21 Nov 2011

Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Charles M. Williams Dies at 94

Renowned commercial banking expert and teacher had impact on generations of students and business leaders

"Extraordinary teacher, inspiration to generations of students who have put his precepts into practice" – Plaque at Harvard Business School in honor of Professor Williams

Professor Emeritus Charles Williams
Photo: Baker Library Historical Collections

BOSTON—Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Charles M. Williams, a renowned authority on commercial banking and a master of the art of case method teaching who influenced the lives and careers of thousands of MBA students and executives around the world, died of congestive heart failure on Nov. 17, at the North Hill retirement community in Needham, Mass. He was 94 years old. His wife of 65 years, Betty (Elizabeth Huffman), and their two children were at his side. At the time of his death, Williams was the School's George Gund Professor of Commercial Banking Emeritus. From 1960 to 1966, he had served as the Edmund Cogswell Converse Professor of Finance and Banking.

During his distinguished career, Williams established himself as "one of the great case teachers and promoters of the case method at Harvard Business School," said Samuel L. Hayes III (MBA 1961), the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Investment Banking Emeritus. "He was dynamic and effective in making problems come alive in the classroom," said Hayes. More than two dozen of his students went on to join the HBS faculty, including Hayes and former Dean John H. McArthur, Jr. (MBA 1959, DBA 1963), who once observed that "As a teacher, researcher, author, wise counsel, and good friend, Charlie Williams has had an enormous impact over the years on all of us at HBS as well as upon the entire banking industry." Other former students had distinguished careers in banking and public service, among them the late John S.R. Shad (MBA 1949), an investment banker who served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Ronald Reagan; Thomas C. Theobald (MBA 1960), former chairman and CEO of Continental Bank Corporation; and C.D. (Dick) Spangler (MBA 1956), a banking and construction industry executive who headed the University of North Carolina from 1986 to 1997.

Williams joined the Harvard Business School faculty in 1947 and retired from the active faculty in 1986 after a long association with the School that began when he was an MBA student from 1937 to 1939. He initially taught in the required first-year Finance course and then moved on to teach his signature class, Management of Financial Institutions, one of the School's most popular second-year MBA electives. His two "sections" of the course were consistently oversubscribed.

Williams, who once described teaching as a "real thrill," was an animated presence in the classroom, moving his arms like an orchestra conductor with a pointer instead of a baton as he deftly posed questions to students, listened intently to their replies, and challenged their views with the skill of a courtroom attorney. He was exceptionally adroit in "getting students involved in a case as it was unfolding in the classroom," recalled Professor Hayes.

Born on April 20, 1917, in Romney, West Virginia, on a hilltop farm granted to his great-great grandfather in recognition of his service in the Revolutionary War, Charles Marvin Williams grew up overlooking the farm and orchard country along the south branch of the Potomac River. He received his first lessons in banking from his father, a local banker who lived through the Great Depression and who passed on to his son a sterling sense of integrity, with the ability to quickly and intuitively make the correct ethical decision. "My father," Williams once said, "gave me a respect for the fundamentals: Know your customers and work with them." His lifelong love of travel dates back to his childhood. With his first driver's license in hand when he was about to turn 15, Williams and his late brother drove to Kansas and Colorado in a Model T Ford, ostensibly to oversee the harvest of their mother's wheat farms but in reality for the pure pleasure and adventure of it. They not only climbed Pike's Peak but had to repair some 30 flat tires along the way.

A superb student who also played four sports in high school, Williams earned his bachelor's degree in history and economics at Washington and Lee University, and like his brother before him, graduated in three years as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Accepted by Harvard's MBA program at the age of 19, he earned his degree in 1939 and worked for two years in the loan department at Manufacturers Trust in New York City before volunteering for active duty in the U.S. Navy. Motivated by travels in Europe by bicycle in the summer of 1937 and by motorcycle through Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, when he saw firsthand the growing dangers and threats posed by Nazi Germany, Williams, despite earlier pacifist views, decided it was his obligation to enlist before war was officially declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.

Commissioned as an ensign, he found himself back in Boston in the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School, which was located on the HBS campus. He was then assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as a dispersing officer, or paymaster, for the crew of more than 2,000. In May, 1942, the carrier was sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea. As part of the ship's evacuation effort, he had to swing on a line, "Tarzan-style," to reach the deck of an American destroyer that had come up alongside the crippled ship to help with the rescue.

