December 2, 2023
Florida Icon: Ashbel ‘Ash' Williams

Photo: Mark Wallheiser

"Character matters. That sounds corny, but it's absolutely true," says the former executive director/chief investment officer, Florida State Board of Administration, Tallahassee.


Florida Icon: Ashbel ‘Ash' Williams

(Former executive director/chief investment officer, Florida State Board of Administration, Tallahassee; age 67)

Art Levy | 7/8/2022

What I’ve loved about the investment field is it’s constantly changing. If you’re a lifelong learner, and you have an unlimited thirst for information, which I do, then you get up every day itching to read the news because there are always going to be new opportunities to learn about — and new threats.

I’m one of those rare birds who didn’t just get here from somewhere else. I grew up in Jacksonville. My family was here before Florida was a state. A relative of mine named Marcellus A. Williams, who worked for George Washington’s surveying firm, did the survey of what was then the territory of Florida, which enabled the boundaries of Florida to be identified for statehood.

Character matters. That sounds corny, but it’s absolutely true. When I worked at the New York hedge fund Fir Tree Partners, when we would be evaluating doing a transaction with somebody, if we didn’t know that person, we would really dig into that person’s background. Things that you might not think were business related often were some of the most powerful indicators of the character of the individual you were dealing with — for example, a pattern of dishonesty.

I went to Episcopal High School in Jacksonville and interned at the Florida Times-Union as a photographer. I also considered a career in broadcast journalism. My dad told me to have a conversation with the publisher of the Times-Union and I got some advice that changed my life. He said journalism is a wonderful profession, and I might very well enjoy it, but one thing for certain was I wasn’t going to make any meaningful money. He suggested I get a master’s in business administration and, after learning about how businesses work and how wealth is created and risk is managed, if I still wanted to be in the news business, I would be well equipped to go into whatever part of it made sense for me. So after I got to Florida State, instead of majoring in journalism, I switched over and got an undergraduate business degree and went ahead and got an MBA.

Most American households don’t have any retirement savings. I mean they literally have none. So my advice is to start saving early. It’s easier now than it has ever been to set up some simple investment account somewhere. If it’s a retirement account, let the financial institution figure out the mix of assets and how it gets done. You can do that very inexpensively through any of the major investment houses and get a real head start on your retirement. It’s not something you should be afraid of. The only thing you should be afraid of is not saving any money because with every year of advancing age, the likelihood goes up that you’re going to end up as an old person with not enough money saved.

I have a very special place in my heart for Hyatt Brown, Bob Graham and Gerald Lewis because they were early mentors in my life, and they showed confidence in me when I was a kid. They were willing to take a chance on me, and teach me a lot of important things while I worked for them.

You can’t be a Floridian and not love good Florida seafood. It’s the best. If you’re fortunate enough to get over to Captain Anderson’s in Panama City from time to time and have some of that grouper, you’d know what living is.

I have another relative, a guy named George Rainsford Fairbanks who was a native New Yorker and went to West Point but later moved to Fernandina. In 1871, he published the first history book of Florida — called “History of Florida,” which was a textbook in Florida schools for over 60 years. He also published the Florida Mirror. And his home in Fernandina was the first home in Florida to have indoor plumbing. My family’s been around.

At a policy level, we need to protect the things that make Florida special and make sure it stays special. With the kind of growth we’re having – 800 or more new people a day moving in – we need to be careful how we manage the growth.

When I came back to the FSBA from Wall Street at the end of October in 2008, it was an amazing, amazing time in global financial history because, at that point, it was unclear whether the market system as we knew it was going to survive. It really was that serious.

In health care, we’ve seen the importance of bio-pharma in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. As populations age, health care and pharma companies are positioned in a good place to do simultaneously good things for humanity and good things for making money.

My name is biblical. I always disliked my name as a child because it was different and it was a source of ridicule in elementary school. My wife did some research and figured out that Ashbel had brothers named Muppim and Huppim. She said: “Look, you’ve been whining about this Ashbel thing for a long time. You could have been Muppim or Huppim. You’ve got nothing to complain about.”

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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