Fred Williams retires after 46 years of a ‘lucky’ and ‘off-the-wall’ career

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 3,642 views 

Fred Williams says any book about his life and career should be titled “Colors Outside The Lines.” The longtime marketing and advertising agency owner credits his business success to “being lucky, and I’ve tried not to do anything stupid.”

After 46 years in the advertising and public relations business, Williams officially retired July 1 from Williams/Crawford & Associates. Kevin Crawford, Williams’ business partner for many years, now owns and operates the agency.

Williams’ humility is admirable, but folks who know him are likely to say Williams’ success is more tied to hard work, building relationships, and earning trust. And maybe being just a little “crazy.”

Folks like Kenny King.

“Well, first of all, Fred is a very smart guy. Don’t let him tell you he isn’t. And second of all, he just had a way of knowing how my customers thought and what they would want. He interacted with the customers, and he just had a knack. He had this sense of knowing people and how they were thinking and what they were wanting,” King said.

And folks like Sam Fiori.

“I think you make your luck, first of all. And Fred made that. His biggest skill is the ability to truly earn the trust of people in what he says and what he does. He has this way to draw people into his way of thinking,” Fiori said.

King worked his way up from assistant KFC store manager to being an owner of Fort Smith-based KMAC Enterprises, with the support of the late Ken McGruder, one of the nation’s largest KFC and Taco Bell franchises. In the franchise’s early days, the Taco Bell corporate folks encouraged franchise owners to hire ad agencies to develop local marketing. McGruder and King were to hear from big ad agencies in Little Rock and Memphis for the work. They also decided to invite Williams, then a small ad agency with just a few clients and none of them in the fast-food business, to also make a presentation.

King had briefly met Williams while they were volunteers at the Fort Smith United Way raft race – a fundraising event held on the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith before insurance companies decided cardboard boats on a navigable waterway probably wasn’t something they wanted to cover.

“The Little Rock guys, and those from Memphis, they did the usual thing, the presentation we expected. But Fred was kind of off the wall, to put it mildly. He was very, very different from those other agencies,” King said.

What was William’s pitch?

“I told them I didn’t know the first damn thing about the fast-food business but that I knew the people. … These stores are in a lot of these small towns, and they are my people. I know how they think. And I can sell them just about anything,” Williams said when asked about his “off the wall” pitch.

It worked.

“Ken and I decided, you know, we thought he may just be crazy enough to pull this off. So after some deliberation, we decided to go with Fred. Fred continued to be off the wall, which was behind his success. He didn’t just do the same old, same old,” King said.

Williams would work in a KFC learning to fry chicken. He worked in a Taco Bell.

“He made a real mess with some of those first tacos,” King joked. “But he would get to know the business, and he was a quick learner. He got to know the business from the ground up.”

A 2109 family photo. From top left, Elizabeth Williams Thurow, Shirley Williams, Olivia Williams Underdorfer, and Katie Williams Rusin. Bottom row from left, Adriana Rusin, Sloane Thurow, Ava Underdorfer, Fred, Presley Rusin, Karlee Rusin, and Adam Underdorfer.

Fiori, who, along with other partners, would buy the franchise from McGruder and King, began working more with Williams on marketing as the franchise grew from about two dozen stores to hundreds. He said Williams toured the stores, talked to managers and customers, “and really became an extension of the company.” Fiori also said Williams would become a sounding board for decisions not just related to marketing.

“We could sometimes talk about other business, and he was not a ‘yes’ man. He’d think about it and come back and tell you what he really thought,” Fiori said.

It worked. Williams’ ad agency grew with KMAC. His one-man marketing firm would grow into an agency with more than 20 employees and $22 million in annual billings.

“A lot of people have learned a lot of things from Fred Williams. He has definitely left his mark on the Van Buren and Fort Smith area,” King said.

KMAC wasn’t Williams’ only customer. His first client in 1982 was First National Bank of Green Forest – now Anstaff Bank. It’s a client he maintained through his retirement. Other clients included First National Bank of Fort Smith, the Van Buren Advertising & Promotion Commission, Citizens Bank and Trust in Van Buren and the North American division of Mercedes Benz.

