Holly Springs — When physician Kenneth Williams was recognized as the Mississippi Small Business Administration (SBA) 2005 Small Business Person of the Year, it was as owner of Williams Medical Clinic and Alliance Healthcare System in Holly Springs.
The accomplishments of Williams through those two ventures were more than enough to merit the award. Ralph Hall, owner of Flowood-based Hall Financial Services, nominated him, and the SBA selected Williams for the honor because of his firms’ staying power and improved financial position, growth in number of employees, increased sales, innovative product/service, response to adversity and contributions to aid the community.
But those achievements barely scratch the surface of Williams’ triumph over adversity. The multi-talented Moss Point native, who is the only African-American owner of a private for-profit hospital in the U.S., also owns a hotel in Holly Springs, a construction company, and recently acquired a promising restaurant franchise that will soon double in size. He’s also helping Performa Entertainment’s John Elkington develop the Historic Farish Street District in Jackson.
“There hasn’t been just one instance of adversity in my career,” said Williams, with a laugh. “There have been hundreds. I could talk for two days about the company pulling out just after recruiting me to Holly Springs.”
Roots run deep
Williams grew up in a medical family and became a third-generation physician — his father and grandfather were dentists. Following graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi and Meharry Medical College, he completed his residency in internal medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Because he was obligated to practice in a medically underserved community under the terms of his National Health Service Corp student loan, Williams joined Northeast Mississippi Healthcare in 1989, and soon had a thriving practice in Marshall County.
“A year after getting me here, the company pulled out,” he recalled. “They tried to get me to move my practice to Memphis, but once I had developed a relationship with my other family — and my patients are my other family — it was hard to pick up and move. I’m glad I stayed.”
He established a solo medical practice located in a mobile office on the campus of Marshall County Medical Center in Holly Springs. After a year and a half, his practice had outgrown the facility and he moved to the third floor of the 40-bed acute care hospital, which he bought.
“The old place was in a horrible location, and I had a hard time attracting patients, besides overcoming the poor reputation the hospital had gained over the years,” he explained. “In 1998, I built a new clinic close to the interstate and my patient load doubled overnight.”
Immediately after purchasing the hospital, Williams was faced with additional challenges.
“The previous owners hadn’t paid money on cost reports and we ended up buying the stock so the hospital wouldn’t close,” he said. “After two or three months, Medicare hit us for $1 million. They didn’t tell us to pay it. They just deducted it from their payment to us.
“I was in a community that didn’t support the facility, and it was challenging to gain the respect of whites, blacks and Hispanics, to let them know regardless if they were rich or poor, it was OK to come to the doctor’s office.”
During a time when the state’s legal climate made it difficult to recruit physicians from out of state, Williams recruited an obstetrician/gynecologist to reopen the labor and delivery department and neonatal unit after a 27 year-closure.
“Some of the health programs in the country actually do work,” explained Williams. “The National Health Service Corp, which my administrative assistant got me in touch with, helped me recruit the OB/GYN by helping with his medical malpractice insurance for the first few years. It’s really been a blessing.”
Williams’ medical practice now employs more than 150. Last year, the business grossed $20 million.
In 2002, Williams and his wife, Regina, established an annual scholarship and an endowment at Southern Miss to encourage minority students to pursue medical careers in rural settings. The clinic employs pre-med students every summer, and Williams is heavily involved in community health activities, health issue-related fundraising events, the National Youth Sports Program and Boy Scouts of America.
A different flavor
A couple of years ago, when the economy was still in a down cycle and the stock market was fluctuating wildly, Williams was surfing the Internet looking for a different sort of investment when he discovered Crescent City restaurants.
Founded in Houston in the late 1990s by two brothers from Baton Rouge, La., the restaurant offered a menu of beignets, po’ boys and gumbo. In 2004, an industry magazine named Crescent City one of the nation’s hot new concepts.
My wife went to school in New Orleans, and I grew up on the Gulf Coast and knew how to cook real gumbo, not the fake stuff, so my uncle and I flew out and tasted the food and thought it was great,” said Williams. “Now the problem was that those two brothers didn’t quite have a good grasp of what they really had. Sixteen restaurants were open, but they were doing quick service and some of them were struggling in horrible locations. Now, New Orleans food is meant to be enjoyed, not rushed. So when we opened ours, we offered full service and added to the menu. From day one, we were the busiest restaurant in the chain, doubling the income of any other.”
Last year, Williams bought the franchise through the French Quarter Group. He plans to open restaurants in Oxford, Southaven, Tupelo and Collierville, Tenn. Others are planned for Beale Street in Memphis and Farish Street in Jackson. In 2006, the group will begin franchising again “the right way,” he insisted.
Last November, he became 100% owner of Hampton Inn in Holly Springs. He is 51% owner of Phoenix Construction, which is building several commercial projects on Farish Street, including apartment units and condominiums and perhaps other restaurants and another hotel.
“I have learned that you can’t have good businesses if you don’t have good people,” he said. “And to get good people, you have to develop a certain amount of trust and incentivize people you want to lead the way. That’s very important.”
Regardless of their nature, Williams said businesses should have the same high customer service and satisfaction levels, limited overhead and management intervention and a strong bottom line even in weak markets.
“It feels good being here in Mississippi, and knowing that no matter whether you’re black or white, you’re working toward a goal that helps the masses,” he said. “You should be thankful for the person you are, not the color you are.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.