Icons Bill and Judi Williams: Telect founders build business for the generations
Couple focused on faith, integrity, caringFebruary 28th, 2019
Bill and Judi Williams have always been a dynamic duo, supporting and encouraging one another in both their careers and in raising a family.
The couple, who met in Alaska in 1962 and married after just two months of dating, are the founders of Liberty Lake-based telecommunications manufacturing company Telect Inc., which they grew from a small business into an international company with over 2,000 employees.
“I think the key was that we each had different strengths,” says Judi. “We tried not to cross into the other person’s strength, but we did have to learn together how best to do that.”
Stacey Smith, associate vice president for advancement at Whitworth University, says the couple have been an inspiration to the community in building a company based on faith, hard work, and dedication to its employees.
“The thing that struck me was their partnership and how they grew this company together, at a time when it wasn’t as common to start and grow a tech company,” she says. “The other remarkable thing was how mindful they were of creating a corporate culture that reflected their values as individuals, one of deep integrity and caring.”
Smith says she was also impressed with the couple’s support of Whitworth, as well as their dedication to keeping Telect local and investing in the community.
“Judi was on our board of trustees first, and later their son Wayne also served,” she says. “They’ve been very supportive of Whitworth’s mission and a variety of projects, particularly those that relate to science and technology.”
Bill says, “Part of the reason we enjoyed being on college boards was to encourage students to pursue new ideas and start their own companies. Technology changes so rapidly that those who are experts now may be out of touch in 10 years, which is why it’s important the next generation show interest and have the desire to move things to the next level.”
Over the years, as Judi’s role at the company decreased somewhat, she worked harder to get Telect more involved with the community.
“We wanted to do what we could to help the community, so that our company could be a place people were proud to work for,” she says.
While they’re no longer actively involved with the company, the Williams’ say they still enjoy lots of time with friends and their family, many of whom have homes in their same neighborhood on Liberty Lake.
“I still do a lot of quilting, knitting, and reading,” says Judi. “We also enjoy family time and living so close to everyone.”
Bill adds, “These days we’re focused on downsizing and setting our kids and grandkids up for success.”
The Williamses moved to Coeur d’Alene shortly after their son, Wayne, was born in 1964. Bill Williams was working then for American Sign & Indicator Corp., a sign-making company founded by his uncles Luke and Charles Williams, who served as two of his early mentors in operating a business.
“They were both strong businessmen who I admired, listened to, and learned from,” Bill says.
The Williams family moved to California for a time but returned to Spokane in 1968, when Bill took a job with Vari-Tronics, a company that recycled cables, cord, and connectors for the telecommunications industry, serving primarily Bell operating companies.
Once the Bell operating companies were broken up in 1982, the industry shifted from a wholesale model to a retail model, opening up the potential for competition from newly formed, independent carriers.
Bill Williams says he came up with an idea to form a new company that would design, engineer, manufacture, and market telecommunications products to those new independent carriers.
“I presented the idea of a new business to Judi and in spite of all the people who thought we were crazy, we went ahead with it,” he says.
The couple started Telect in 1982, operating out of a 32,000-square-foot building in what is now the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, with just one employee, their son, Wayne.
Judi, who had previously been a stay-at-home mom, started handling accounting and human resources for the new company, while Bill focused on sales and product development. By 1984, Telect had grown to 30 employees and $4 million in sales.
“We really had no idea how large the company would grow at the start,” says Judi. “It took a lot of faith, because not many people thought it was a smart decision.”
As investment in telecommunications grew, so did Telect, outgrowing its original headquarters and moving to a newly built facility in Liberty Lake in 1989.
The two say demand for telecommunications products grew steadily throughout the 1990’s with the start of the dot-com era.
Amid the company’s successful growth, the Williamses say one of their biggest challenges was how to ensure Wayne, who was made company president in 1994 and CEO in 1998, was ready to take over leadership of the company.
The couple say the transition was difficult, as they moved into advisory roles at Telect, which they occupied until their retirement from Telect’s board in 2017.
“We didn’t want to intimidate Wayne’s leadership,” says Bill. “Over the years we often had differences of opinion, but I think those conversations really motivated him to be the best leader he could be.”
Adds Judi, “All business is tough, and family businesses can be even harder. Each of us contemplated resigning at one time or another, but we always managed to work through it together.”
Throughout the company’s growth, the couple say they also worked hard to connect with employees and create a positive company culture, an enormous task as by 2000, Telect was operating in four countries and had a total of over 2,000 employees.
Bill says, “We always tried to help our employees grow their experience and have the confidence they needed to succeed.”
Judi adds, “We developed ‘Lunches with Bill’ events to allow them a time where employees could bring their concerns to us. I also used to give new mothers baby blankets with poems, and many of them still have those.”
However, in 2001 the telecommunications industry saw a global downturn, which forced Telect to cut 1,100 jobs worldwide.
“It was hard, but we just tried to do the best we could,” says Judi. “We still hear from former employees who say they’d come back to work for us in a heartbeat. So, that’s the blessing that came out of it.”
In 2017, Telect was acquired by Wallingford Conn.-based Amphenol Corp., one of the largest manufacturers of interconnect products in the world. The company was renamed Amphenol Telect but kept its Spokane headquarters and retained 230 employees.
Around the time of the acquisition Wayne Williams stepped down as president and CEO of Telect, and his son Spencer, was named general manager at Amphenol Telect in November 2018.
The Williamses say they were happy with Telect’s transition, as Amphenol has a good reputation and philosophy of keeping companies they purchase intact.
“We’re happy with how things are and so proud that even though it is owned by Amphenol now, the third generation of the family is in charge,” Judi says.
While both were honored to be nominated in the Journal’s first class of Business Icons, Judi says, “We’re really just regular folks who just happened to be in the right time and place to do what we did.”