Pillars of North Carolina: Bill Williamson
William H. Williamson III, who is known as Bill Will by his friends, likes to remind people he was born when Herbert Hoover was president.
Williamson, 90, grew up during the depression, lived through World War II, and grieved the death of his parents at age 13. When his first child was born with autism, he chose a job as a stockbroker to provide a stable income for his family rather than pursue a career as a professional golfer.
After attending Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., he chose UNC Chapel Hill because of its strong golf program. He graduated with a degree in economics and established himself as a top player, finishing second in the 1953 NCAA national championship and qualifying five times for the U.S. Amateur Champion- ship. In his last appearance in that prestigious event in 1959, he lost a close match against a teenager named Jack Nicklaus.
In 1955, Williamson interviewed with several brokerage houses with offices in Charlotte. At the time, financial advising wasn’t a popular career. But Ralph Van Landingham Jr., his initial boss at Harris Upham & Co., convinced Williamson that astute stock selection and salesmanship were valuable skills. After six years, he transferred to Reynolds & Co. and stayed for nearly two decade as a Charlotte leader for what became Dean Witter Reynolds and then Morgan Stanley.
In 1985, he formed his own hedge fund, Williamson Investors, with Dean Witter Reynolds’ blessing. He built the business to more than $30 million under management before selling it and retiring in 2000. He remains an avid investor, reviewing his portfolio when he rises at 5:30 a.m.
Beyond the markets, Williamson became active in many Charlotte nonprofits, serving as president or chairman of groups including the Arts and Science Council, Mint Museum of Art, Alexander Youth Network and Spirit Square. He was a key supporter of city and county ordinances that required 1% of the cost of new public buildings to be allocated for artwork.
A supporter of the Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas, he’s been involved in raising more than $100 million for various nonprofits over the years. After raising two children with his first wife, he’s been married for more than 40 years to Pat Locke Williamson, one of the first females elected to the Charlotte City Council.
Williamson still golfs regularly and stays active in the sport, partly through his friendship with Harold Varner III, 31, one of the few Black players on the PGA tour. Williamson met Varner when he was attending high school in Gastonia and helped raise money for the golfer to attend national events early in his career.
Comments are edited for length and clarity.
My family has a motto: Modico augetur modicum. In Latin, it means [a little added to a little makes a lot] the power of compound interest. That’s been my guiding influence. Save your money and don’t spend it foolishly. Everything I’ve done in business has been built on that family motto.
My father was a good business guy. He taught me every- thing about saving money and earning money. I had to do certain chores every day in order to get my weekly allowance. When he went away during World War II, I started working for the Charlotte News as a carrier. I started building my own account.
After I went to college, I went into the Army for active duty, mostly at Fort Jackson at the end of the Korean War. After I finished basic training and learned how to shoot ma- chine guns, they had an opening as a bookkeeper at the Fort Jackson Golf Club.
The brokerage firm I decided to go with was Harris Upham. The reason I joined them is the guy who ran the office, Ralph Van Landingham, Jr., had the best reputation for making money for the customer and not for the brokerage firm. I had to take a little less pay there, but I decided to go with the best trainer I could work for.
[Van Landingham] taught me everything that led to my career as an investor. One [tip] was to buy into businesses that have a good, long-term path, and not to do the hot stock of the week from the brokerage firm. Think about businesses that are durable and will grow. I was able to go with him to visit companies. In those days, you could do that. I learned how to ‘kick the tires.’
[Pat Locke and I] met at the time Spirit Square was being resurrected. She was on the city council and I was in these arts organizations. She, being on the city council, helped me understand how politics work.
I had gone on a trip with the Chamber of Commerce to Baltimore and Philadelphia. We heard about the 1% for art effort they’d done for those two cities. Pat and I discussed how we could get it done in Charlotte. We had to make all kinds of calls to line up the votes to do it.
Golf taught me so much about dealing with hardships and tough times. You’re going to hit some bad golf shots. You’re going to mess up and you have to get over that. A lot of junior players couldn’t handle adversity. They did not understand how to use strategy to win golf matches.
I think it [golf] helped me invest in stocks. In golf, you make a mistake, there’s no team to blame. If you hit a bad shot, it’s on you. If I mess up on a stock recommendation, it’s on me, not the analyst in New York who told me about it. I decided when I was older, I wasn’t going to get any better at golf, but I probably would get better at investing.
Harold [Varner] and I met when he was still in high school in Gastonia. I had a guy who caddied for me and he told me, ‘Bill, there’s a young man in Gastonia who needs some help. He’s qualified to play in the First Tee championship at Pebble Beach.’ I called the PGA in Jacksonville, Florida; they have a fund to support young people to go to tournaments. He won the Pro-Am First Tee Open in 2007 with [veteran pro] Morris Hatalsky. Harold made four natural birdies on the back nine on Pebble Beach. It was on TV, and I saw it. When he got back, I asked him to play as my guest at Quail Hollow.
The key issue about Charlotte is how to handle growth. It includes how to deal with the need for low-cost housing. We also have a big need for homelessness issues: People who are on the streets and can’t survive without help.
I am buying stocks anytime I find a good idea. I call that, “taking it out for a date.” You don’t get married unless you go with somebody awhile. And you don’t want to get married to a stock until you really understand it, and you can’t learn it all in one day.
More recently, I would say that Microsoft has been my best investment. I talked to my people eight years ago, and I asked, “Why aren’t you looking at Microsoft?” It had a huge number of customers that related to Microsoft, the software as well as other products. I felt like those customers, if given the opportunity to get a better product, would trade up and not jump over to IBM.
Everyone is down on IBM right now. But they still have all these customers. They’ve got new management. You want to be looking at ways to invest in technology, not necessarily at technology companies, but who will benefit from the technology.