Nick Williams carries copies of his leadership philosophy with him everywhere he goes. He has a copy framed in his office, and he references it when he interviews prospective employees. It’s a living document, revisited and revised at each year’s end. Neatly laid out on a single sheet of paper, his philosophy includes a bulleted list of how he believes a leader should act as well as what he feels are his gaps in living up to those expectations as vice president of engineering and construction at C&S Wholesale Grocers, a leading food supply chain company and the largest wholesale grocery supply firm in the US.
“I played sports growing up right through college and was a goal-driven individual, but when it came to my career, I had never identified what leadership meant to me and how I expected to hold myself accountable for what I believed in,” Williams says. After six months of revisions in 2014, he shared his philosophy with every single person under his umbrella at C&S, from his direct reports to the nighttime janitorial team members. “It doesn’t mean anything if it just sits with you,” he explains. “I’m asking everyone on my team to hold me accountable. If they see me not living up to my values, they’re free to call me out on it.”
Likewise, Williams preaches what he practices so his team understands the importance of these methods, stressing that communication, delegation, and accountability are keys for success. “Communication is critical, and it starts with the individual,” he explains. He notes that feedback should be both positive and negative, allowing the recipient to react and reprioritize when necessary. “At that point, you then need to delegate, and that delegation could be something you have to own, or someone on my team or their team needs to own.” Then, he adds, you need to hold yourself or them accountable.
Another one of his values is that a leader creates “a safe environment where everyone knows that their voice can be heard and risk-taking is discussed.” Since rising in the ranks at C&S, Williams has put a lot of intention behind cultivating the inclusive and open work environment his philosophy dictates. This has proven an invaluable asset as C&S has grown rapidly in recent years, expanding through both acquisition and organic growth. Williams’s team of 53, which oversees a little more than 22 million square feet of warehouse space and handles all of the primary engineering and design functions from conceptual site and building layouts to electric, fire, mechanical, and refrigeration, has played a key role. Beyond that, Williams chaperones the company’s computer asset management system, an IBM product called Maximo, and the analytics and procurement of all material handling equipment (MHE). “We’re constantly balancing day-to-day firefighting against executing on our strategic vision as we move from preventive to predictive maintenance,” Williams says.
Achieving this balance between immediate needs and future company expansion requires a nimble, hard-working team. “I expect a lot and provide guidance, but I ultimately let them have ownership over their work,” Williams says. “They know I have their backs and I’m going to support them no matter what hurdles arise. Ultimately, they know everything I am trying to accomplish is in the best interest of each employee, our department, and our entire organization.”
Williams’s leadership philosophy says leaders develop relationships with team members. He does this enthusiastically, working to schedule time with as many members on his team as he can. It’s all rooted in respect, he notes. “My dad taught me to respect the CEO just the same as the guy sweeping the floors. I know that’s wicked cliché to say, but that’s how I try to lead. Every person matters on our team for us to be successful.”
This tactic has the added benefit of helping his team operate seamlessly as they juggle a heavy load of responsibilities and pull off major projects, such as their latest: the construction of a greenfield warehouse in Houston that was completed in the summer of 2019. The 727,000-square-foot grocery distribution center sits on 54 acres and includes parking for nearly 600 cars, 154 tractors, and 293 trailers. It also includes two outbuildings, a 20,000-square-foot stripping building, and a 25,000-square-foot fleet maintenance building with a central dispatch for supply chain logistics as well as maintenance bays for tractors and trailers, a truck wash, and diesel fuel lanes. While the Houston facility was underway, Williams and his team were concurrently responsible for decommissioning 10 dry space buildings totaling close to 3 million square feet as part of the overall southwest strategic plan—a lengthy, complex process. Additionally, while the Houston strategy was being executed, his team had two major renovations of existing operating facilities in the southeast region, where they were responsible for turning approximately 100,000 square feet of dry grocery into a cooler, perishable space and subsequently turning the perishable space into freezers.
Building the Houston facility was a unique opportunity for Williams, who more typically manages renovations tied to the company’s capital plan. “Houston is our pride and joy,” he says. “Our organization hasn’t done many projects of this magnitude in recent years, but we were able to pull it off because of the trust I’ve cultivated and our ‘one team’ mentality.”
All of this was completed without adding to his team’s ranks. “We’ve got a lot of grit, and we love the challenge,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, we’re a customer service department. We know it’s a luxury to have our own engineering and construction team.”
Williams loves the work, but he loves his team even more. “I look outside my office and see men and women I appreciate getting to work with every day,” he says. “It makes my job worth coming to, and they’re why I get up in the morning and continue to hold myself accountable. We spend a lot of time together, whether we’re on the road or working from our home base. We enjoy rolling up our sleeves and getting things done.”
Cintas congratulates Nick Williams for his recognition by American Builders Quarterly. We are proud to help C&S Wholesale Grocers get Ready for the Workday® by providing products and services that enhance their image and help keep their facilities and employees clean, safe, and looking their best.