James Magazine May-June 2020 - Magazine - Page 26
Williams was also the owner of Georgia Savings Bank, a
chain of savings and loan banks that fell victim to the S&L
crisis in the late 1980s. He was one of very few owners of a
federally-chartered bank and a state-chartered bank. The
state-chartered bank allowed for expansion without government approval, so Williams quickly expanded. Eventually Williams’ banking empire would become part of Bank of
America and served on its board for many years.
During his banking expansion, he acquired a data
processing company that specialized in financial services.
This company did all of Williams’ data processing internally for both his savings and loan and federally chartered
banks. Nearly all banks at the time outsourced their data
processing but Williams realized he could do this internally with this new acquisition and save money. This small
company would be sold to First Data corporation a few
years later, which proved very successful for Williams led
to his serving on the board for First Data.
A Turn to the World of Politics
As a Georgia business leader, Williams got to know
the then 16-year Lt. Gov. Zell Miller. They got along well
and Williams was appointed to the Georgia Commission
on Compensation. It was in 1988 when Williams suggested to Miller that he take a look at the higher office.
Miller was unsure about raising the kinds of funds
necessary, but Williams said something along the lines
of “let me take care of that.” This was during the early
stages of the big realignment between Republicans and
Democrats in Georgia and across the South. Nevertheless,
in 1990 Democrat Miller would run and defeat a state GOP
House member named Johnny Isakson (who didn’t let
that defeat end his career in politics).
Williams would go on to become Miller’s chief of staff,
agreeing with him to hire political aides Paul Begala and
James Carville (two more who would go on to even bigger
things.) He was also influential in getting the lottery
launched, which led to the popular HOPE Scholarship and
has provided college tuition to hundreds of thousands of
“My businesses were doing well and I had a good management in place and so I could take the time away from my
businesses to contribute to public service,” said Williams.
Although chief of staff through Miller’s 1994 re-election, Williams decided he couldn’t support presidential
nominee Bill Clinton and began to shift away from the
Democratic Party. It wouldn’t do for the governor’s chief
of staff to oppose his party’s nominee for president, so Williams left Miller’s office and turned back to business.
M AY/JUNE 2020
THEN-GOV. ZELL MILLER CELEBRATES WITH WILLIAMS
WILLIAMS AND FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY
ment Company. The property did well but Williams saw it
needed a major renewal and upgrade. He had a vision that
it could become an attraction like Reynolds Plantation or
He changed the name to simply Lanier Islands and
immediately sat down with the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority board to encourage a reinvestment
in infrastructure. Over the last 15 years, the Williamses
have invested more than $80 million in reinvigorating
When the family took over the property, Lake Lanier
was at one of its all-time lowest levels— for a time, one of
the bridges at Lanier Islands was across nothing but mud.
But within a few years it was back up to full pool. With
a variety of accommodations— including the 221-room
grand Legacy Lodge, six 6-bedroom lakeside Georgia
villas, 30 two-bedroom lake houses and two campgrounds
featuring both tent and RV sites— the resort is open to
both those willing to spend for luxury and those looking
for a camping getaway in the woods.
In 2018, continually looking to improve their offerings
and experiences for guests, Lanier Islands partnered with
Safe Harbor Development and Margaritaville (of Jimmy
Buffett fame) for them to take over management of Lanier-
World, the marinas, campgrounds and water park. The
Williams family still oversees the accommodations, meeting and wedding sites and on-site recreational venues
such as the Legacy on Lanier Golf Club.
The COVID-19 virus presented problems for vacation resorts but Lanier Islands immediately put into
place measures that allowed guests to check in and
check out while following CDC guidelines. When guests
check out, villas are not rented out for two days— twice
as long as the virus could survive on surfaces, and an
extensive cleaning is done each time. It is not a moneymaker for the resort but does allow for some revenue
and a getaway for families.
Williams is a dedicated entrepreneur and still working nearly every day. His passion for business is evident
80 years on, talking about his successes and remembering small details of the few failures— such as his
attempt at a 711 service for job-seekers, right as the
internet started taking off.
This “Super CEO’s” career in business and politics
has touched many areas that loomed large in Georgia and
across the country for the past 50 years.
Baker Owens is a staff writer for James and InsiderAdvantage Georgia.
WILLIAMS WITH FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON
He ended up being an elector for President George
Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign— 12 years after having
served as an elector for Bill Clinton’s first campaign. “Not
that many can say they’ve been an elector for both parties,” Williams quips.
A Lake Lanier Islands Vision
In 2005, looking for his next challenge, Williams and his
family took over Lake Lanier Islands— Williams is the chairman and son Mike is the CEO. The previous owners were
looking to sell and Williams, no stranger to real estate, saw
an opportunity with the 1,000-acre resort and jumped at it.
It had been publicly owned and operated since the
1960s until the property was leased to a private company
in the mid-1990’s. Due to its ultimate ownership by the
Army Corps of Engineers, the property is leased out to
Williams and his family’s Lake Lanier Islands ManageMAY/ J UN E 2 0 2 0