Former SunTrust CEO and Atlanta philanthropist Jimmy Williams has died

Williams ranked among Atlanta’s most influential business and civic leaders
James B. Williams, chairman and CEO, SunTrust Banks

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

James B. Williams, chairman and CEO, SunTrust Banks

James Bryan “Jimmy” Williams, Sr., died Tuesday at age 90, after a lifetime in which he served as an executive of iconic Atlanta companies and an influential member of many philanthropic boards.

Williams rose through the ranks of what became SunTrust Banks before becoming its president, CEO and chairman of SunTrust in 1991. He served on the boards of numerous companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, Genuine Parts, Rollins Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and the Sea Island Co. and had also been a trustee of Emory University, the Westminster Schools and Berry College.

Williams also served as chairman on the powerful Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, playing a key part in helping to save the then-financially challenged Grady Memorial Hospital.

“He was one of a kind,” said Russ Hardin, current president of the Woodruff Foundation and a long-time friend of Williams. “He didn’t get many awards maybe, because he wouldn’t want to go to the dinners.”

The late Robert Woodruff, the beloved former Coca-Cola chief executive, civic leader and namesake of the powerful foundation, promoted Williams’ career, getting him on the Coca-Cola board, Hardin said.

“He called him ‘that red-headed fella.’ And Woodruff picked him out because he was the smartest guy in the room,” Hardin said.

980210 ATLANTA:  James B. Williams. (DAVID TULIS/AJC File Photo)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Williams once said of his guiding principal when he led the foundation: “We are trying to do what Mr. Woodruff would want us to do.”

Williams was also seen as having a close relationship with the late King & Spalding mainstay, John A. Sibley.

“We’ve been around together a lot,” Sibley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991, when Williams was chairman of SunTrust. “He and I are old friends.”

The two served together on the boards of Coca-Cola Co., the Woodruff Foundation and SunTrust Bank.

“He’s been quietly forceful for some time,” Sibley told the AJC. “He’ll ask the right questions because his mind is so quick.”

Williams had an uncanny memory for figures, he said. “He can remember financial statements three years old.” While understandably out of the spotlight these past few years, Williams was commonly seen as avoiding undue attention even when he was an influential “mover and shaker” among the higher echelon of the Atlanta business and philanthropic community, Sibley said in the 1991 interview.

“Jimmy Williams is probably the most powerful man in the city,” Lawrence Gellerstedt Jr., the chairman of Beers Construction, told the AJC at the time.

Looking back now, Williams was clearly “Atlanta’s central business leader during his tenure as chairman at the bank,” Susan Neugent, a former top executive at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Fernbank, told the AJC Wednesday.

“His reach extended well beyond the bank and business community and into civic, not-for-profit, higher education, and governmental organizations throughout the state, all of which are far better today as a result of his leadership.”

A visitation will be held Thursday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at H.M. Patterson & Son — Arlington Chapel in Sandy Springs, the family said.

The funeral service will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University. A private graveside service will follow at Arlington Memorial Cemetery in Sandy Springs.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, Office of Gift Records, Emory University, 1762 Clifton Rd. NE, Suite 1400, Atlanta, GA 30322.

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