Less go-karts & moonshine, more urban hip

Williams helps brings fresh vision to downtown Sevierville

Friday, April 15, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 15
By Nancy Henderson

Austin Williams admits he hadn’t pre-tasted the food on the menu at last year’s soft opening of The Appalachian, his latest in a string of downtown Sevierville projects. As usual, he entrusted such details to someone with more expertise, in this case, the upscale restaurant’s co-owner and executive chef David Rule.

At the celebratory kickoff, Williams took one bite of his steak and potatoes and instantly second-guessed the whole deal. “They were so bland. I thought, ‘Our food is awful,’” says the 32-year-old CEO of Compass, the real estate development company behind The Appalachian and other Sevierville concepts. “I thought, ‘We don’t have seasoning? At least salt?’”

Engulfed by a sea of excited friends and family members congratulating them on the debut, there was little time to think about anything else, Williams says, “except for the fact that I had made a terrible mistake.”

The next morning, when he couldn’t taste his coffee, it occurred to him that the flavorless cuisine might not have been the chef’s fault. Although Williams felt fine, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was forced to quarantine for a couple of weeks.

Unassuming, easygoing and careful with his words, he has seen his share of business challenges since buying his first property a decade ago. But the speedbumps haven’t slowed him, at least not for long. Despite his accomplishments – dozens of commercial and residential projects, from vacation cabins and apartments to storage facilities and office complexes, as well as a starring role in the transformation of downtown Sevierville – he’d rather talk about his company in general, or just about anything for that matter, than himself. Luckily, there’s no shortage of fans willing to speak on his behalf.

“He is a very smart businessman and has been very successful with the many ventures that he has going on,” says Sevierville Mayor Robbie Fox. “He has played an integral role in working with the downtown association to help revitalize Sevierville’s downtown area. He and his business partners have invested in, and worked diligently to redevelop, the area.”

Williams’ ties to his hometown run deep. A football and track star and salutatorian of his high school class, he worked summers as a boy in his grandfather’s hardware store on West Main Street, pushing a broom and picking up trash and later delivering drywall and doing manual labor in the lumber yard.

“As a kid, my dream was just to work with my dad and granddad,” he says, noting that he often stops by the store, which still operates in its original 1952 location. (A dozen family members now run Carl Ownby & Company.)

At Carson-Newman University, he initially took classes focusing on family business but after a while began to think more about starting his own. “I always had a little bit of a rebel spirit to some extent, doing something outside the norm.”

But upon graduation in 2010, he was offered a job as a financial planner at Northwestern Mutual.

“The more I understood about money and loans and taxes and everything to do with the financial world, the more I realized how neat real estate was,” says Williams. He started spending more time with his developer clients and prospects, including Jimbo Conner, who’d been in the business since the 1990s, learning about what they did and how they did it.

Although Williams would remain at Northwestern Mutual for five more years, in 2012 he and a buddy bought a small foreclosure home and turned it into a rental property. Then they renovated a few more.

“We must have gone to 50 different banks before anybody would even listen to us,” Williams says. “I don’t know why anybody loaned us the money because we sure didn’t have it. Maybe we annoyed them until they finally just said, ‘OK, whatever.’

“It was at a point in time that things were so cheap that we really couldn’t have messed that up,” he adds. “We just got really, really lucky. This was right after the [housing] crash. We were so young and dumb that we didn’t fully understand what the world had just been through financially.”

Compass seemed like a natural name for Williams’ new company. “With any type of project, you have to have absolute clarity in what direction you’re heading. What’s the purpose? What’s the vision? A compass helps you find direction.”

While still at Northwestern Mutual, he teamed with Conner and stepped up his real estate investments. His internal compass was leading him to his life’s work.

“Steve Jobs would wake up asking himself: Do I love the work that’s ahead of me? And if not, he’d figure out a way to change it,” he says. “I heard that early on in college and I just always thought that’s a neat way to look at life.

“I just found myself loving real estate and development and projects and the ability to have a vision. And then to work to see it come to reality is extremely rewarding. … Financial planning was a great career but it didn’t fit. It didn’t check the box on: Do I absolutely love what’s ahead of me today?”

Austin Williams, founder of Compass Ventures, on the patio of The Appalachian on historical Bruce Street in Sevierville. The Appalachian is one of many buildings his company has restored in Sevierville, including Graze Burgers, Wanderlust Salon & Spa, Operation Barber. Williams had the alley wall next door painted with a mural honoring Red’s Cafe and a young Dolly Parton at the counter.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

He also got involved in civic organizations, from United Way of Sevier County to the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and even co-founded Young Executives of Sevierville, a Chamber networking group for members younger than 40.

