Meet Dr. Williams

November 18, 2005

This internist started practice in a trailer in rural Mississippi. Now he owns a hospital, a clinic, an ambulance company, and he's not done yet.

Thirteen years ago, internist Kenneth Williams went on a mission to bring more medical care to a hill-country town of 8,000 in rural Mississippi. Opening his solo practice in impoverished Holly Springs, a town with few physicians, Williams started out with his office in a trailer.

Today, the 45-year-old Williams presides over a thriving medical empire-his clinic, an ambulance company, and a 40-bed for-profit hospital-with gross annual revenues of more than $20 million. Financial success even enabled him and his wife, Regina, to establish an annual scholarship and an endowment at the University of Southern Mississippi for minority students who want to pursue medical careers and practice in rural areas.

Earlier this year, the US Small Business Administration honored Williams as Mississippi's Small Business Person of the Year. The SBA praised him for buying a troubled hospital-the only one in Marshall County-and stabilizing its finances. It also recognized his "staying power" in remaining to aid a community abandoned by so many others.

He came to repay a debt, and decided to stay

A native of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Williams attended Meharry Medical College, the historically black college in Nashville, with the help of a state loan designed to encourage Mississippi residents to come back and practice in the state. After an internship and residency at Detroit's Wayne State University, Williams came back to work off his loan.

He started work in 1989 at a government clinic in Byhalia, population 1,000, about 35 miles from Memphis. In 1992, Memphis-based Methodist Healthcare knocked on his door. The company had recently acquired the Marshall County Hospital, a 40-bed facility in nearby Holly Springs where Williams had privileges, and they were recruiting.

Holly Springs was anxious to bring in new physicians. "The mayor and other local officials also helped recruit me," Williams recalls. A four-doctor clinic had just closed, leaving only two physicians for the town's 8,000 residents (one of them would leave within a year of Williams' arrival).

Methodist Healthcare agreed to guarantee a portion of Williams' income, to build him a clinic, and to recruit two other doctors. Williams took the deal. What he didn't realize then was that the income guarantee was no more than a loan, which Williams would have to repay out of his receivables. (He ended up rejecting the guarantee after only three months.) He also had no way of knowing that, although a physician from Detroit and another from New York would come down to look at Holly Springs, neither one would decide to stay. Worse, Williams couldn't know that Methodist Healthcare would dump the hospital and leave town before it got around to building the office it had promised him.

Williams simply plowed ahead. His first office in Holly Springs was a trailer with four exam rooms. "I started at seven in the morning, and didn't close until six in the evening," he remembers. "I was seeing 35 to 50 folks a day to start out. I was covering the office, the hospital floor, and the emergency room." The pace, apparently, didn't faze him. "I'm a hard worker," he says. "I just love people and taking care of their illnesses."

It wasn't long before Williams started expanding. "I knew I needed a nurse practitioner, so I recruited one that I had worked with in Byhalia," he says. She saw about 20 patients a day.

After about a year in the trailer, he relocated to a building next to the hospital, then to office space within the hospital. In 1998, after outgrowing that office, Williams got a loan from the Small Business Administration and built a 7,000-square-foot clinic located on a major highway.