Business Q & A

A conversation with Sam Williams

Sam Williams is a man on the move.

Williams, 58, managing partner at the Wichita advertising firm Sullivan Higdon & Sink, has a lot of work on his plate.

He's one of the leaders charged with navigating the three-decade-old company through an economic downturn.

And it just so happened that four years ago he was plugged into the succession list for Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce chairman, landing the role in 2010 when downtown revitalization moves into high gear.

"When they came and asked me four years ago, I figured I'd be dead before I ever got around to doing anything," Williams said, chuckling.

"To be honest, you know, the reason we do these kinds of things is the quality of the community we live in is critical to the success of our business.

"If we don't have a great business environment and a great community to live in, then our customers cannot recruit people here to run their businesses. If their businesses aren't successful, we're not successful. So it's altruistic, but it's very selfish at the same time."

So there was no grand plan for 2010, when downtown is really going to be shaking?

"Nope. You know, community service has been a part of SHS forever. Al Higdon, Wendell Sullivan and Vaughn Sink, they're the guys that started it, and I remember coming here from Utah 20 years ago. I got off the airplane and came here and met with Al and Wendell and Vaughn, and they started telling me the things they were doing in the community. One of the first things Al told me was about being . . . Windwagon Smith for the Wichita River Festival.

"It's just part of who we are."

You'll be chairman of the Chamber, though, in a very pivotal year?

"That's the beauty of our community right now. We are in a down cycle. We do have serious challenges. But at the same time, we realize that.

"Jeff Turner said it best at the aviation thing: You've got to plan for when things are going well. You can't downsize and do everything as if we're going to stay in this environment. Our downtown, our schools, whatever it is we're working on, we have to be able to look beyond today. That's kind of what I like to do. I'm not a glass-half-empty guy. Our business is totally look-forward.

"But at the same time we've experienced what everybody else has in our business this year. We're two-thirds the size that we were a year ago."

What are the challenges before the chamber next year?

"We have the need in our community as we face these times to keep a business environment that attracts and maintains business.

"We're going to quite frankly have an environment where tax increases are going to be more than just talked about. They're going to be proposed, all sorts of things. One of our biggest challenges is going to be to develop and maintain a business-friendly environment. No new taxes, and maybe be bold enough to come out and say this is the time to transform our community and our state and look at the way we tax.

"Jason Watkins will be a huge help as we look to meeting the expectations our members have had for the chamber: to increase our advocacy for them at the state. That became evident this year as we talked to our members, particularly our large members. Traditionally, our part of the state hasn't had a unified voice, but the cool thing is thanks to Visioneering, we've had the unified legislative agenda that has allowed our legislators to come together and act as one to go after very specific goals.

"We have to be looking to economic development in this community. That's where downtown development, that's where Visioneering, that's where our Young Professionals group comes in, allowing us to sit back and take a look at where we're heading."

What about economic development?

"As we go on this journey we're on, we can't take our eye off economic development. We're working with the GWEDC (Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition), providing the proper incentives to keep business and bring business to Wichita.

"We need to stay with that effort, and we have several partners involved in that effort, some of them public and some of them private, all feeling pressure from the economy and when that pressure comes in, it's 'Well, let's back off. Maybe we don't need to do this.' We have to keep our eye on the goal, and that's got to keep on going.

"The challenge we have is to make sure we provide the proper support to our aviation sector. We talk about diversification, like we need to minimize our aviation. We have an advantage there that no one in the world has, so we want to grow that, protect that and help them to have the resources they need to be able to stay competitive in Wichita in a way that's meaningful to them."

Protect that?

"Everybody in the world wants these companies. I mean, North Carolina, Oklahoma, whenever our people go somewhere they'll come up and say, 'What do I need to do to get your jobs?' And these people literally have the money in the bank to get that done... to go home and write them a check.

"We have to have the ability to have those same kinds of opportunities here in Wichita."

What advantages does Wichita have as it positions itself for the economic recovery?

"One of the biggest advantages we have in our community if you talk to industry is that we have billions invested here by our aviation manufacturing companies.

"It's here. We have an advantage. Everyone else has to build that.

"To go on, we have a trained work force that is ready to go now. They don't need a training program. They are ready to go now, and the value of that is tremendous. It's been recognized by the people we're competing with because they come in and hire our people to seed their industry....

"We have to keep our eye on the progress we've made. We can't let our training center take a back seat because of the economy.

"It goes back to Jeff Turner's point: We have to be prepared as a community to come out of the recession."