Strength In Numbers

By sharing equity with employees and snaring lucrative corporate-bond deals, Christopher Williams has propelled his firm into the big leagues

Companies that have done deals with Williams Capital attest to its high-caliber service and ability to deliver new investors. "Williams Capital was selected on their proven ability to sell bonds," says Cynthia Ranzilla, director of capital markets and banking at GMAC.

Williams always believed in building a solid structure. Maybe it comes from the fact that he started in architecture. A graduate of Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, he landed a job with an architectural firm in New Haven, Connecticut. But he faced two problems: there wasn’t much work for architects and he wanted to get paid. He decided to pursue an M.B.A. at Dartmouth, where he suffered culture shock after attending school on the predominantly black Howard campus. Unsure of what route to pursue, he decided to take an offer at Lehman Brothers.

After eight and a half years at Lehman Brothers, Williams became an expert in the derivatives markets. That knowledge eventually led to his gaining the capital needed to start his own firm. Says Frank Baxter, chairman and CEO of Jefferies Group, who was introduced to Williams by a mutual friend, "He epitomized the values I look for in business partners. I was convinced that he could make me some money."

Williams set up a limited partnership even as naysayers warned him that leaving the hallowed corridors of Lehman Brothers was tantamount to career suicide. "A lot of people told me I was crazy and there was a point where I stood in front of the building and thought, ‘I won’t be welcomed here anymore. I’m not part of this family anymore, and it’s really the only workplace I’ve known,’" Williams recalls.

Given his success, the naysayers have been forced to eat their words. Repeatedly. In fact, last year Williams Capital announced that it had repurchased the final 19% ownership interest held by the Jefferies Group. Now it was a completely employee-owned firm. Williams had inserted a provision in the original partnership agreement that the firm could buy out the Jefferies’ position by December 1998. After completing some extremely successful transactions, Williams Capital was able to buy its independence five months ahead of schedule. "Their business became so viable our investment was no longer necessary for them to achieve their goals," Baxter says.

Williams says the firm’s new ownership structure should help boost the confidence that its corporate and public sector clients — including several state and local government pension funds — have in the firm. "There aren’t many employee-owned firms out there. Most are the large public companies or have large majority shareholders," maintains Usher.

Having ownership in the hands of the employees also gives Williams a bargaining chip in attracting new employees and retaining key players. Says Williams, "Sharing ownership helps improve the commitment employees have to the firm and improves morale."

It also sets Williams apart from other black-owned investment banks that have capital partnerships with large majority institutions. Some African American-owned firms, such

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