From The Streets to Global Software Business
How an alcoholic, drug-addicted homeless drifter turned to God, turned his life around—and went on to start several multimillion-dollar companies.
— In photo above: Teresa and Bob Williamson
Bob Williamson has lived the kind of life most of us can only dream of — but only if half of those dreams are terrifying nightmares. In short order, here are some of the roles Williamson has played in his 64 years: Teenage vagabond, homeless drifter, armed robber, check forger, alcoholic, methhead, heroin addict, crash survivor, atheist, born-again Christian, loyal company man, software pioneer, small-business owner, white-collar fraud victim, publishing impresario, artist, playboy, husband, father, author, spa maven, philanthropist, lifesaver, possible soothsayer, cold turkey quitter, multimillionaire, and everyday guy trying to build a happy, stable, sober life for himself.
Williamson’s life as a serial entrepreneur has seen him build a number of successful companies, but true to form, there was plenty of drama along the way, which he chronicles in his autobiography, Miracle on Luckie Street. In both Willimason’s professional and personal lives, it’s been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but for the past few years, there’s been more peaks than valleys. A few years ago, he sold Horizon Software International, which specializes in food service supply chain management, for a tidy sum. And today, he’s using some of that money to build a dream resort and spa on the Greenville, Fla., land that he calls home. It’s the kind of place where they’ll smoke your duck from the day’s hunt.
Bob Williamson is a man who has seen it all. And then some.
“From a young age, I was always in trouble. I started drinking at 12, taking drugs at 17. I went to 19 different schools, hopped freights all across the country, went into the military, got court marshaled after six months. They diagnosed me as a sociopath and kicked me out. I got addicted to methamphetamine, so I would stay up for several days and then use heroin to come down. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. I was very violent, a vicious criminal carrying a .357 Magnum. I was living in New Orleans, committing armed robberies and forgeries, things like that. I found out there was was a sting operation to catch me. The police were running a dragnet, sweeping the French Quarter, so I hitchhiked to Atlanta.
“I was basically penniless and I didn’t know anyone, so I got my first job. I cleaned mortar off of bricks, so they could be reused, but nothing else changed. I got into a bar fight, nearly killed a guy cutting his face with a broken bottle. A couple of weeks after that, I got drunk and was in a head-on collision that nearly killed me. While I was laid up in the hospital, I befriended a nurse who would check out books from the library for me. I noticed that the Bible was on top of the bestseller list, so I decided to check it out. I was an atheist, so I read the Bible to try and disprove it, but I became enamored with Jesus Christ. It seemed like he was filled with compassion, not condemnation, which had always been my impression of religion. That experience reading the Bible changed my heart. ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ What I wanted to do was change my life. I was 22 and I’d seen a lot of people die — shot, stabbed, overdosed. I was suicidal, thought I was going to die, but I became convinced that the Bible was true. I got out of the hospital determined to change my life.
“I never went to rehab, I quit the drugs on my own, although I didn’t stop drinking until later in life. I met a nice girl from a good family and we got married. I didn’t tell her about my past. I went to work for Glidden paint company. I was smart enough to realize I didn’t have a good resume, no college education, so the only way I was going to get ahead was to work harder and smarter than everyone else. For $350 a month, Glidden gave me the worst job in the place, keeping up with the labels down in the bowels of the manufacturing plant. I cleaned it up, painted the floors and walls white and got a maintenance guy to put in some fluorescent lights. I figured out a way for the company to save significantly on light bulbs, so they promoted me. I moved up eight more times, to the management level, and I realized I’d learned enough to start my own business.
“In 1977, I borrowed $1,000 on my credit card to start this little company, Wildlife Artist Supply Co. (WASCO). Airbrushed painting was a hobby of mine and I’d developed some paints that I really liked. I ended up building it into a multimillion-dollar business. Ultimately, we had a mail-order operation with some 6,000 items, which was expanded into other companies in publishing, manufacturing, retail stores and consulting. We had a magazine called Breakthrough that I edited and I started the World Fish Carving Championship, the World Taxidermy Championship, all kinds of things. I’ve founded 11 companies, and they’ve all been successful.
“In the late 1980s, I had a deal in place to take WASCO public. I went back and held a company-wide meeting, told everyone there would be stock options, we were all going to get rich. It was going to be great. All that remained was a three-year audit. The next day, my comptroller came in and turned in his notice. He’d been robbing me blind for six months. What happened was a group of employees had been having pot parties, sitting around, getting high and talking about how I was doing everything wrong and how much better they could do running the company. They hatched a plan to compete with me and started stealing whatever they could, starting with my mailing list, which was everything. I didn’t have good controls — I trusted everybody. We had 64 employees at the time, but I still considered it a small family business. My comptroller had been there from the early days. He had a key to my house. Three days later, we were down to 19 employees, I was $278,000 overdrawn, owed a million and had no inventory. I had no money to buy inventory, and everyone was threatening to sue me. They destroyed all my hard copy vendor files — I didn’t even know who I owed money to. I sat down and wrote all my vendors and said, ‘I promise I’ll pay you back if you don’t sue. But if you do, I’ll have to declare bankruptcy and you’ll get pennies on the dollar.’ Fortunately, I had 300 vendors, so I didn’t owe one single person a whole lot. They all worked with me and for years — I’d write them each week with a status update with $5, $500 or $5,000, whatever I had. I paid it all back and ended up selling WASCO without going bankrupt. It was a miracle.
