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  The Insider

Bill Sansom has shaped Tennessee and Knoxville for more tha 20 years—not always in popular ways. Who is the private man behind the city's largest private company?

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Here are some of the names that come up in conversation with Bill Sansom, usually at the end of a sentence like, "I was talking with...": Lamar Alexander, Don Sundquist, Ned McWherter, Jim Haslam, Wade Gilley, Joe Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Howard Baker, Ross Perot, John Wilder, Bill Frist, Chris Whittle... If it's not true that he knows or has known every major player in local and state power circles over the last 20 years, you can't tell it from his resume.

Bill Sansom is a multi-millionaire who runs the largest private company in Knoxville. He's vice-chair of the University of Tennessee's Board of Trustees and is one of the UT president's closest advisers. He has served in the upper reaches of state government. And every four years since the mid-1980s, his name has been tossed around as a possible candidate for governor.

But this robust 58-year-old businessman with the confident Citadel-instilled posture, his primary concession to age a swath of dark gray hair combed across an obviously sparse crown, wields his considerable clout with relative anonymity. Compared to the city's other kings and kingmakers—the Jims (Haslam and Clayton), auction and auto tycoon Sam Furrow, the assorted Ingram groupies—Sansom keeps his profile low and his influence largely behind the scenes. As his former boss Lamar Alexander puts it, "He's one of the most private public-spirited people I know."

Nevertheless, Sansom has been markedly visible over the past year, and not all of the attention has been friendly. The UT presidential search attracted its share of debate, forcing Sansom to juggle issues like minority representation and in-state vs. out-of-state candidates. And as the driving force behind both a controversial bridge project on the UT campus—which nobody who works or goes to school there seems to want—and a proposed industrial site in rural East Knox County, he's run into opposition from students, faculty, and angry homeowners. A lot of them have been asking the same question: "Who is Bill Sansom?"

To his friends, there's no mystery. A few words come up over and over: integrity, candor, straight talk. He's a guy who built himself a house in the Lyons Bend area and spends his free time tooling around on his personal collection of construction equipment. "His idea of a good time is to get in his backhoe and dig up some hemlock trees and bring them up the mountain to my cabin and plant them, which he did about 10 years ago," says Alexander, who wooed Sansom to join his cabinet after being elected governor in 1978.

Businessman Bill Arant, who has known Sansom since the two of them served as back-to-back Chamber of Commerce presidents, says, "You always know where Bill stands... Some people might consider Bill to be a little inflexible on things from time to time, but I think in the final analysis, he'll work out what needs to be worked. You know, he's one of the only people in this community who really has the ability to move it."

Try telling that to Barbara Harvey. Until a year ago, she had never heard of Sansom. "Had no idea, couldn't care less," she says curtly, taking a drag on a Kool cigarette in the kitchen of her brookside farmhouse. But she and a lot of her neighbors on Washington Pike have learned enough recently to know Sansom's not a name to take lightly. The H.T. Hackney Company, of which Sansom is CEO and majority owner, wants to rezone 160 acres of meadowland across the two-lane highway from Harvey's horse-breeding farm for industrial use. Hackney is a wholesale food distributor and the company's plans call for a 280,000-square-foot warehouse on the site, which is also across from Ritta Elementary School.

A group called the Ritta Homeowners Preservation Association has organized to combat the rezoning. Harvey is on the board. She says Sansom's project would mean an endless convoy of 18-wheelers barreling up and down the already congested narrow road, endangering motorists, residents, and schoolchildren. What's more, it would drastically change the still-rural nature of the community, where growth has been limited so far to residential subdivisions. But even though the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Commission has recommended against the Hackney proposal, Harvey worries that it's not a fair fight.

"I feel like we're up against big politics that reach probably far beyond Knoxville," she says.

In some ways, she's right—not because any agency outside the county has been visibly enlisted on Hackney's behalf, but because anything with Bill Sansom's name attached to it inevitably signifies connections and credentials that few local power-brokers can match.

Sansom is a model of a certain kind of American success. Although he avers that he never had a career path planned out, from the outside he seems like the epitome of the post-World War II civic leader, an unswerving believer in the virtues of a solid work ethic and doing good by doing well—or, as Arant says, "doing the right thing for the right reasons." The impression of an almost rigid WASP moral code dovetails both with his estimable success in business and government and with his evident struggles sometimes to understand viewpoints to the contrary.

