Kevin Williams may be a power player at GM Canada, but he’ll never forget his humble beginnings

By Kay Layne

(Created for Sway Magazine)

Being in charge at General Motors Canada is no small task. However, as president and managing director, Kevin Williams is up for the challenge. And he has an impressive resumé to back him up—having held several high level positions in the US, Mexico and Europe.

The youngest of 12 children, the power player came from humble beginnings. “I came from a very poor family,” says Williams. “But I always had this dream that someday I would be sitting behind a desk as a businessman.”

Growing up in Lexington Park, MD, role models were few and expectations were low. “Nobody around me back then was encouraging me beyond just going to work for the military,” says Williams, “because in my hometown that is what everybody did.” Instead, working up to 12 hours a day, Williams paid his own way through school at the historically Black Tennessee State University to obtain his bachelor’s degree in business management in 1983.

He was the first in his family to graduate from university. And that afforded him a variety of career options. “Coming out of Tennessee State, I was fortunate enough to have eight job offers,” he remembers. “I picked GM because cars were something that I loved.” That was 28 years ago.

But the road to success was sometimes bumpy. It even included a recommendation by Williams’ first GM supervisor that he be let go before his probationary period was even over. “He said that I didn’t have the intelligence or the intellect or the capability to be a GM employee,” he says.

However, he wasn’t let go and went on to work his way up in the company, taking on the role of president of General Motors Canada in 2010 during extremely tough economic times. Newly rescued by the Canadian government, many believed the automaker should not have been given preferential treatment. Williams disagrees.

“Most people did not understand the significance of a company like General Motors,” he says. “And if it had gone under, its impact to its supply base and to communities all over Canada would have been immediate and devastating.” GM Canada has since paid back its loan in full. Williams claims the automaker is a stronger and sustainable company more than ever before. “We are not declaring victory,” he says. “But we have restructured the company from top to bottom. Virtually every aspect of the company was torn apart and put back together.”

A baseball bat in his office serves as a reminder for Williams: “The bat is a reminder that we are not here to only hit singles. We are here to hit homeruns with everything we do,” he says. “We are at a point of renaissance on the product front. Our goal is to move from being known as a great truck company to a company with a wide portfolio. Our new products demonstrate that we are not only in the game to compete, but we are in the game to win.”

Williams not only has big plans for his organization, he also holds himself accountable to the Black community. “I see myself as having the responsibility of being a positive role model to people of African descent,” he says. “It is important to reach back and give back. And if I, of all people, coming from my dire circumstances can be here today, anyone can.”