Robert C. Williams was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 24, 1930. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1953 and from Xavier University with a masters in business administration in 1957. He also attended the University of Richmond, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Harvard Business School. While a student, he worked as a co-op engineer with Gardner Board and Carton Company in Middleton, Ohio. In 1955 and 1956, he was a special student at The Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Following his graduation in 1953, he went to work for Garner Division of Diamond International Corporation, where he held various technical and supervisory positions. He left there in 1959 to head the research department at Albemarle Paper Company. He later became vice president of research and development, planning and budgeting, and industrial engineering.
His association with Brenton Halsey and their formation of James River Corporation was soon well known throughout the industry when they distinguished themselves as innovative leaders.
Creative use of leveraged financing was the basis for most of the more than 50 acquisitions that led to James River’s phenomenal growth to become (for a short period), the largest paper company in the world. Although the term “leveraged buy-out” was not coined until the 1980s, this is exactly what the two partners were using many years earlier.
Most of James River’s acquisitions, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, consisted of poorly performing or nonstrategic operations for their previous owners; often, they were older facilities that were deemed noncompetitive. James River became widely known for its ability to turn around poorly performing assets. For each acquisition, a plan was developed to turn the to-be-acquired assets into profitable operations. Among each plan’s component was a thorough evaluation of personnel and a detailed program to upgrade the product mix while reducing cost. Again, the partners were using a technique now known as “organizational reengineering” long before the term became popular in the business press.
All acquisitions were friendly; in fact, many of the previous owners helped in financing the purchase of many of the early James River mills. In almost all cases, the people from previous owners’ mills or divisions joined James River and continued to manage new operations and programs.
The founders of James River were avid proponents of the use of good science and technology in business, and they especially pushed product performance, the use of creative product development, and strict quality management. They were advocates of the development of technology, not only within the company but also in industry cooperative ventures, such as with educational institutions and trade organizations.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Halsey felt strongly that all employees should have an opportunity to benefit from James River’s success and that a feeling of ownership could be a strong motivator. Thus, they implemented a stock purchase plan for all employees; a healthy company matching contribution was included, and 75 percent of all salaried and hourly employees would participate. Their stock option program was extended to levels of management that had never before been considered. In addition, a unique profit-sharing plan for all salaried and many hourly-unionized employees was based on both the company’s success and individual and division contributions to that success. Although all of these programs are commonplace today, they were considered extremely creative at the time they were introduced in James River.
Mr. Williams’ association involvements include American Forest & Paper Association, member, executive committee; board of directors, past chairman, executive committee, Specialty Packaging & Industrial Division; and past chairman, Pulp Producers Executive Board. He is past chairman of the board of trustees for both the Institute of Paper Science and Technology and past chairman of the Miami University Paper Science and Engineering School Foundation. Mr. Williams is also a TAPPI Fellow.
In 1983, Mr. Williams was presented the Distinguished Alumni Award, Xavier University; and the Distinguished Alumni Award, University of Cincinnati, in 1984. In 1985, he received the Paper Industry Management Association (PIMA) Man of the Year Award.
Mr. Williams served as president and chief operating officer of James River for 20 years and then as chairman, president, and chief executive officer until his retirement in 1996. He and his wife, Barbara, raised two children. Their residence, Lioncrest, is on a small farm on the James River near Maidens, Virginia, west of Richmond. Mr. Williams enjoys hunting, fishing, golf, tennis, designing houses, reading books, and working on community projects.