would seriously tackle metro Atlanta’s thorniest problems — clean air, clean water, transportation and education.
Chamber leaders also realized it was time to change Georgia’s state flag so it wouldn’t have the divisive Confederate battle flag emblem that hurt the state’s image and its ability to attract major sporting events and conventions.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Chamber had forged a close working relationship with then-Gov. Roy Barnes, who Williams called the mayor of metro Atlanta.
Then Barnes, who had been strongly backed by the Atlanta business community, lost his re-election to Sonny Perdue, who had run on a platform on keeping the Georgia flag.
“The state went through a regime change,” Williams said. “The flag was a sore spot. It was very much a civil rights position as well as a business decision. That was a rough period of time for the business community.”
Being president of the Chamber can be a lightning rod. Williams remembered the heat that the Chamber received when it decided to take on the task of saving Grady Hospital. Yet today, Williams pointed to that effort as being one of the organization’s greatest successes.
Asked about his greatest disappointment, Williams quickly answered that it was last year’s failure of the regional transportation sales tax referendum, also known as TSPLOST.
“It was just disappointing to work on something for so long and have it fail,” Williams said. “It took so much energy. It was a bad time with the economy. There was a lack of trust in government. There was the issue of Georgia 400 and the tolls. Maybe trying to do it in 10 counties was too big.”
He then brought up the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal under the tenure of then-Superintendent Beverly Hall, who had received strong support from the business community.
“The biggest misunderstanding was APS — the perception that some would paint that the Metro Atlanta Chamber was in charge of everything, which it wasn’t,” Williams said.
“It was the Atlanta Education Fund, which appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission. The school board insisted that they have a representative on the commission,” Williams added. “I thought it was a conflict of interest, and I should have raised more of a protest. But I wasn’t even a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.”
Today, Williams is comfortable with the Chamber’s agenda — its new Business and Higher Ed initiative and economic development strategy that’s being funded through the five-year, $28 million Forward Atlanta campaign.
All in all, for Williams, it seemed like a good time to retire from the Chamber, although he plans to stay involved in the community through civic boards, consulting, writing or teaching.
Still, Williams couldn’t help but be reflective.
“The Chamber, good or bad, is given too much of the credit or too much of the blame,” Williams said. “You have got to have a thick skin to put up with all of it. Public policy is not for the weak-willed. You have to be in for the long haul.”