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March 2011
Hitting a Home Run
By Casey Jacobus

     When Richard “Stick” Williams took the podium at a press conference in January to announce the Duke Energy Foundation’s $5 million donation to Project LIFT, he was not just representing his employer. He was also representing his childhood and the people who helped him become one of the first black officers at Duke Energy.

 

Batter Up!

     One of three sons born to a single mother, Williams was raised in federal housing—Ray Warren Homes in Greensboro. He grew up in poverty. He attended all-black schools until college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

     He earned the nickname “Stick” for being one of the best hitters in sandlot baseball. When he pictured his future, he thought a postman would be a steady, clean job.

     “I had no idea I was smart,” says Williams. “Even though I got good grades, I anxiously awaited my report card every year to see if I was promoted to the next grade.”

     However, there were people who saw something special in the bright youngster, going out of their way to help him reach a potential he would not allow himself to see. It was these people that Williams reflected upon as he helped launch Project LIFT, a five-year effort to boost graduation rates and close the achievement gap at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

     Now president of the Duke Energy Foundation, Williams is at the helm of working with community leaders to make a positive difference in the community through many initiatives. One of those initiatives is Project LIFT, a $55 million plan to support additional services and educational enhancements in Charlotte’s west corridor, the lowest performing area in the district.

     When Williams helped kick-off Project LIFT at West Charlotte High School in January, he was struck by how the impact hit close to home.

     “I looked at the kids in the audience—that was me,” says Williams. “If these kids can have some of the experiences and opportunities I was given, we can turn their lives around.”

 

Running the Bases

     When Williams dislocated his shoulder playing high school football, he was taken to an all-black hospital, which lacked an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. James Maultsby, a white doctor sent to attend to Williams’ treatment and recovery, took a keen interest in the young teen. Their relationship grew as Maultsby invited Williams to family dinners, introduced him to the sport of tennis, and talked about plans for college.

     “He saw something in me,” says Williams. “Dr. Maultsby treated me like one of his own children. He started shaping me.”

     When Maultsby learned Williams was nominated for a Morehead Scholarship, he accompanied him to the Chapel Hill campus, where the two met with the admissions department and the head football coach.

     Even though he did not receive the Morehead Scholarship, Williams went to UNC Chapel Hill and focused his efforts on the football field as a running back for the Tar Heels. He was sure he was headed for a career in professional football. But when he tore up his knee during his freshman season, those dreams were over.

     “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Williams, “although it was the most painful thing I had ever gone through.”

     Forced to focus on academics, Williams had another one of those transforming moments. He had heretofore kept to himself, sitting in the back of the classroom, because he was in a new environment—he had never been around so many white students before and felt intimated by all the ‘smart kids.’ “But,” he thought to himself, “would I do this on the football field?” That day he took a seat on the front row and never looked back.

     In 1974, Williams enrolled in a summer college internship program at Duke Power in Charlotte, living at the Dowd YMCA on Morehead Street. During the internship, he quickly drew the attention of Dick Ranson, who would later become treasurer at Duke Power. After Williams’ graduation in 1975, Ranson invited him to return to Duke Power in the company’s internal audit department and encouraged him to take the CPA exam, which he did, successfully.

     Ranson helped Williams land a job at Arthur Anderson & Co. and three years later, encouraged his return to Duke Power in corporate finance. From there, Williams took on assignments in departments ranging from cash management to corporate communications to customer relations.

     During his early career, Williams acquired new skills and training as he rotated through departments at Duke Power. In 1988, he was named branch manager for Shelby, N.C., becoming the company’s first black manager in a location of that size. He also became the first black member of Shelby’s country club.

     “One great benefit for the manager of a branch that size was country club membership,” says Williams. “But (at the time) the country club had no black members. It was quite a dilemma for them, but they did the right thing by accepting me.”

     After two years, Williams was transferred to Chapel Hill as district manager and later, Triangle area manager. He and his family, which includes three daughters, lived in Chapel Hill for 12 years. He was soon asked to serve on the UNC Chapel Hill board of trustees, among other boards in the area. Nothing delighted Williams more than becoming the first African American to Chair the university’s board of trustees.

     “It’s been a relatively short period of time since black students have even been welcome at the University,” he recalls. “But, now, one of the premier universities in the nation had a black chairman of their board of trustees.”

 

Rounding Third

     In 1997, Duke Power and PanEnergy, a major player in the natural gas industry, merged to create Duke Energy. Subsequently, the Enron scandal broke in 2001, and the resulting bankruptcy of the Texas-based energy company shocked the country. Ruth Shaw, then executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Duke Energy, and president of the Duke Energy Foundation, asked Williams to come back to Charlotte to serve as vice president of Duke Energy’s diversity, ethics and compliance department.