In person, Sansom is candid and guardedly friendly, neither a back-slapper nor a side-stepping bureaucrat. Clearly not a product of the age of Oprah, he handles questions about his upbringing with almost detached precision. Born (along with his twin brother Robert) in 1941 in Johnson City, Sansom grew up seeing the promise and pitfalls of American business in action. His father, Richard E. Sansom, started working for the American Zinc Co. in Mascot, Tenn. in 1937 and over the years worked his way up through the bureaucratic ranks. In 1965, he was named president of American Limestone, the Knoxville-based subsidiary of American Zinc. Five years later, he became president of American Zinc itself and relocated to the company's St. Louis headquarters.

"I think he had this kind of integrity, he was pretty straight-up about responsibility," Bill Sansom says of his father. "Probably the strongest thing was you're responsible for what you do. And he worked hard. All of my family are hard workers."

That much was clear in 1964 when Sansom and his brother, four years after graduating from West High School in Knoxville, were named top cadets at their respective military institutions: Bill at the Citadel and Robert at the Air Force Academy. In fact, all three of Sansom's brothers—the other two are Richard Jr. and John—are, like Sansom, presidents of their own companies.

After the Citadel, Sansom went to work at American Limestone as an engineer, and in his mid-20s he became company president after his father's promotion to head of American Zinc. But the family professional connection ended in 1969 when the senior Sansom sold off American Limestone in a cost-cutting move to Asarco, which still owns it. "He was still with American Zinc, so my relationship working with him was over in 1969," Sansom says. It was a straightforward business decision, but it clearly affected Sansom's view of life in the world of shareholders and publicly traded stock. Although he stayed with American Limestone another 10 years, it would be the last public company he'd work for.

By 1978, Bill Sansom was married (to Elisabeth Shafer, daughter of a prominent Knoxville family) and had a son and daughter. He was president-elect of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. Tom Ingram, now president of the Knox Area Chamber Partnership, remembers Sansom as "one of the bright, rising young stars" of East Tennessee. So it's not surprising that when Lamar Alexander was running for governor that year, Sansom was one of the people he met. Speaking from his home in Nashville, to which he retreated after his most recent failed presidential bid, Alexander says Sansom was adamant about getting the infamous "Malfunction Junction" of Interstates 40 and 75 redesigned before the looming 1982 World's Fair.

"I asked Bill how he would address that," Alexander says, "and he said, 'Well, that's fairly simple. I'd appoint a first-class transportation commissioner, and I'd tell him I expect him to have it fixed by 1982, and I'd meet with him monthly until he had it done.'"

After Alexander's election, he made exactly that proposal—to Sansom. It wasn't an easy sell. "His father was upset with him," Alexander chuckles, "because he felt, 'Look how hard we've worked to build up a good family name, and here you plan to ruin it by going into politics.'"

But Sansom went, despite what he insists was a lack of political ambition. "Lamar's a persuasive guy," he says. "My company agreed to give me a two-year leave of absence... I thought, 'Well, I'll just try this.' I thought at the most I might stay two years."

He did serve two years as Alexander's transportation commissioner and made Malfunction Junction one of his priorities. It was ready by the World's Fair; whether the traffic flow problems were actually "solved" is a matter of debate, but there's no question things improved. Then, despite other offers (including discussions with President Reagan about being named head of TVA), Sansom re-enlisted as Alexander's finance commissioner, steering through the recession of the early 1980s. He earned respect from the state rank-and-file and political leaders of both parties; among those praising him when he left the transportation post was Democratic House leader and future governor Ned McWherter.

Sansom stayed in Nashville through Alexander's re-election, but deciding what to do next wasn't easy. At one point, he tried unsuccessfully to buy back American Limestone from Asarco. His transportation connections led to sizable offers from major contracting firms. Newspapers in Knoxville and Nashville were rife with stories about his probable next move. Instead of taking any of the high-profile positions, though, he bought an interest in H.T. Hackney—at the time a profitable but obscure wholesaler.

It's not hard to see why. If Sansom is anything, he's a traditionalist (fellow UT Trustee Susan Williams recalls arguing with him about women being allowed to enroll at the Citadel; Sansom was predictably opposed). And Hackney was an intensely traditional company, proud of its roots—it was founded in 1891—and its old-fashioned way of doing business. When former president Ed Harris retired in 1982, he bragged that the company had never carried debt. Sansom recalls that when he came to work there, even the firm's oldest and most loyal customers weren't allowed any credit.

"Lamar and I were talking one day, and he said, 'Bill, tell me about Hackney,'" Sansom says. "I said, 'Well, it's pretty conservative. When I walked into the Capitol, the conservative came to work. When I walk into Hackney, the liberal comes to work.' That's how conservative it was."

It was also a privately held company, handed down through generations of heirs of founder Henry Tate Hackney. That was appealing after Sansom's experiences with the vagaries of the marketplace.

