10 questions with Ron Willard

Ronald L. Willard


Story by Andie Gibson, Photo by Huong Fralin | smithmountainlake.com

When it comes to development at Smith Mountain Lake – commercial and residential – no one’s influence has been more significant than that of Ron Willard.

A native of the Scruggs area of Franklin County, Willard started a small construction company in 1973, just seven years after the lake reached full pond. He has spent the past 38 years building the business into The Willard Companies, a multi-faceted enterprise that includes three country clubs, a real estate company and the area’s largest commercial development, Westlake Towne Center.

Willard employs more than 200 people in the region, including two of his three children. Ron Willard II, who joined the company in 1992, is vice president and runs many of the day-to-day operations. Lee Willard came on board in 2010 as vice president of Corporate Holdings. Ron Willard’s family also includes his wife of 10 years, Kris Willard, who owns and operates Interiors by Kris, daughter Kim Waters and four grandchildren.

Willard, 65, has been a strong community advocate through his work with the W.E. Skelton 4-H Center, SML Regional Chamber of Commerce, Ferrum College and numerous other organizations. He was instrumental in bringing a branch of the Franklin County Library to Westlake and said he hopes to do the same for a proposed multi-million dollar arts complex.

It’s difficult to imagine what the area would look like today without Willard’s contributions. So, as the magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2011, we thought it was time to get his take on the past, present and future of Smith Mountain Lake.

Q: Did you envision the lake as a tremendous development opportunity from the very start of your career?

A: In one of my first jobs working for a contractor in Danville, I would visit other lakes – Lake Norman (N.C.), Lake Wiley (S.C.), Lake Lanier (Ga.) – and I would see what was going on there. Snoop shopping has been a big part of my career. I would see what was going on in those areas and knew it was something we could bring to our community. Of course, there was a lot that we weren’t ready for. We had to wait until the clock ticked. But I knew if I got the amount of money together that it would take that the lake would be a great draw for retirees. For Smith Mountain Lake to have success, the community had to have a place to get together and socialize. I knew if we gave them the activities they desired, they would be willing to pay for it. So, yes, I could see that.

Q: In what ways do you think you’ve changed?

A: At 28 years old when I started, I was all about doing what I wanted in my career and taking care of my family. Then it got to the point where I was successful enough that I was concerned with taking care of my employees and the community. Today, I work because I want to take care of them and keep the community thriving and getting better every year. … It’s not just about my family. Today, it’s a much broader thought process. It’s about putting my arms around the whole community.

Q: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?

A: The satisfaction I get from making others happy and comfortable. I can’t believe the number of people I’ve sold real estate to over the years who have come back four or five years later and say, “Ron we’ve got to move on. There’s no healthcare, no assisted living center, things we’re going to need in our later years.” Now, they have that. I get letters and cards from people who say how much they appreciate my efforts, and that’s nice. I have the best job in the world, and I have the hardest job, too. I get all the glory, but I also catch all the hell.

Q: How has it been working with your children?

A: When [oldest son] Ron came in, it was like I had a second pair of eyes. Now it’s like that again with [youngest son] Lee. It’s allowed me to step back and play more, have more fun. … I’m really not concerned about handing over the reigns to Ron and Lee because their ethics and attention to detail are beyond compare. And I think their ability to deal with people is better than mine because they wear their generosity on their sleeves. Their knowledge of technology is also what is helping drive the company forward.

Q: Will you ever retire?

A: In my case, my name is attached to these communities. It’s important to the people who live here. Believe it or not, I never want to stop doing the things I do for my employees and the community. I would never think of retiring because of that. I do look forward to being semi-retired and having more free time. And I will always be available to serve as a sounding board for the boys.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

A: I’ve always said that when I hear someone say something bad about me, it’s for one of two reasons. Envy, or because I didn’t do something for them that they wanted me to do – maybe because it was unethical. Certainly someone who’s in a position like me is never going to win a popularity contest. … My enemies don’t have to like me, but I want them to respect me for what I’ve done for the community and for my employees. And if they respect me, they’ll learn to like me. I think if some of those people would get to know me, they’d change their impression.

Q: You pulled back on some planned development right before the economy started to slide in 2008. What factors indicated to you that we were headed for recession?

A: I’m convinced that the recession we’re living in today is because of 9/11 and the inability of our government not to be able to control its pocketbook. … What really happened, though, were the elections in 2006. That was a real turning point in Congress – when Democrats took over and stalemated George W. [Bush]. They handicapped him the last two years of his term. It is political war that drove us to this recession. There’s been no work done politically to keep or make jobs. … What I don’t think people will forget about this recession is the importance of having a job and giving it your best shot because you want to be the last one standing, not the first to fall.

Q: What are your predictions for the lake in the next 10 years?

A: Over the next 10 years, the development and construction will go green because it’s an important way of preserving energy and providing a better way for families to live comfortably. I think commercial development will be very slow to recover because we’ve overdone it. Key locations are the ones that will survive. … The residential market will come back starting this summer, but where it was [pre-recession] will not happen in the next decade. Maybe 80 percent is the best it can come back to.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: If people who live here will shop at home and keep spending their dollars here, Smith Mountain Lake will keep rolling on. We can continue to improve services if people continue to patronize the things we already have. Hopefully, I’m going to spend my next 10 years impressing that upon people.

