By CHARLES CANTRELL
At the Oklahoma Conference for Community and Justice’s (OCCJ) annual awards dinner held recently at Tulsa’s Renaissance Hotel, Steve Malcolm, chairman, president and CEO of Williams Cos. Inc., was handed an award honoring the company he heads for its generous support of OCCJ’s mission to fight bias, bigotry and racism through educational programs and projects that promote respect and understanding among all people. It was another page for a Tulsa company’s storied past of community support and involvement. Williams, as it is now branded, is a nearly century old locally owned and managed international company that has not only grown up with its home office city, it has been instrumental in developing much of the city’s character and self image.
In 1908 two brothers, Miller and David Williams started a construction company in Fort Smith, Ark., and built a reputation for completing projects on time and on budget. In 1919 they relocated to Tulsa and got caught up in the growing oil boom frenzy brought on by the famous Glenn Pool and other oil field discoveries by starting a pipeline construction company called Williams Brothers. Pipeline construction, Williams Brothers and Tulsa were in their infancy, but all were poised to make a big impact on the state.
Williams Brothers wasted little time in becoming a premier pipeline construction and engineering company by approaching every project with an unwavering commitment to quality and professionalism. It was a commitment carried forth and refined with the next generation of Williams.
In 1949, after 39 years of building pipelines around the world, the company founders retired and the reins went to cousins John, Charles, David and eventually Joe Williams. It would usher in a new era of amazing growth and diversification. Both Tulsa and Williams Brothers were coming of age. The new era featured stunning acquisitions by the company like the 1966 purchase of the country’s largest petroleum products pipeline, Great Lakes Pipe Line Company. This would lay the cornerstone for the company’s modern-era as it continued to evolve into an integrated energy resource company engaged in production, gathering, processing and transporting of natural gas to heat homes, generate electricity and fuel industry.
In the 1970s, after 60 years of doing business as Williams Brothers, the company adopted the name Williams Companies to better reflect the new company model. Tulsa was feeling its oats in the throes of an oil boom that was driving unprecedented prosperity. It was a decade marked by the building of the Williams Tower, adding a prestigious punctuation to the Tulsa skyline. It remains the tallest building in the state and stands as testament to the enduring partnership between a great city and a great company.
The 1980s would test both the city and Williams as the energy industry fell on bad times. But both would show resourcefulness by adapting to the times. Tulsa would begin a concerted effort to diversify its economic base and wean itself from over-dependence on energy and energy related business. It would also be a decade that would feature Williams breaking the mold by innovating the use of abandoned pipelines for fiber optic conduits in anticipation of the digital era. The resulting fiber optic infrastructure created by Williams would position the city as one poised on the edge of the new technology.
For the city and Williams the beginning of the new millennium would bring the ultimate test as both entities experience a tumultuous time brought on in part by the bursting of the economic bubble that had swollen around technology stock over-speculation. For Williams it would be a time of selling and consolidating assets, paring down, reorganizing and redefining its focus by rededicating itself to core strengths and values. For Tulsa it would be a time of planning by bringing together citizens, civic leaders and city officials to formulate a vision for the city’s future. Both efforts are today baring fruit. Together the city and Williams embarked on the road back fortified with the enduring values of perseverance and an unwavering commitment to the high standards that have always served them well.
A telling moment came in 2002 when at the depth of the Williams troubles a large contingency of Tulsa civic and business leaders gathered in the lobby of the company’s offices as a show of support and to express their gratitude for the myriad of good things the company had done for the city. There were no plaques or awards handed out on that occasion. It was simply an impromptu, sincere, heartfelt thanks from a city Williams had grown up with.