Williams then returned to the United States and was assigned to shore duty, which included teaching in the Naval Supply Corps School at Harvard and then a new posting in the Pacific. His academic career was launched in earnest just by chance. Assigned to teach in a Navy ROTC program at the University of Michigan, he asked the dean if he could take some courses in the graduate business school in his spare time. Instead, the dean drafted Williams to teach 150 students business and finance. After a year at Michigan and a discharge from the Navy in 1947 with the rank of Lt. Commander, Williams joined the HBS faculty as an assistant professor. He earned his doctorate in commercial science in 1951 and was promoted to associate professor. He became a full professor with tenure in 1956.

Beyond his unique skills in the classroom, Williams was the author or coauthor of hundreds of cases as well as numerous articles and several books, including Basic Business Finance, one of the seminal textbooks in the field. Coauthored with two HBS faculty colleagues, the text was adopted for use in more than 300 colleges and universities.

While Williams especially enjoyed working with MBA students, he was also involved in Harvard Business School's Executive Education programs. He was a member of the initial faculty group for the School's International Senior Management Program (now part of the Advanced Management Program) in Switzerland and also taught in locally sponsored programs in places such as Italy, Japan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Holland, Mexico, and England. Under the sponsorship of the American Bankers Association, he led conferences and seminars for top officers of the nation's largest banks and taught in the Senior Bank Officers Seminar for presidents of small banks – sessions held at HBS for many years and attended by approximately 2,300 executives. In the 1960s, he taught numerous HBS alumni seminars on topics such as mergers and acquisitions.

In a 1990 Harvard Business School interview, he said that working with executives "gave me a chance to match ideas with people who were very much in the middle of things, to try to think about their problems, and to think ahead in the field with them. I was learning as much as I was teaching" -- experiences that informed his own teaching and research accordingly. Asked what influence he would like to have on his students, Williams gave a response that was no surprise to those who had sat in his classroom. "I would like to think they learned to have confidence in their capacity to deal with unfamiliar issues," he responded. "I hope they have a zest for problem solving." Williams's success in achieving these goals was affirmed by generations of HBS alumni. According to Stephen A. Greyser (MBA 1958, DBA 1965), the School's Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus,"Charlie Williams was one of the most influential HBS professors during his tenure on the faculty. At our 50th MBA reunion, we surveyed the Class and voted him first among professors who had had an impact on our careers."

Williams also served as a consultant to banks and non-financial institutions and sat on the boards of several companies, including Sonat, Inc., Hammermill Paper Company (before its acquisition by International Paper), and Keystone Custodial Funds. He was a trustee of the Chase Manhattan Mortgage and Realty Trust, the largest Real Estate Investment Trust of its time.

After he left the active faculty, Harvard Business School established the Charles M. Williams Fund—endowed by many of his former students—to support teaching, course development, and research in the Finance Unit. In 1994, a professorship in his name was established by the MBA Class of 1963. When the Spangler Campus Center opened at HBS in 2001, in keeping with the wishes of its benefactors, Dick Spangler and his family, one of its function rooms was named after Professor Williams. And thanks to the generosity of Paul Judy (MBA 1957), the Charles M. Williams Teaching Awards were created in 2007.

Among the awards he received was an honorary degree from Washington and Lee University in 1966 and the Distinguished Service Award from Harvard Business School in 1990.

In retirement, Williams continued to serve on boards, teach seminars, read history, and enjoy traveling. Though his hopes to spend more time on the ski slopes were dashed by hip replacement surgery, he enjoyed a good early morning game of tennis and spent many hours gardening in the backyard of the family's home in Weston, Mass. (where he and his wife resided for 43 years after moving from the nearby town of Wellesley), and cutting wood for the fires he lit twice a day in the fireplace during long New England winters. At 86 he was still mowing his lawn before moving to the North Hill retirement community almost eight years ago.

In addition to his wife, Williams is survived by their children, Andrea of Cambridge, Mass., and Holland of Boise, Idaho; and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Professor Williams's memory to the Pine Street Inn, c/o Development Office, 444 Harrison Ave., Boston, MA 02118; First Parish Church of Weston, Mass., c/o Betsy Gibson, 349 Boston Post Rd., Weston, MA 02493; or a charity of choice.

A memorial service will be held at the First Parish Church of Weston on Dec. 3, at 10:30 a.m.


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.