From financial institutions to the retail world, Laura Williams has made a career of connecting business and community.
Now the former senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Ahold USA Inc. — in charge of mergers and acquisitions activity for the regional grocery chain — is taking that experience to the next level as president and CEO of the Team Pennsylvania Foundation, the commonwealth's nonprofit economic development arm.
“The whole notion of connecting and building vibrant and sustainable communities is critically important to me,” Williams said last Friday in an interview with the Business Journal, a week after the organization's board approved her hire.
Williams stepped into the role with an open mind, not specific plans, as she takes on the mission of growing business in Pennsylvania.
Coordinating future trade missions — including a trip to Turkey and Jordan in November — and helping to implement measures that could strengthen manufacturing efforts in the commonwealth are part of that task.
Maintaining relationships and forging others in emerging industries, such as technology and life sciences, is equally important.
“One of the things I really enjoy is connecting people,” Williams said.
Q: What's the most important thing you learned or experienced in the corporate world that will help you right away in this role?
A: My background is not specifically in economic development. However, I would say that much of what I have done in my career has had an economic impact on communities. So whether that is working in the financial services industry to help expand product lines or geographically expand the bank or whether that's in the grocery industry, really building stores which are centerpieces in the community and bringing jobs through the construction phase and jobs through the operations phase, it's all about building community.
The business models of government and for-profit companies, as well as nonprofits, continue to evolve as markets and the economy change. How does Team PA adjust or identify new needs and then help bridge the gaps between the public and private sectors?
Team Pennsylvania was founded about 20 years ago for the express purpose of bringing the private sector and public sector together and to help fund things, in a way, to ride alongside the public sector work in attracting and retaining business to Pennsylvania.
Team Pennsylvania needs to change as the needs of government change, the needs of business change. Team Pennsylvania needs to change in order to continue to be that partner on both sides of the equation.
Some of the ways that works is to look for different kinds of funding sources and to work through the needs of the private sector and the needs of the public sector and understand how you bridge that gap.
I don't have the specific answers yet, although we are looking at the stuff we currently do. One of things I really want to do is go out on a listening tour. (I want to) talk to our board members and our investors and our other stakeholders to really understand what it is — both in the public sector what the needs look like and in the private sector what the needs look like — and then try to understand not just what we're doing well but what should we be doing, where are our opportunities?
How will you continue to support foreign trade missions and why are they so important?
How do we bring foreign investment into Pennsylvania? We've seen good results from the trade missions that have happened in the last couple of years — the ones to France and Germany (in 2012) and the ones to Brazil and Chile (in 2013).
It's about making sure we have relationships in places that we want to send Pennsylvania goods — things we make here or know-how we have developed here to be used, especially in emerging markets, where the needs for infrastructure, for example, are so great. How can we make sure Pennsylvania companies are being connected in those places?
We work very closely with the Office of International Business Development to decide and determine where those trade missions will go.
Williams, 49, most recently served as the senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Ahold USA, parent company of Cumberland County-based Giant Food Stores. She led the asset protect, risk management, real estate law, and mergers and acquisitions activities for Ahold’s U.S. businesses.
Prior to Ahold, she served as senior vice president and general counsel at Giant. From 1999 to 2005, Williams was a partner at Harrisburg-based McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC, where her practice focused on business transactions and financial services.
Prior to that, she spent nine years at Keystone Financial Inc., where she served in the counsel’s office and then as an executive in the asset management function.
Williams is past chairwoman of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Dickinson College in 1986. She followed up with a law degree from the Dickinson School of Law in 1990.
The Camp Hill resident and her husband have two grown children. She enjoys hiking and biking as well as traveling.