James Magazine May-June 2020 - Magazine - Page 24
by Baker Owens
THE STORY OF VIRGIL WILLIAMS IS REALLY
THE STORY OF GEORGIA AND METRO ATLANTA
OVER THE LAST 50 YEARS. FROM HIS BUSINESS
CAREER TO HIS TIME IN POLITICS AND PUBLIC
SERVICE, HIS LIFE IS SOMETHING OF A
MIRROR FOR THE GROWTH AND
EVOLUTION OF METRO
M AY/JUNE 2020
is name is likely known to many
James readers but many Georgians, particularly younger ones,
have probably benefitted from
much of his work without ever knowing who he is.
The 80-year-old Williams grew up in the late heyday
of East Lake in DeKalb County, moved to Decatur during
childhood and graduated from Druid Hills High School.
Williams matriculated to the school right down the road
at Georgia Tech. His brother had preceded him there as
a chemical engineering student. Williams studied industrial engineering and came quite close to flunking out his
sophomore year. He failed a class and credits the dean of
students with convincing him to take it again, giving him
advice and setting him on the road to graduation.
Williams started building houses while a sophomore—
perhaps leading to some of those grade problems. That
first year he built three houses but by his senior year he
oversaw the construction of a 40-lot subdivision, a gas
station and a 12-unit apartment building. It was the beginning of a lifetime of doing multiple, major projects at
the same time and seeing success.
From the Scream Machine to Nuclear Power
Over the years there would be many side projects,
some of which proved quite fruitful. Williams had inherited a manufacturing company from his father and was
able to turn it into a munitions parts factory during
the Vietnam War. They happened to have the
right machine tools and equipment to build
what was needed.
His father had also left a small painting contracting
company. When Florida Power and Light had a project
for coating nuclear sensitive areas such as the nuclear
fuel rod containment at Turkey Point nuclear plant, Williams had the engineering and planning expertise to be
able to get the project done without interfering with the
plant operations. He deepened his expertise, becoming
one of the major nuclear maintenance contractors in the
1970s, working with not only Florida Power and Light
but also Georgia Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority
and other utilities.
During all this time, Williams never stopped developing houses and apartments.
When an amusement park called Six Flags opened in
1967, they began looking to add roller coasters and in 1973
Williams was involved in the building of the Great American Scream Machine. It was the one of the first pre-fabricated roller coasters, built off-site at a Williams manufacturing facility in Forest Park and then put together at the
park. Up to that point, roller coasters had been built-to-fit,
measured out on site and then put together. The space of
Six Flags Over Georgia allowed for the new type of coaster
and the Williams boys took advantage.
Williams’ time in banking began with the acquisition of Gwinnett County Bank in 1979 and then with the
acquisition of Fulton County Bank in a small town called
Alpharetta in 1981. This foray eventually was consolidated as the Heritage Bank. The Williams brothers struck a
deal with Kroger to open branch banks inside the supermarkets (among the first in the country to do so) and the
banks quickly grew into from approximately $20 million in
assets to over $300 million.
This would eventually become Bank South— with
Virgil Williams as the major shareholder. continued on page 26
MAY/ J UN E 2 0 2 0