Strength in Numbers

By Seals, Kimberly L. | Black Enterprise, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Strength in Numbers


Seals, Kimberly L., Black Enterprise


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

IT'S HARD TO TELL BY LOOKING AT CHRISTOPHER J. Williams that he's a chameleon someone who seemingly has the ability to morph into anyone or anything he pleases. His tall, slender frame would, at first glance, make him appear to be the athletic type you would find in the NBA, but that would be deceptive. He holds an M.B.A. And though he appears staid, the 41-year-old CEO and president of Williams Capital Group L.P. has a remarkable capacity for adaptation, altering, refining and, when necessary, rebuilding his firm until success was within his grasp.

In the rough-and-tumble world of Wall Street, where investment banks are often as short-lived as Michael Jordan's baseball career, and severe market downturns have been the kiss of death for many firms, Williams Capital has survived and--added to its roster of megabuck deals.

Last year was nothing but net. The company scored major coups in the municipal- and corporate-bond market. In fact, Williams Capital was involved in underwriting more than $4 billion in investment-grade bonds for some of the nation's best-known monoliths, among them IBM, Wal-Mart and Walt Disney.

And this year the firm has served as the co-manager of several more major corporate-bond transactions, including the $1.5 billion deal for Bank of America and a $400 million assignment for GMAC, the subsidiary of General Motors.

By February, Williams Capital ranked 24th among all Wall Street firms in mortgage and asset-backed securities, and won five deals with proceeds exceeding $1.4 billion. In the government agency market, the firm served as the lead manager or co-manager in issuing more than $1.5 billion in bonds for the Student Loan Marketing Association (Sallie Mae), the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Bank (Freddie Mac).

Meanwhile, as the firm expanded into new territory, Williams Capital became involved in 12 major corporate commercial-paper programs in the money-market arena. Average money-market trading volume ballooned to well over $500 million on a daily basis.

Not bad for a man who everyone said was crazy for leaving a secure, fast-track Wall Street position to hang his own shingle five years ago. The New Milford, Connecticut, native has made his bones as a blood-and-guts entrepreneur. But in order to stay ahead of the pack, Williams Capital has had to keep transforming itself to adapt to market conditions and is presently still in the midst of its second metamorphosis while eyeing a third.

Williams has proven that he will reach any goal that he sets his mind to. Over the past year, he has made some innovative moves--including turning his shop into an employee-owned operation--and positioned his company to grab more lucrative corporate deals. With more than $7.6 billion in senior- and co-managed transactions, Williams Capital was selected as BE Financial Company of the Year. Williams and his firm represent the next generation of black investment bankers, ones who will continue to find opportunity through ingenuity and excellence.

"This is a tough business," says Williams. "You have to have skill, talent and preparation to make it. That's what we have been able to amass over the years. It's an all-or-nothing proposition."

OPERATING IN PERILOUS WATERS

In the early 1990s, the use of derivatives to create novel and complex securities became one of Wall Street's best-kept secrets. Williams' entry into the oft-perilous waters of entrepreneurship came when he set up Williams Financial Markets in April 1992 as a division of Jefferies Group Inc., a Los Angeles-based financial services company. The initial agreement between Williams and Jefferies gave Jefferies the right to purchase up to 49% of a successor firm.

When the company first opened its doors, it was solely focused on the then-thriving derivatives market, structuring transactions with debt instruments backed by the value of the underlying securities. …

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