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Executive Profile: Bobby and Roy Williams

Claudia Johnson
Thursday, Nov 1, 2007

Brothers Bobby and Roy Williams are very different – different colleges, different interests, different temperaments. But one thing’s certainly the same – their commitment to the continued success of their family business, Williams Wholesale Supply, to their employees and to their community. And all that makes them very busy guys.

“Bobby can’t sit still,” Roy observed without any hint of criticism about his older brother.

Of course Roy may be sitting still, but he’s fielding non-stop calls, both on the office phone and on his cell. The company has grown tremendously in recent years and has added another store in Nashville.

The brothers recognize how fortunate they are for the chance to make a great business even better. Their company began in 1939 as Williams Hardware Company when Frank Williams, the men’s grandfather, moved to Cookeville to pursue a new opportunity after an unsuccessful third-term bid for circuit court clerk in Overton County. Frank’s son, Robert, chose to stop working on his business degree at the University of Tennessee and join his father in the venture.

Located originally on the north side of the public square, the store stocked tools, small hardware, wagon wheels and rims, seeds and hard-to-find products – especially during World War II when rationing made common items like bullets and other metal objects hard to find and even harder to get delivered to Cookeville. In an effort to serve the public, Robert caught freight trains to any place a distributor had what he wanted.

At age 90, Robert may now be officially retired from the business, as is wife Ethel, but their sons feel an equally strong responsibility to their customers.

“We love to do business with local people,” Williams said, adding that many of their customers are second and third generation, including the many electrical and plumbing contractors that choose Williams for supplies as their fathers and grandfathers did in previous eras.

When the Williams brothers went to college, they knew they would return to the family business. Bobby graduated from Tennessee Tech University in 1976 and joined his father.

“Most people fear they will get out of college and not succeed,” Bobby said. “We only had one way to go. For us, it was a challenge.”

Each of them has two children, and each has a son following “dad” into the business.

“I never considered doing anything else,” said Roy, who returned to Cookeville in 1980 after earning a degree in business at Vanderbilt University, where he played defensive back from 1976-1978. “My son, Lee, is graduating from U.T., and he will join the business. He told me he wanted to work with his dad.”

Bobby’s son B-Bob has been with the company several years, while daughter Julie Beth works as a nurse practitioner in Cookeville. Bobby has been married to his wife Deborah for 31 years, and they live in the same house where he and Roy grew up. Roy and wife Diane have been married for 24 years. Their younger son David is studying outdoor science at U.T.

Roy is an outdoor sports enthusiast with an active interest in related organizations. He spends countless hours with his sons hunting and fishing and relaxing on the houseboat the family has owned for the past 17 years. He’s also spent a number of years coaching youth baseball and softball.

Bobby plays golf to relax, but this year he’s found very little time to do so. He’s chairman of the board for the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce and a board member for the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency and Genesis House.

Both men are board members of First Tennessee Bank and feel strongly about their involvement in community.

“We feel strongly about being involved in the community,” Roy said. “I feel fortunate to be located here.”

Williams Wholesale Supply was the first business in Cookeville to adopt a school, and they have given many dollars in supplies and support to the local Habitat for Humanity.

Another source of satisfaction is that Williams Wholesale provides jobs for more than two dozen people, many of whom have spent a lifetime with the company.

“Their last name is not Williams,” Bobby said, adding, “But they have worked like it is. The Lord has blessed us in many, many ways.”

The brothers heartily agree right now is a good time for Cookeville and for the entire Upper Cumberland, economically speaking. They are awed at how their small hometown has grown since they were young boys, working for their father and grandfather, anticipating a day when they would take the reins of the business and guide it, drive it, into the future.

“I want my son, Lee, and Bobby’s son, B-Bob, to succeed like we have,” Roy said.

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