TVBA’s Williams sees one door close, but two more open

The adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” clearly applies to local businessman Jonathan Williams. In his case, it’s actually two complementary doors that opened.

In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the 10-year Navy veteran described how an unfortunate downturn in a business that brought him to Knoxville allowed Williams to pursue an idea that he had shelved just one year earlier.

He was a Project Manager for The InSite Group, a local company in the image branding business that fell on hard times in 2009 during the height of the economic downturn. Williams was one of the last individuals to be laid-off and, as a single parent, he knew long-term unemployment was not an option.

“I had an instant choice to make,” he says, recalling the Y-12 National Security Complex’s Veterans’ Conference that he had attended the previous year. Because of his Navy career that involved supply chain logistics, he had considered starting a company, but decided not to do so.

Now, however, the circumstances were different, so Williams said that he joined with a couple of other veterans and founded Accord Federal Services in June 2010 to manage buildings for the federal government. The new company secured its first contract a few months later and is now servicing about 25 federal facilities. The only local building is the Naval Reserve Training Center on Alcoa Highway. Most of the other facilities are on the Atlantic Seaboard and the Northeast.

“We have not yet tapped into the Oak Ridge market,” Williams says although the company has bid on a few projects. Like many, he’s still working to understand the market better.

The company’s business model relies on long-term facility management contracts and a team of high-quality subcontractors to provide whatever services are required at each facility – from grounds keeping to janitorial, building maintenance or whatever.

“We look for reliable, veteran-owned companies” as business partners, Williams said, adding that not one of the 30 subcontractors selected thus far has been terminated.

“I have had a lot of fun . . . never nervous, but I’ve laid in bed many nights asking, ‘What have I done?’”

As if starting a new business with clients in other geographic regions was not enough of a challenge for the single parent, Williams has also found an opportunity to help other veterans get into and succeed in business.

The self-admitted “big proponent of mentors” launched the Tennessee Veterans Business Association (TVBA) at the same time that he and his partners were starting Accord Federal Services.

Williams said that he was in the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce’s Propel program that is focused on helping small businesses realize their own full potential. (See previous teknovation.biz article on Propel at https://www.teknovation.biz/2012/02/29/minter-strong-advocate-mentors/.)

He recalls that Program Director Doug Minter challenged him when he asked, “What are you going to do?” The question was a standard one for Minter who expects Propel graduates to give back as those who helped them did.

The answer for Williams was launching a business organization focused on veterans, something that was supported from the outset by the Knoxville Chamber.

Williams initially said that he thought it would “be limited to veterans” when he convened the first meeting in February 2010. Twenty individuals attended the inaugural session, and 18 of them are still involved more than two years later. The group now has 165 members, ranging in size from companies with a single employee to those with 400 associates.

TVBA also accepts businesses that are not veteran-owned, although the governance structure limits them to non-voting status, Williams explained.

During its first two years, TVBA launched an annual “Business Expo” that drew 111 exhibitors and 1,000 participants in 2011 and 145 exhibitors and more than 2,000 attendees in 2012. The 2013 “Business and Education Expo” is set for January 28 and 29 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

Williams describes it as a “one-of-a-kind in the country” event that includes a business-to-business trade show, networking opportunities, career fair, and education symposium.

When asked about managing his many roles, Williams agreed that he has day, night and overnight jobs. He also acknowledged the importance of his many partners and collaborators like Jenny Freeman, long active with the Energy Technology and Environmental Business Association, and Paul Middlebrooks of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services.

He says his biggest challenge is maintaining the personal relationships with every TVBA member as the organization continues to grow. There is no doubt he will try to do so.

Those interested in learning more about TVBA can find it at www.jointvba.org

 

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