He started as company president in 1983. In 1987, he bought out Hackney descendant Judy Morton and became majority owner. The firm has loosened up a little under Sansom—but not too much. "We do have debt, we used to have cash," he admits a little ruefully. But, he says, "We don't have sales goals today, we just don't operate that way, that's just not one of my things. If we've got a goal, it's to do a good job at what we do. As I think Hackney's proven, if you do that with a reputation for honesty and straight service, all of that comes with it."

"All of that" in this case means increasing company revenues from about $120 million a year when he started to an estimated $1.8 billion this year. In Forbes magazine's 1998 list of the 500 largest private companies in America, Hackney ranked no. 99, well ahead of the other two Knoxville outfits on the roster—Haslam's Pilot Oil was at no. 121, and Regal Cinemas was no. 490.

The growth has come mostly through acquisitions, the largest being the purchase of giant Florida wholesaler Eli Witt in 1997. Hackney's core business remains grocery distribution, mostly to convenience stores (including Pilot and Weigel's). But it has also diversified to include furniture supplies, petroleum, delis, and even a private-label cigarette (Citation) manufactured with RJR Nabisco. Now headquartered in the old Fidelity Banker Trust building on South Gay Street, the company has 2,800 employees in 16 states.

Even as he immersed himself in the company, Sansom stayed active in civic circles. He was Chamber president in 1985, and at various points was named to boards at the Citadel, Wake Forest, and Maryville College. Before Alexander left office, he named Sansom to the UT Board of Trustees. In 1995, Gov. Don Sundquist recruited him to serve on his six-member Commission on Practical Government. And those are just the public roles. Arant alludes without elaboration to "so many things people don't know about," major decisions in Knoxville and Tennessee in which Sansom has had a significant but quiet hand.

People who know Sansom—even those who have fought with him—invariably talk about his forceful code of conduct. He still grimaces at the backroom bid-rigging that was rife in the Department of Transportation when he took over as commissioner. It wasn't just that it was costing the state money, he says—"It's not the right way to do business." In 1993, he was the sole voice of opposition on the UT Board of Trustees to a questionable land deal. The proposal—which turned out to be full of misrepresentation—would have leased university property at severely discounted rates to a private developer for a retirement community with the unfortunate moniker Valhalla Village. Sansom helped stir up enough opposition to ultimately kill it.

Such stands have earned him plenty of admirers. For a man of such reserve, he can inspire rapturous rhetoric. Editorializing about Valhalla Village, the News-Sentinel said Sansom "seems blessed with an Old Testament sense of what's right and what's wrong, and a prophetic willingness to speak out about it." It echoed an earlier commendation from his Citadel classmates, who voted him "the manliest, purest, and most courteous" graduating cadet.

There's a downside to such surety, however, if you happen to be on the other side of an argument. Although many who have dealt with Sansom credit him with being willing to listen to other points of view, it's clear that his own assumptions arise from a life dedicated to a very 20th century, very American idea of progress.

There is, for example, the bridge. The idea of connecting the main UT campus to its agricultural sister campus had been around for a long time. The two are currently separated by a Norfolk Southern freight rail embankment as impassable as the Berlin Wall. A 1994 UT master plan called for a pedestrian and bicycle overpass. But last fall, the university suddenly announced plans for a wide four-lane auto route across the tracks. Drawings showed an offshoot of Alcoa Highway into the heart of the congested campus. It immediately stirred protest among students and faculty who questioned both its sudden appearance on the state's list of road projects and its impact on a university already clogged with cars.

"This thing looks like the Santa Monica Freeway," says philosophy professor and environmentalist John Nolt, unrolling a drawing of the original plan. When he and others started asking where the big bridge came from, they heard one name over and over: Bill Sansom. "I've never met the man," says Nolt, whose office on the 12th floor of UT's McClung Tower overlooks the east end of Andy Holt Drive—one of the conduits the bridge would feed. "But everybody that I've talked to in the administration who's knowledgeable says Sansom is the one behind the bridge."

UT's student government and Faculty Senate have both voted against the project, amid speculation that its real purpose is facilitating football game traffic. But the Board of Trustees has already allocated some $12 million to demolish three buildings standing in the road's proposed path. The bridge would cost an additional $9 million in state and federal road money.

Sansom himself seems a little baffled by the controversy. He says the bridge could create more open space on the main campus by opening up sections of the ag property for recreational use. It would also provide a walking/biking path across the Alcoa Highway bridge to the university's extensive land on the opposite river bank. As for its spontaneous appearance, he says it came as part of a swap with TDOT for university land needed in the current redesign of the Alcoa Highway interchange with I-40.

