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The small-town boy who became a high-impact businessman

Ron Williams has never forgotten his roots


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THEN

Ron Williams was a small-town Nebraska boy who became a high-impact Colorado businessman.

There were 300 people in the town where he was raised, and his high school graduating class had 10 students.

“I do have to admit,” Williams says, “I was not valedictorian.”

As soon as he finished college in Kearney, Neb., Williams drove to Denver, where he spent a year working for the government and eight years at Arthur Andersen as a staff accountant.

“I had a lot of oil and gas clients,” Williams says. “In those days, we had many oil and gas companies based in Denver. The major oil companies were all here, a lot of large independents. So there was a lot of activity. It was an exciting time.”

In 1977, Williams joined Samuel Gary Oil Producer Inc. and eventually became an owner in the company, which changed its name to Gary-Williams Energy.

“I learned how to take risks; I learned how to avoid excessive risk. And I learned it the hard way,” Williams says.

The company’s community investment division, The Piton Foundation, nurtured some of Denver’s most effective nonprofits, including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Denver Preschool Program, the Urban Land Conservancy, and others. 

“(Ron’s) just constantly involved in doing things for the community. It’s part of his life,” says long-time golfing and business colleague Skip Miller. “To be a really successful person, you have to provide success through your family, and your community, and through your business. Ron’s got all of those.”

But Williams is nothing if not humble.

Says long-time friend Bruce Benson: “He just doesn’t want to get the glory. He works undercover all the time.”

A perfect example is Williams’ effort to raise private funds for a new state-of-the-art Children’s Hospital at the Fitzsimons campus

 “When we made the decision to try to move the Children’s Hospital to some place we could have a new vibrant facility that wasn’t antiquated, I was chairman of the board in those times,” Williams says. “We pulled together key people from the board of directors and the staff and said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”

They did a study into renovation vs. building new and found the cost wasn’t much different.

“We rolled up our sleeves and came up with a campaign,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, we raised through philanthropy, $250 million. I think a little more than that. It was quite a coup to pull it off. We had people with the technical skills, the financial skills, the legal skills, the development skills, who all pitched in and helped.”

Williams served for a decade on the Denver Public Schools Foundation Board of Directors, where he is credited with shaping and influencing education in Denver.

“I remember one day I got a phone call from Bruce Benson, and he said, ‘We need to revitalize the Denver Public Schools Foundation, and we need to go out and raise $10 million.’ And I thought he was absolutely crazy.”

Instead, they raised far more than that.

“Ron is a very competitive person, and everything he does, he wants to do as well as it can be done,” Miller says. “It’s demonstrated in the results he brings about.”

NOW

As chairman of the National Western Stock Show Board of Directors, Williams says he’s been working harder than ever.

“We’ve got a sizable project to reinvent the National Western and make it much larger and much better, and I’ve been spending all my time doing that,” Williams says. “It’s like starting a new career, and it’s been fun.”

The project required more funding than charitable giving, so a deal was worked out with the city for a ballot measure to authorize $475 million in city borrowing to be repaid with a permanent 1.75 percent tax on hotel rooms and car rentals. In November, Denver voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, which will turn the National Western Center into a 270-acre year-round educational, research, commerce and entertainment campus, the impact of which will extend far beyond the annual National Western Stock Show.

 “We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us,” Williams says. “We got the bill passed, and now the work begins. Hopefully, in the next eight to 10 years, we’ll have a new National Western our city can be very, very proud of.”

Another source of Williams family pride: In 2015, Ron and his wife, Cille, gave a $2 million gift to the University of Nebraska at Kearney to establish two permanently endowed funds at the University of Nebraska Foundation that will provide annual support for UNK’s early childhood education and development programs.

“I know what rural education looks like, I know the difficulty they have in getting teachers in the rural areas,” Williams says. “I think it will be a big success.”

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Lisa Ryckman

Lisa Ryckman is ColoradoBiz's managing editor. Contact her at lryckman@cobizmag.com.

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