From the Business Observor
March 06, 2015
Dick Williams has run Flagship Towing & Automotive Center in Venice since 2001. Photo by Mark Wemple
Dick Williams dreamed about buying a business around the time many of his contemporaries fantasized about retirement.
This was in 2001, after Williams, then 60, tired of a 20-year career in commercial real estate and money management. In 1981, Williams helped launch the commercial brokerage division at Sarasota-based Michael Saunders & Co. He later oversaw 30 brokers in a leadership role at Arvida, once one of the largest development firms in the state. Next Williams got into wealth management and stocks. He worked for Paine Webber and ran his own firm.
“But I wanted to build something that would get me down the road,” says Williams, who worked for IBM in New York in the 1970s, before he moved to Florida. “Something where the cash register will ring every day.”
That something was a two-truck tow service in Venice, which Williams bought with proceeds from a self-storage real estate deal. Williams has spent the last 14 years growing that company, Flagship Towing & Automotive Center, into an enterprise with seven trucks, a repair shop, 15 employees and $1.7 million in annual sales.
In the middle of this late-life career move Williams ran into an obstacle many other entrepreneurs, at any age, could hardly fathom: He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that impacts a body’s movements. Tremors are a common symptom of the neurodegenerative disease.
Williams started to get shakes about six years ago, and was officially diagnosed in 2011. He takes medication and wears a 24-hour patch with dopamine to fend off tremors. That helps, but nothing is bulletproof. “Parkinson’s is like lava flowing from a volcano,” says Williams. “It keeps on going, and not even medication can stop all of it.”
Adds Williams: “Parkinson’s is a very up and down proposition. Sometimes you can hardly move and don’t want to do anything, and other days it’s better.”
Yet remarkably, Williams, now 73, refuses to give in to the disease. He works five, sometimes six days a week at Flagship. That’s in between yoga classes, Pilates classes, spin classes, the occasional mid-day nap and walks with his wife, Jennifer Williams.
There are also plans for bucket list trips with his wife, in addition to trips to see grandchildren in Virginia. “My wife wants to go to Alaska and go to Vienna, and that’s great,” Williams says. “But I’m taking care of 15 families here. That’s really giving back.”
Williams’ approach to Parkinson’s is something of an outlier. “Some people with Parkinson’s will want to shy away from it, especially a business owner, because of the perception,” says Judith Bell, executive director of the Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s in Sarasota. “But Dick takes pride about how he embraces the challenges.”
Williams will talk about Parkinson’s, and he’s on the Neuro Challenge board, but he prefers to chat about Flagship, where he has some forward-thinking plans. He plans to implement a high-tech system for technicians that utilizes iPads to take photos of issues with the cars. He also plans to give employees personality tests to make sure they are in the right jobs.
Williams believes revenues are about to surge at Flagship. For one, many new cars sold in the recent economic rebound, he says, will soon come off warranties. And the uptick in new home construction in Venice means more people, which translates to more people with cars. Says Williams: “I think the next three to five years will be really good.”
Outside of work, Williams intends to learn the five-string banjo and take digital photography classes. “Parkinson’s is an inconvenience, but it’s not something that will stop me from doing what I want to do,” says Williams. “I’m fortunate that I still have my mental faculties. I feel good. My heart is strong.”
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