When he was a schoolboy in Northern Virginia, construction company executive Frank E. Williams III remembers, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath made a public guarantee before Super Bowl III that his team would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
"I was about 10 years old and a rabid Colts fan," said Williams, now chairman and chief executive of Manassas-based Williams Industries Inc. "When Mr. Namath carried through with his guarantee, I sat there on my bedroom floor . . . crying. So I guess that was one of my life's lessons."
Now, 36 years later, in the aftermath of a dismal earnings report by his company last week that warned of a "liquidity and business crisis," Williams is having to make his own promises against long odds.
With his company's auditor voicing "substantial doubt" about the ability to continue, Williams has personally guaranteed completion of his firm's major remaining contract -- a $30 million portion of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge -- and pledged to reverse three years of decline.
Williams Industries may have to scale back. It may have to sell off buildings or turn equipment over to creditors. But the company will survive, Williams said.
"My message is that, yeah, we have problems," he said. "Some of those problems were internally generated. Some of those problems were external factors we couldn't control. But we have lost $11 million this year and we're still here.
"Right now we're down. . . . But we're in it for the long haul."
The past few months have been an exercise in financial triage for the firm as it has tried to stay afloat amid a fall-off in new business, rising steel prices and what it acknowledges have been "operational inefficiencies." It has closed its plant in Bessemer, Ala., and started looking at land, equipment and other assets it can sell. At this point it is "in default of nearly all of its other debts and leases," and creditors have threatened to begin repossessing equipment, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
To cover a cash crunch, founder and retired chief executive Frank E. Williams Jr., 72, has lent the company more than $2 million, purchased land from the firm under a lease-back arrangement, and given his personal guarantee for repayment of an overdue line of credit from United Bank. With the guarantee in hand, the bank agreed to postpone collection of $4.4 million until March. The elder Williams is the company's major shareholder, with 46 percent of the stock.
It is a risk, said the younger Williams, but one the family is willing to take to try to salvage the business that bears its name and that helped construct contemporary Washington. Founded in 1960, the firm worked on some of the Washington area's best-known landmarks, including the MCI Center, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the original Tysons Corner shopping center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Williams Industries is one of Washington's rare old-economy companies, a business that revolves around fashioning steel into bridges and highway girders.
The company has survived crises before, but investors wonder whether the commitment of the Williams family will be enough this time.
"The difficulties they have run into the last 12 months when we all expected them to be out of the woods and participating in a strong economy have stunned a lot of shareholders," said Bonnie K. Wachtel, a longtime Williams Industries shareholder who is chief executive of Wachtel & Co., a District-based brokerage and investment firm. "At this point people are really wondering if the Williams family is going to pull it off again because this situation is serious."
Along with the outside factors that the company cites, such as the rising steel prices and lack of highway funding, its own miscues have hurt -- the failure to include price-escalation clauses in contracts to buy steel, for example, and the decision to open the Bessemer, Ala., plant, which proved to be a money loser.
The younger Williams, who runs the company along with his brother Arthur, plans to review the entire operation, which has 385 employees at facilities in Manassas; Richmond; Bedford, Va.; Wilmington, Del.; and Gadsden, Ala. One option he is considering is selling off property, he said, even the company's headquarters.
"They may have to get smaller," said John A. Yerrick, a member of the Williams Industries board who once audited the firm as a partner with Deloitte & Touche LLP. "It's hard to picture them growing a lot, considering the financial shape they are in. But the Williamses are survivors, and I think they'll figure their way out of this."
There are even rumblings among some of the company's 400-plus investors that the level of family control has gone too far for a publicly traded company.
"Some are concerned that the Williamses are too dominant in the corporation," said Marianne V. Pastor, a company vice president.
But, Pastor said, "you are dealing with men who do not like failure, don't readily accept failure and are going to do what is right and rational to avoid failure, including putting up their own personal assets. . . . 'Put your money where your mouth is' is a slogan they believe in."
The next few months will be critical -- "crunch time," as shareholder Wachtel puts it.
When shareholders gather for the next company meeting on Nov. 5, they'll be quizzing Williams about an earnings report that records losses of $11.4 million for the fiscal year ended July 31, compared with a loss of $780,000 in fiscal 2004. The same document revealed that vendors were in "various stages of foreclosure" on several large pieces of construction equipment and that one creditor has sued Williams Industries for alleged nonpayment on a $900,000 lease for a heavy lift crane and a specialized trailer. The company has a working capital deficit of $3.2 million.
Since the report was released on Friday, Williams Industries' share price has dropped from $2.89 to $1.79. The stock traded at more than $4 a month ago.
Williams insists his company will pull through -- without what he refers to as the " 'B' word," bankruptcy.
An avid sports fan and Little League baseball coach, his first job at the firm was picking up trash from the steel yard. He took over when his father retired in 1994 and says he is not going to be the one to seek a court's protection.
"Every time I hear the 'B' word I grimace," Williams said. "I just don't like that word associated with me."