     Williams’ responsibilities included ensuring the integrity of the company’s compliance processes. From that role, he moved on to manage diversity and talent, working to create a diverse and exceptional work force. In 2008, Williams became president of the Duke Energy Foundation and later was promoted to his current position of senior vice president of Environmental, Health & Safety for the corporation.

     The Duke Energy Foundation was established in 1984 under the auspices of Duke’s legendary president Bill Lee to focus the company’s efforts on building strong communities in the areas it serves. The idea for the foundation grew from James B. Duke’s belief that businesses succeed when the communities they serve are successful.

     The foundation is the expression of the company’s desire to improve the quality of life in those individual communities by encouraging both employees and retirees to contribute their time through volunteerism, sharing the company’s expertise through leadership and supporting charitable organizations financially through grants.

     Duke Energy contributes a portion of its earnings each year to the foundation, which awards grants in three key areas: community vitality, education and economic development, and environment and energy efficiency.

 

Home Run!

     The foundation appears to be the perfect match for Williams’ talent, experience and passion. He has been personally committed to making an impact on his community throughout his life.

     Since moving to Charlotte, Williams has served on the boards of the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, Hope Haven, Inc., Communities in Schools of N.C., and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Foundation.

     His gift for leadership means he does more than just serve on committees; he is often asked to be board chair. Recently, for instance, he took on a two-year stint as chair of the Mint Museum’s Board of Trustees.

     “I don’t know much about museums and even less about art,” says Williams. “I was surprised to be asked to be chair.”

     The timing was daunting; the Mint was moving into a new building and looking for a new executive director. But Williams was undeterred by the challenge, helping to lead the museum’s move uptown, which generated tremendous national excitement, as well as the hiring of Kathleen Jameson, formerly with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

“We’re off to a great start,” asserts Williams. “We are going to create something really special.”

     Williams is also the first black chairman of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s board of directors. He was attracted to the Y board because he sees it as much more than just a gym and pool for Charlotte families.

     “It is more cause-driven than any YMCA I have ever seen,” says Williams. “Volunteers talk about the ‘C’ in YMCA. That got my attention.”

     The YMCA of Greater Charlotte, with 19 branches, is the fifth largest Y in the country. Williams, who gives his own Y membership to someone otherwise unable to afford it, applauds the non-profit organization for childhood development programs like Starfish Academy and its health and well-being classes.

     He also praises the many Y volunteers who put their time and money on the line. Williams particularly lauds Ward Pritchett, the recipient of this year’s John. R. Mott award, for his efforts to make Y services accessible to all through its scholarship and endowment programs.

     “I’m so impressed with the time he has given and the acumen he has brought to the organization,” says Williams. “This YMCA operates in the black, and Ward Pritchett has always done what was necessary to ensure it maintains a strong balance sheet. He makes sure we are spending money on the right things and he always asks the right questions to ensure our financial viability.”

     Senior credit officer in Wells Fargo’s Corporate Bank, Pritchett first became involved with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte in the late 1970s. He served as chair of the YMCA’s board of directors from 2006-2007.

     The John R. Mott award is named in honor of the Noble Peace Prize recipient whose aim was to cultivate Christian leaders. Pritchett earned the organization’s most prestigious award for the vision and strategy he has provided to the YMCA, which has greatly contributed to the non-profit’s long-term financial strength.

 

Score!

     The boy who grew up in public housing and poverty has become a major player in Charlotte’s educational and philanthropic community. While Williams has been climbing the corporate ladder at Duke Energy, he has always been aware of the opportunities he was given amongst many other minority and low income students.

     Where Project LIFT is concerned, Williams sees the broader reach a model such as this can have on the lives of young children, who have great potential, but do not necessarily have the resources to succeed.

     “We really have the opportunity to change the culture,” says Williams. “By focusing on a feeder corridor, rather than one school, we can have a much greater impact.”

     “How do we reach out to youngsters in the community and make sure they have the opportunities they need to succeed in life?—That is the question.”

     And that is the question Richard “Stick” Williams has strived to answer throughout his career at Duke Energy. Using his own life as an example and for inspiration, he has worked in partnership with many non profit organizations and philanthropic foundations to find that answer.

     He hopes organizations and projects like the YMCA, Hope Haven, and now, Project LIFT, provide solutions for the hurdles that keep some young people from becoming all they can be. And, as president of the Duke Energy Foundation, he is doing all he can to make an impact on the community around him.

     “I’m grateful for the chance I’ve had to work on a number of exciting initiatives,” he says.

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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