“I feel that it’s super-important to find ways to make an impact in your community. I love this place. It’s a super tightknit, friendly community that’s just been so good to me. I always have thought that I need to do everything I can to make an impact and … see what difference I can make.”

At a meeting of the fledgling Sevierville Commons Association, a group assembled to oversee downtown planning, he listened to stories of a once-booming downtown, where residents flocked on Saturdays to hang out and patronize the shops. “My generation never saw that downtown,” Williams says. “The only reason in the ‘90s to go downtown was if you needed an attorney or you needed a loan. And as a kid, you didn’t really need one of those. So my only memory of downtown was going to my family’s hardware store, and I have some memories of Temple’s Feed and Seed.”

Williams and his future wife Katie loved traveling to trendy downtown districts within a few hours of Sevierville – Asheville, Savannah, Charleston, Chattanooga, Knoxville – where they browsed the shops, tried new eateries and enjoyed special events.

“The more I got involved in the downtown association, the more I thought, ‘Why don’t we have this here in Sevier County, where you’ve got millions of people coming?” Williams says. “Surely not everyone wants to ride a go-kart or taste moonshine. Those things are great, but surely there’s a need for something different.”

In 2014, he and his business partner bought the building that now houses The Appalachian. Then came Operation Barber, Graze Burgers and Wanderlust Salon and Spa. The 27,000-square-foot BB&T office building was 20% occupied when Williams bought it. “We were able to renovate it and get it 100% occupied, which just helps bring foot traffic to downtown,” he says.

Williams left Northwestern Mutual in 2017, took the reins of Compass fulltime, and became chair of the Sevierville Commons Association, a position he still holds.

He declines to name a favorite, but of all the projects he’s been involved in so far as owner, landlord or redeveloper, Graze Burgers and The Appalachian have drawn the warmest feedback, he says. “People would say, ‘Man I don’t feel like I’m in downtown Sevierville. I feel like I’m in Asheville or Savannah.’ How neat of a compliment is that?”

This may all be a bit ironic since Williams is admittedly anything but a foodie. “I’m pretty boring,” he laughs. “But partnering with a chef there at The Appalachian has forced me to try some things. We’ve got some unique things on our menu, like bone marrow. I’m trying to branch out.”

In fact, it’s the partnering aspect of his work that makes it successful, he insists.

“We can do design, development, construction extremely well. But then once we open up, I don’t have a clue how to run a restaurant. But I knew that [Rule] did. A lot of the things that we do, that’s sort of the stance we take. We’ve built a lot of cabins, but I work with a general contractor and I’ll piece things together and then he goes and builds. So we always look for folks who complement one another.”

Williams also depends on his eight specialized employees, including an architect, a civil engineer and a marketing expert. What he brings to the table, he says, are a generalist’s knowledge of many areas, an ability to think outside the box, and a willingness to consider all perspectives.

“I think our world is probably weak at being able to allow other people to have opinions. So many times in negotiations or in different conflict-type situations, if you can’t see stuff from other people’s vantage point, it’s going to be really hard to find a way to move forward. If you’re working on a construction project, who cares who made what mistake or whose fault it is that this slips through the cracks? It’s just a matter of figuring out how to move forward.”

Despite the inevitable delays of the construction industry, Williams is on track with several new rollouts. In a second restaurant partnership with Rule, Trotter’s Whole Hog Barbecue will soon open a few doors down from The Appalachian in a former Ford Motor Company building where the Compass team discovered sales receipts for tractors and Model Ts from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s.

Also in the works, along with a number of new cabins and apartments elsewhere in town: the Davis Hotel, originally built as a boutique getaway in the 1930s and later converted to a funeral home, and The Pines, an entertainment venue with duckpin bowling, pinball and other games located in the former theater where Dolly Parton performed for her first audience at age 10.

When he’s not working, Williams and his wife stay busy camping or on the lake with their three little ones – 4-year-old twins Rhett and Harper, and baby Baker – and occasionally sneak away on their own to explore other downtowns in the region.

Asked to name his strong point, he takes a while to answer but eventually comes up with the word “grit,” offering a definition he found online: “Grit is a construct that is said to summon both passion and perseverance in service of a long-term goal. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

“I think that quality has been extremely important in the revitalization of downtown,” he notes. “We started that effort in 2013 and we’re just now starting to see major progress in the past couple of years.”