"It's short-term thinking not to build it four lanes," he says, invoking one of his favorite bugbears. "Building a four-lane bridge on top of the railroad, I can't quite understand how that's aesthetically endangering. I mean, how pretty is that railroad trestle?"

More tellingly, he adds, "I guess you've got to go back to my background in DOT. The whole time I was in DOT, I don't think we ever built anything too big. Everybody thought we were building interstates in the '60s for 20 years. Nobody knew what was going to happen. I just think when you have an opportunity to build it, you build it right."

The opposition has spurred a modified TDOT proposal that's less grand than the first—and might require less demolition—but it still includes four lanes of automobile traffic. New UT President Wade Gilley has yet to take a position, but opponents expect him to side with his Board of Trustees. Sansom headed up the search process that hired Gilley, and Gilley says he still meets with Sansom at least twice a month. "One of the things [Sansom] has been working on for years is getting more green space and play space for students," Gilley says.

(As for rumors that Sansom was the one who footed the $35,000 bill for Gilley's inauguration, the president says, "That's not the case, but I'd prefer not to go into that.")

Still, the bridge is far from a done deal. State Sen. Tim Burchett, for one, has reservations about it in the face of UT's much publicized funding crisis. "If it's for traffic for football games, they just need to come out and say it. I'd rather see that money go into the classroom, and for teaching and raises," says Burchett. He also mentions that he goes to church with Sansom at Cedar Springs Presbyterian and is quick to say the bridge issue "isn't anything personal between me and him."

Barbara Harvey couldn't care less about offending Sansom. She and many of her neighbors see him as a big-money interloper in an area that doesn't need or want him. "It's a real laid-back community, just a farming community," she says. "There's natural springs all over. I have a huge natural spring here—which I don't want polluted."

Harvey proudly shows off a 19th century photograph of the first house built on her home's site, a wood and mortar structure erected by a man who also helped build the Blount Mansion. Some of the oak trees in the photo are still standing. If the planned Hackney warehouse goes through, it will be right across the road. Although Harvey concedes the one-time dairy pastures there will inevitably be developed, she thinks the use should stay residential—an assessment the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Commission agreed with in recommending against Sansom's requested rezoning. The MPC board has postponed a vote on the issue until January.

Harvey is also not impressed by Sansom's offer to lease 100 acres of the land to UT's ag school for horticultural research. "I find it very peculiar that he sits on the Board [of Trustees], that at one time there were no funds appropriated for projects off-campus, and then there was money appropriated," she says.

Sansom says his distribution center would create less traffic than a residential subdivision. He clearly takes the issue personally; he refers to one community meeting where he met with the opposition group as "the night I got beat up so bad." "There are a lot of supporters out there," he insists. "They're calling us all the time. I've been meeting with them for a year."

Indeed, local resident Sharon Owens—whose property abuts the land in question—sees Hackney as the least of several possible evils. "I am opposed to a warehouse," she says. "I always have been. But when I see the alternatives that the community is facing in the long run, I would much rather have one person who is willing to work with the community put one building there than 400 houses." Of Sansom himself, she says, "The man is a very outstanding person. I have found nothing he said that he has lied about."

Harvey is, to put it kindly, less effusive. "I'm almost afraid to say this because you might print it," she says with a half-smile, "but I think he is spoiled. Not many people tell him no. And this area has told him no, and I think it has angered him to the point where he's going to do it regardless."

In 1990, when McWherter was getting ready to run for a second term, East Tennessee Republicans looking for a viable alternative started a campaign to draft Sansom. It never got off the ground. And while several of his friends—including Alexander—recall conversations with Sansom about running for the state's top office, few think he would actually take the plunge.

"I think Bill would've had a passion for doing the job, but I think he had a distaste for doing what it would take to get elected to the job," Arant says.

Ingram, another perennial insider who's never run for office, says, "I don't sense currently that he has a lot of interest in that. I think he appreciates that that's not the only arena in which you can accomplish good things."

Sansom has left few signs to mark his paths—even the business he owns still bears the name of the man who founded it more than a century ago. He clearly likes to build things, but monuments to himself aren't on the list. A clue to what does keep him going can be found in an offhand comment about a recent business trip. When Sansom was at the Chamber, one of his goals was building better commercial connections between Knoxville and its outlying neighbors: Oak Ridge, Maryville, Alcoa. At TDOT, he pursued the same goals with road building projects.

"I flew in last night after dark," he says, "and saw all the cars on Pellissippi Parkway. That's kind of satisfying."