“The Germans loved me. They said I was an ‘oasis of creativity in a desert of mediocrity.’ Their words,” Williams said.

“But the biggest reward for me was seeing that what we did helped out clients grow,” he said.

“And another reward, what I’m also proud of, was all the community work we did through all those years. Sometimes I’d get criticized for doing too much free work for a lot of them (community groups/nonprofits), but it’s what I wanted to do. … Remember, working with the United Way is how I met Kenny, and that’s how I got in the Taco Bell business.”

The Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission is one of Williams’ clients he worked with beyond contractual terms. He began working with the commission in 1989.

“Fred’s vast knowledge of all things Van Buren and Crawford County made him a natural for the job. Fred helped develop our first tourism brochures, print ads and logo. Over the years, Fred has been an excellent value for the A&P’s promotional efforts by going above and beyond the normal ad agency duties,” said A&P Executive Director Maryl Purvis. “Fred has been instrumental in developing history-related marketing pieces because of his passion for Van Buren and Crawford County history. I know I speak for the members of the A&P Commission that even though he is retired and enjoying life on the farm, we will still value his marketing advice.”

In the early 2000s, a young Sam T. Sicard was dissatisfied with the public image and marketing of the First National Bank of Fort Smith and its parent company, First Bank Corp., which now has around $3 billion in assets. Sicard’s father, Sam M. Sicard, was then head of the bank. The younger Sicard knew he needed someone experienced and respected in the advertising and marketing business to help convince others in the bank to make a change.

“So I just cold-called him. … I heard just really good things about him and his company. We talked for probably two hours, you know, just hit it off,” said Sicard, who became president and CEO of the bank after his father’s untimely death in 2011.

Working with Williams to meet other company leaders within the First Bank Corp. umbrella, Sicard and Williams worked to change the corporate marketing direction. Sicard said Williams was “masterful” in his ability “to facilitate conversation and to open dialogue” and bring everyone together with a new marketing plan.

“He provided us a lot of guidance and got us out of our (marketing) comfort zone to do things, which I loved. He was able to command the respect of the room, which I couldn’t do at a young age. He helped do what I had hoped to be done,” Sicard explained.

Williams, who will be 70 in October, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Central Arkansas. He worked for a Fort Smith-based public relations agency in Fort Smith before deciding in 1982 – amid a U.S. recession – to open an advertising and marketing firm.

A July 2000 news article on the Williams’ Farm Family selection.

He is also anchored to the area with a large farm operation in Van Buren he operates with his wife, Shirley Campbell Williams. His family has been in the farm business since the 1880s. In addition to raising certified Angus cattle, they also have horses. He’s proud of his business success but lights up when talking about his family and the farm.

Fred and Shirley have three daughters. Katie is married to Pete Rusin, and they live in Fort Smith with daughters Adriana, Karlee and Presley. Olivia is married to A.J. Underdorfer, and they live in Miami with children Ava, Adam and Audrey. Elizabeth is married to Josh Thurow, and they live in McKinney, Texas, with their daughter Sloane. Fred and Shirley’s son Jackson is deceased.

“She (Shirley) will put me to work on the farm, but I’m not sure how much quality work she’ll get out of me,” Williams said with his usual self-deprecating humor.

Williams said a key part of his “luck” and career success was Shirley, who he met on a blind date. He said she managed the home and Van Buren farm the many days and weeks he traveled to Taco Bell and KFC stores and met with other clients around the country.

“All those years I was with the agency, she worked the farm. She kept the farm going. And she was always there with the kids,” Williams said.

Williams said the farm and family helped keep him grounded and was often a good place to ponder client issues.

“And I was able to do it all as a country boy, a farm boy, from Crawford County. … I’d have clients call me while I was brush hogging, saying, ‘I’ve got something I want you to think about.’ And I could give it some good thinking time out there on a tractor.”

He won’t fully retire from the community, however. Williams is a member of the U.S. Marshals Museum Board of Directors, the advisory board for the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, the Regional Council of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and is involved with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Family Enterprise Center.

“I’ve had one heck of a time. I’ve eaten at some of the finest restaurants around the world. I got to travel and I’ve seen some amazing places … and I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of really fine people. It’s just time for something different.”