Distributor Family Business of the Year 2016 - Williams & Associates

The loving marriage of two high school sweethearts forms the foundation of a successful family-owned promotional products distributorship.

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Bert and Anne Williams were barely out of high school when they tied the knot. Some 52 years later, they’re the co-owning patriarch and matriarch of Williams & Associates (asi/360450), a Tucson-based firm with annual sales that put the company in the top 1% of distributorships in the U.S. The success is made all the more sweeter by the fact that their three adult children – Kim, Mike and Jeff – work for the company, playing prominent roles in everything from sales to operations.

“It can be harder being a family-owned business because of the emotional family dynamics that come up,” says Bert Williams, a straight-talker with a friendly voice that resonates with the Southwest. “However, it’s a real tribute to our family that we work through the difficult patches and love one another – that we’ve managed to be what a lot of people would say is successful.”

The Williams family story is one of serendipity and persistence. Bert and Anne didn’t jump right in to ad specialties. In his 20s, Bert worked in credit management. From there, he started a business selling silver and turquoise jewelry, making $300,000 in 18 months. While the jewelry business eventually came to an end, the experience revealed something: Bert loved being an entrepreneur. “There was a real adrenalin rush,” he says, “that came with working for myself.”

Only now he and Anne had to determine what their next venture would be. Bert’s brother several times suggested that he and Anne get involved in promotional products. Bert waved him off. “I said, ‘Sell pens and pencils? That’s the last thing I want to do,’” Bert recalls.

But Bert’s older brother stayed persistent, urging Bert and Anne to attend an industry trade show in Las Vegas in the summer of 1977. The young couple went, and it proved to be a life-changing experience. The Williamses admired the organization of the industry. They marveled at the creativity. They felt an energy they liked, and they saw potential for a lucrative business. “I remember saying, ‘Anne, I think this is what God wants me to do with the rest of my life,’” says Bert.

Apparently, he was correct: For the last 39 years, the Williamses have been in the promotional products business. Their children didn’t begin their careers with the company, but after pursuing other ventures, all three returned to work for the distributorship around the same time about 15 years ago, says Bert.

Things haven’t always been easy. No less than six times over the decades the Williams family feared they would go out of business, but “we just dug in, clawed and stubbornly decided it wasn’t going to happen,” says Bert. “And we’re still alive.”

More than that – they’re thriving with offices in Tucson, Phoenix and Hawaii that serve more than 3,000 national and international clients, including household names like American Airlines and Marriot. “What we’re most proud of,” says Bert, “is that our average salesperson has been with us for 27 years” – a testament to the firm’s family atmosphere.

As the Williamses work to expand their online sales business and improve on the already well-honed consultative sales approach that’s won them blockbuster clients, Bert is optimistic about the future and thankful for the life his family has earned through ad specialties – thankful especially, too, for Anne.

“She is a truly amazing woman – not just because I love her and we’re married, but because she has a calming influence, steadiness and capability in business that is invaluable. We wouldn’t be where we are today without her. We complement each other.”