It was a hot afternoon in Lexington Park, Md., during the summer of 1972 when 11-year-old Kevin Williams joined his older brother and five other neighborhood friends on a trip downtown to a local Five and Dime store. They had planned on stealing goodies from the store to divide up among themselves.
As one of the youngest in the group, they told him to stay outside to keep watch and wait for them. Too young to have mastered a poker face, they were afraid his “guilty” look he had whenever they went on their stealing escapades would give them all away.
Standing outside the store as his brother and friends went inside, Williams saw a sign on the door advertising local baseball sign ups and said if you are an athlete and want to play ball call this number.
“So, I asked someone going in the store for a pen and wrote the number down on my arm,” he said. “When I got home I called up the coach and was invited to try out. I made the team and separated from my brother and other friends and went down a different path from there.”
His brothers and five other friends eventually graduated from petty theft to more serious crimes and each ended up doing time in prison.
More than 45 years later, Williams looks back on that moment and readily acknowledges it was a simple twist of fate; a poster inviting him to play baseball that altered the trajectory of his young life. He looked up to his older brother and followed him and their little pack everywhere they went.
“It changed the narrative of my life and taught me you have to keep positive people around you,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if I had stayed with them, my life would have ended up pretty much the same [as theirs].”
That is a lesson Williams never forgot and keeps it as an operating principle in his personal and professional life. And it has served the 58-year-old corporate executive well.
So well in fact that the poor 11-year-old boy who stood watch outside the Five and Dime store on that hot summer afternoon grew up to be one of the most successful African American businessman in the country today.
Williams was recently named President and Chief Executive Officer of GAA Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management (GAA). This Detroit-based business, founded by the prominent businessman and philanthropist, Dr. William “Bill” Pickard, is one of the country’s largest African American-owned businesses.
GAA is a diversified group of companies which serves customers in the aerospace, automotive, retail, food and beverage, government, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries in the United States and Canada. GAA has operations in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Ontario, Canada. With 100 employees in the company’s headquarters in southwest Detroit, overall it has 1,600 total workers and posted revenues of $302 million in 2018.
Williams took the reins of daily management of the company from Sylvester L. Hester, who was elevated to board chairman of GAA.
Prior to joining GAA, Williams spent 31 years in global and divisional leadership at General Motors. He was most recently the board chairman, president and managing director of GM of Canada Ltd. In that role, he was responsible for leading all GM operations in Canada, with revenues of $38.7 billion. Prior to that, he served as GM vice president and general manager, service and parts operations, where he oversaw all of its global aftersales businesses with annual revenues of $24.5 billion. He also served as chairman and global process leader for the GM Automotive Aftermarket Strategy Board.
Williams also held several other senior global roles at GM including chairman, president and managing director of GM de Mexico, Central America and the Cayman Islands and global executive director of supplier quality and development for GM Worldwide and GM Europe among other assignments.
“Kevin Williams is a game changer for GAA,” said Hester. “His proven leadership capabilities at GM, including a strong track record for growing revenues, managing global operations and delivering quality-driven processes and products, will be key as we continue to diversify and expand our global network of resources to meet the demands of our supply chain customers.”
Williams said his success in life is motivated by a quest for knowledge and a commitment to taking full advantage of every opportunity to learn, improve, and expand his personal and professional skills.
No one in his family had ever attended college and he was not encouraged to do so. In fact, as a teen he was told by a close family member he was not college material. So, at 17-years old he could not even conceive of achieving the life he has attained now.
However, Williams knew he was going to get the hell out of little Lexington and do more with his life than what he saw around him. “I begged my closest friend in the world to come to Tennessee State University but he ultimately landed in jail, and for a very long time in prison. But I had for whatever reason, an urging that called me, so I still went.”
“It couldn’t be any more than God saying, ‘you have capacity and a purpose.’”
He worked his way through college as a janitor under the watchful eye of a gruff, but supervisor who secretly let him study on the job.
Williams eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Tennessee State University and a master’s of science degree in administration from Central Michigan University. He also completed the General Motors Senior Executive Development Program and went on to become one of the company’s top experts in supplier development.
It was there he met Pickard and established a working relationship with him that would eventually bloom into a business partnership both men take great pride in.
“GAA is a company I worked with when I was head of supplier development at GM,” Williams said. “So, I accepted the offer to come out of retirement for GAA because it was the imagination of the leadership and their desire to be the best they could. And the extraordinary man, Dr. Pickard, who poured into the life of everyone around him that made it attractive enough for me to come back.”
Pickard is equally complimentary and said Williams’ blue-ribbon credentials sends an important message to other black businesses.
“It might be a message to other black businesses that even though we were able to have some success and some longevity with the grit and grime of pure entrepreneurialism, I think the move to get a professional manger to get us there is indicative of our long term survival as intergenerational success,” he said.
Looking over the arc of his life; its peaks and valleys, Williams said the most important lesson that helped him to be successful in life both as a black man who grew up poor and later as an ambitious professional comes down to two things:
“Make a decision when faced with an opportunity or at a crossroads. It doesn’t do you any good to stand and wonder. Choose and try to choose wisely. The second is you can’t just skim along. You have to get depth and breadth in your career,” he said. “People that skip from position to position don’t do well later in life.”