“I’d sat at a table shooting heroin with someone and then watched them drop dead, so I’d been through much worse. The thing was, though, for seven years, every phone call I took was some bill collector threatening me. It was horrible. I’d had an entourage of friends, all kinds of movers-and-shakers wanting me to join their clubs, but they all scattered like roaches when the lights come on. It was miserable and I questioned why God was punishing me, but now I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned how to budget, how to really run a company. I got my Ph.D.
“I was disillusioned with the industry, and wanted to do something else. When I was at Glidden, it was when mainframe computers were just coming around. I’d worked in every department, so ultimately, my job was a roving manager, filling in whenever somebody was out. When Glidden switched from a manual to a computerized system, I gained a lot of experience working with the programmers because I knew the ins-and-outs of how the manufacturing plant worked. When I started WASCO, you couldn’t buy software to manage the supply chain. So I hired a programmer and we designed a system. I was basically self-taught and every year I would update it. It was sophisticated and lasted 15 years. After WASCO, I realized how much I had invested in software, so in 1992, I started Horizon Software International.
“My sons are talented software developers, so they came to work for me. The plan was to find a little niche and sell it to small distribution companies. I hired an independent sales rep who thought it would be perfect for managing school lunch systems. I went out on a call with him and the woman flipped out when she saw what my system could do. I modified it to fit school food service and pretty soon I was dominating that market all across the country. It’s the number-one system. We put it in Los Angeles Unified, the country’s second-largest school district. We put it in hospitals, colleges, senior living communities, and the U.S. military. We’re in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, every land-based ship, submarine, and remote battlefield. It’s funny because they kicked me out of the service.
“I sold Horizon in 2008 to Roper Industries for $75 million, all cash. We closed shortly before the stock market tanked. I think it was a premonition from God. I actually predicted Lehman Brothers would crash. I saw the credit card and the mortgage bubble. I thought GM would go and I was worried about what the Obama election would do to capital gains. I called everyone together and said I know the plan was to grow to $150 million, but I think we should get out right now. The quicker the better. Two months later it was a done deal.
“At WASCO, we reached a million in sales pretty quickly, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I distinctly remember when my personal net worth reached a million. I looked at my financial statement and I was so excited to be a millionaire. My whole life, everyone had told me I wasn’t going to amount to anything. I called my dad and the news was met with a yawn more than anything. My brother’s reaction was even worse. My feelings were hurt because it seemed like nobody cared, except for my mother-in-law, who couldn’t stop squealing into the phone. But it’s God, not money, that matters. Years ago, I replaced my violent criminal ways with a lust for money. I got addicted to the jet-set lifestyle and turned my back on God and family. That’s why God punished me with the seven years of hell at WASCO. Millions don’t mean that much. Nobody is going to stand before God wearing a Rolex.
“After I sold Horizon, my wife wanted me to retire. We have some beautiful property in the Florida Keys and I spent six years there, fishing every day, and taking time out to write a book. I got skin cancer and my doctor told me to get out of there, which was fine by me. I’m not a guy who likes to sit around. In 2008, I purchased 4,700 acres in Greenville, Fla. and decided to build Honey Lake Plantation, a spa and resort. We’re hosting events like weddings, retreats and quail hunts, and come this November it will be open to the public. We have to finish the restaurant and conference center. I like to build things, so I’m my own contractor. One of my sons will handle the operations.
“My mission for the rest of my life is to help people, to convince people to never give up hope. I’ve been there. I was a junkie, I was into witchcraft, I nearly died in a car wreck. If I can overcome what I did through the power of God, then anyone can. I know a lot of secular people out there don’t want to hear it, but I’m sorry. I just don’t care. My brother turned his back on God and ended up committing suicide. He shot himself and I was devastated. I do a lot of public speaking because I know what it’s like to hit bottom and how to get out of it. I titled my autobiography Miracle on Luckie Street. When I landed in Atlanta, I was at the intersection of Luckie and Fairlie Streets. Fairly lucky? That’s me, but only through the love of Jesus Christ.
Top row: Michelle K, Jon, Owen, Nick, Teresa, Michael, Bob, Little Jim
Bottom row: Evan, Michelle C., Hailey, Lauren, Ashlee, Lee
—First Read on HUFFPOST SMALL BUSINESS