Sir Charles Williams, C. O. Williams Construction Company
C.O.Williams Construction Limited is widely acclaimed as one of the Caribbean’s most respected civil engineering and highway construction companies. Founded in 1960 by current chairman Sir Charles Williams, who was knighted in 2000, the company provides a range of services from its headquarters in Barbados and regional offices in Antigua, St. Lucia and St. Vincent.
The many successes of C.O.Williams Construction include projects as diverse as an oil terminal in St. Lucia, airports in the Bahamas and Bequia, a hydro-electric dam in Dominica, and major highways in Antigua, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and St. Kitts. In Barbados, C.O.Williams Construction has established a solid reputation for its capacity to deliver international standards, reinforced by vast local knowledge. The company is renowned for its expertise in road construction, airport runway resurfacing, golf course construction, marina works and coastal reclamation. Its capabilities encompass quarries, the production of asphalt, ready mix concrete, concrete blocks, pre-stressed and pre-cast concrete, as well as large diameter bored excavations, low-cost housing and high-end real estate and office development.
Over the years, C.O.Williams Construction has invested in a variety of affiliated companies, thereby becoming one of the largest groups in the Caribbean.
Sir Charles Williams: I was born into humble circumstances, but that was a blessing in disguise. My parents worked like Trojans day and night, earning money any way they could to feed and clothe me and my eight brothers and sisters. They taught me the value of hard work and enterprise. By the time I was a young man, as well as holding down a job and managing a farm, I was accustomed to working after hours to earn extra money, and I was always on the lookout for opportunities. So when my brother Richard called me from Miami one day in 1960, to tell me that he’d found some secondhand D6 tractors for sale for US$5000 each, I jumped at the chance to buy one. I had to borrow most of the money, but I was able to pay the deposit with my savings from selling fish and sexing chickens.
I drove that tractor myself, doing demolition and land clearing, until I got a break when I was asked to work with Costains on the new deep-water harbour. After that, more international companies came looking for my services, including Mitchell Construction, McAlpines, Miller Buckley and Wimpey. As the business grew, I was smart enough to surround myself with good people, none more so than the late Mickey Hutchinson and Roger Gooding, who were gold dust to me. We learned our trade working along the big overseas boys, and that experience equipped us to go regional.
“I am happy that after 50 years we are still leaders in Barbados and the region. I enjoy going to work every day.”
Around 1977 there was a shortage of work in Barbados, about 70% of our equipment was idle, so we went looking for business in St. Lucia, where the American giant Hess Oil planned to build a huge storage and transhipment terminal. I went there to rent out our equipment, which they agreed to, but I also put in a bid to crush stone and supply their concrete and asphalt. A few weeks later the phone rang in my office. It was Mr Leon Hess himself calling me from St. Lucia. Before I could recover from my surprise, he shocked me by saying he’d see me in 30 minutes. I was confused, because back then I hadn’t even heard of a G3 jet! We collected Mr. Hess and took him to visit our operations. He’d made it clear that he had to be back to his plane by 4:00 pm, but I really wanted to show him work we were doing at the port. When I asked him to stay longer he got angry, but then softened and said he would – but only if we could get him a box of Cuban cigars! To his great pleasure, and my huge relief, we tracked down a box in a rum shop and went for them. While driving back to the airport, Leon Hess shook my hand, vowed to invest in a crusher, a concrete plant and a power station, and promised to give us the work. That first deal, sealed with a handshake, resulted in C.O.Williams Construction building the entire facility, because when Mr. Hess saw us complete those jobs on time and under budget he awarded us the project.
That early success enabled us to compete better in Barbados, including bringing the first concrete kerb-laying machine into the country, which helped establish us as the road building experts. The company grew rapidly from about 1981, after we built the Spring Garden and St. Barnabas Highways, and we started undertaking our own development projects such as Port St. Charles and Millennium Heights.
I am happy that after 50 years we are still leaders in Barbados and the region. I enjoy going to work every day, so I’m not ready to step aside yet. But, when I do, it will feel good to know that the younger men, especially my two sons, have an opportunity to carry the business even further. Teddy is the driving force behind much of the recent success of C.O.Williams Construction, while Stephen manages the agricultural division. They are well supported by very good managers and a strong team, so I am confident that the company will continue to thrive under their guidance.