King of the road 

38 years of fast dealing, franchising and blaring messages to motorists

Welcome to Adel, Ga., the apex of outdoor advertising.

That isn't what the billboards say. The billboards say something like:

"Western Sizzlin'. Buffet & bakery. Exit Now. Adel."

"King Frog. Citgo. IHOP. Captain D's."

"Burgerkingburgerkingburgerking."

"Exit NOW. King Frog."

We met King Frog, or at least the owner of the trademark familiar to anyone who has run his gauntlet of billboards. His name is John L. Williams, and he is the emperor hereabouts. Why? Because in 1963, he "learned the power of the billboard."

Williams is explaining his 38-year-old revelation as he eases into the well-worn driver's seat of his Mercury Marquis. He turns the key and starts to pull out of the parking lot of the outlet mall where he keeps his office. But the big, brown sedan rolls forward and swings to the right, away from the parking lot exit. We are drifting in a great, slow arc. "What the hell is he doing?" I wonder.

A red VW swerves to miss us; the driver looks crossly in our direction. An old pickup truck stops and waits patiently as we drift by in the first of many concentric circles. And finally it dawns on me that there is a point to this casual careen.

The windshield itself has become a moving billboard; its view changes from every angle, but its message remains the same: Every place you lay your eyes on this flat South Georgia landscape -- the Citgos, the BPs, the Popeyes, the Burger Kings, the motels, the truck stops -- they're all his.

John L. Williams drives like he owns the place because, well, he does.

Jaydee Ager had chaired the Garden Club of Georgia's roadside beautification committee for just a few months in 1991 when the club's president asked her to look into billboards.

For years, the Garden Club had worked with the state Department of Transportation to plant wildflowers and otherwise beautify the state's highways. Under Commissioner Tom Moreland and then Hal Rives, the DOT had been largely sympathetic to their causes.

But in 1991, then-Gov. Zell Miller staged a DOT coup aimed at paying back powerful supporters. He thrust a developer named Wayne Shackelford into the commissioner's seat. Shackelford quickly moved to revive a state program to allow billboard companies to cut publicly-owned trees that were blocking their messages.

Ager's own revelation had begun.

It wasn't easy. What with four kids to raise and the oil crisis of 1973 to contend with, not to mention the pressure of expanding, expanding, expanding, borrowing, borrowing, borrowing.

"I was broke then and I'm still broke," Williams says with a chuckle. "I've sold a motel for a million dollars, and two or three weeks later I've sunk all that money into another project."

He has built a very specialized fiefdom. Conditions had to be just right in places like Williams' hometown, which is 205 miles south of Atlanta. First comes the highway, which provides an ever-growing stream of travelers to Florida. Then, of course, come the billboards, which pump those motorists onto the exit ramps. Then, there are the businesses themselves, mostly franchise operations that provide out-of-state motorists with familiar brands and the franchisee with a proven formula.

But mostly, there is Williams, 66, an astoundingly energetic country boy, who has failed at more business deals than he cares to remember, who never stops talking and never stops thinking, who seems as if he was stamped out of a production line expressly for this purpose. He spends large parts of the day shuttling up and down the interstate toward meetings with sales people, bankers and lawyers, and large parts of his evenings ready to gab on the phone with anyone about business. It's been like that for four decades.

"It's not like you have to be smart or something," he says, when asked how he manages such a farflung operation. "You grow into doing it."

During the '60s and '70s, the Williams kids mowed lawns, cleaned motel rooms, pumped gas. Today, Williams Investment Co. employs all four of his children, his three daughters-in-law, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and cousins, among some 300 employees and many more contract workers.

The company operates some 35 retail businesses on nine interstate exits (mainly in Adel and near Valdosta); holds around 5,000 acres in Cook County and the surrounding area; and leases land and buildings to dozens of other business, farms and families.

Williams is one in a handful of early interstate entrepreneurs who had the energy and grasped the formula to build highway-based empires. And if something got in the way of their growing companies, well, they just massaged the system to make it work better for them. It didn't hurt to build relationships with county commissioners, state DOT officials, governors and senators.

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