New pension fund director could be familiar face

Jul 3, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--July 2, 2008

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s search for a new chief investment manager is closing in on a familiar name: Ashbel Williams, who had the job for the first half of the 1990s before leaving for a more lucrative career on Wall Street.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the other two members of the State Board of Administration voted Wednesday to negotiate a contract with Williams. He deals with private clients as a managing director of Fir Tree Partners, an investment fund that manages more than $4-billion in assets.

Williams was one of three finalists interviewed separately in recent weeks by Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum, who oversee the state’s $163-billion pension fund.

"It’s just our good fortune that he’s available and is interested in coming back to Tallahassee," said Sink, who made the motion to open talks with Williams.

Williams, 53, a Jacksonville native, earned his master’s of business administration at Florida State University. He began his career in state government while still at FSU. From a legislative analyst job he rose to serve as chief of staff to House Speaker Hyatt Brown of Daytona Beach, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bob Graham, deputy comptroller under Comptroller Gerald Lewis and eventually the board of administration’s executive director.

As SBA chief from 1991 to 1996, Williams answered to both Democrats and Republicans on trustee boards and said it makes no difference in how to manage investing the state’s money.

"It’s not a place for politics," he said.

Williams would succeed Coleman Stipanovich, who resigned his $182,000-a-year job Dec. 4 after losses in an SBA-run local investment pool caused extensive withdrawals by local governments. Since then, former Comptroller Bob Milligan has served as interim director.

State officials have agreed to pay the new pension fund director $250,000 to $350,000 a year. In application papers filed with the state, Williams wrote that he already makes more than that, and "would require a base salary near the top of the range and relocation assistance."

A resident of the New York City suburb of Wilton, Conn., Williams owns a beach home in the Panhandle and sounded eager to return.

"Florida is home to me and my family, and I think there’s honor in public service," Williams said. He said the long train rides to and from work made it difficult to spend time with his 9-year-old daughter, and that Tallahassee is "very conducive to raising a family."

Recalling his recent return to the city, Williams joked about seeing portraits of past governors on the Capitol walls. "I know just about all these guys," he said, recalling the prominently-displayed portrait of former Gov. LeRoy Collins.