Business Highlights

Golf Courses and Country Club Communities
The Waterfront Country Club (1976)
The Water’s Edge Country Club (1985)
The Westlake Golf & Country Club (1996)

Other Residential Communities
The Boardwalk (1995)
The Farm (2007)

Real Estate Sales and Marketing
Prudential Waterfront Properties (1987)

Willard Construction of Roanoke Valley, Inc. (1973)
Smith Mountain Building Supply – Southlake (2000)
Smith Mountain Building Supply – Westlake (2001)
Westlake Towne Center (2001)
Westlake Cinema (2005)
Westlake Salon & Spa (2009)

Rockin Brews & BBQ Event at Smith Mountain Lake

Start your spring with the new Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce event Rockin Brews & BBQ’s, Saturday, April 30th from Noon – 5pm in Downtown Moneta. The site of the SML Business Expo will be transformed from tents filled with businesses into tents filled with tasty BBQ and rockin music. A variety of barbecue will be served from North Carolina to Kansas City and everything in between. Admission is $5. Children 12 and under free.

Sign up to be a volunteer and receive free admission. For more information, or to volunteer, contact Jim at 540-721-1203 or e-mail at jims@visitsmithmountainlake.com.

Home Staging Should Include the Male Perspective

Professional home stagers consult with homeowners on ways to sell their homes quickly and for the most money possible, but often lost in the design process is the fact that men are involved in buying decisions as well.

When having your home staged, it’s important to remember to appeal to both sexes and do some things that will pique a man’s interest just as much as a woman’s.

Professional stagers take into account buyer demographics, buying psychology, and utilize design elements in planning out the rooms and space and the use of lighting and its effect on the space. Don’t be afraid to let them know if the home is leaning too far on the woman’s side.

Women tend to look for cozier settings or rooms that facilitate intimate conversations, while males gravitate toward rooms with gadgets, televisions and electronics.

Open spaces and higher ceilings are also a draw for men as psychologically they have a larger sense of personal space. Professional stagers with men in mind try to create rooms where a man can feel as if he can walk through the house easily without stepping around all sorts of furniture.

When it comes to men, the garage and yard tend to be high up on the priority list, so it’s important to get these areas as perfect as possible.

Garages that have painted walls, clean floors and enough storage for various male-oriented hobbies will impress. Shelf space is almost always looked at as a good thing here and a place to hang tools or a workbench would make a fine addition to attract male buyers. And remember, an empty garage looks much bigger than one with a car parked in it.

With the yard, showcasing a well-maintained lawn will help sell the male. Thick, healthy grass, minimal bushes to trim and easy to clean garden beds will meet the landscaping criterion the male buyer looks for.

Appealing to both sexes when staging and selling a home requires an emotional investment that will pay off in the end for all parties, just don’t forget that men need a connection, too.

Americans confident in recovery of real estate market

National survey echoes Smith Mountain Lake consumers’ belief in real estate as a good investment

The majority of America’s potential homebuyers and sellers — 68 percent — believe that the real estate market and property values will recover in the next year or two, according to a new survey by Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, a Prudential Financial, Inc. [NYSE:PRU] company.  This exceeds the 47 percent of Americans who expected house prices would rise in a similar survey conducted in April 2010, underscoring a more bullish outlook for the real estate market today.  In addition, 86 percent of Americans believe real estate is a good investment despite the market volatility of the past few years. The Prudential Real Estate Outlook Survey of 1,253 Americans between the ages of 25-64 in the market for buying a home was conducted Jan. 20-27, 2011.

The national survey reveals that six in 10 respondents are more interested in buying real estate (58%) and are optimistic about buying given the momentum of the economic recovery (59%).  It also shows that although the price of many Americans’ homes declined during the recession, 89 percent recognize they can also buy a new house at a lower price.

“This survey clearly demonstrates that Americans nationally and locally continue to be optimistic about the real estate market and believe that home prices will rise,” said Catherine Daniel, Principal Broker, Prudential Waterfront Properties.  “A key take away from the survey is although consumers recognize that it is a good time to buy, they are concerned about their ability to sell their homes. This is one of the reasons for a slowdown in Smith Mountain Lake’s recovery.”

For those on the fence about buying, uncertainty about selling an existing home (77 percent), concern about getting a fair price for the home (67 percent) and emotions (58 percent) are holding them back.  For those who have sold homes in the past year, despite the down market 78 percent report that they were satisfied with the sale.  Of these, 32 percent were very satisfied with the final price of their home and 46 percent were grateful they were able to sell given market conditions.  A relatively small number, 22 percent, indicated that they were disappointed or resentful about the price they received for their home.

The survey highlighted Americans’ interest in trading up their homes.  Of the 45 percent looking to trade up, 64 percent wanted more space or property, 49 percent a nicer house and 41 percent a better neighborhood.  Only 21 percent surveyed said they were looking to scale down, and 34 percent said that they wanted a similar home.

The survey highlighted the importance of getting the right price in today’s market —74 percent of buyers believe that many homes could meet their needs and that price is a significant differentiator, while 26 percent stated that they were willing to pay top of market for a home that specifically suits their needs.  In setting the right price, however, sellers were split—with 53 percent wanting to price right at or slightly below market to attract more bids and 47 percent wanting to price slightly higher than market and hoping to find a buyer willing to pay more.

The majority of respondents underscored the importance of real estate agents in the process of buying or selling their home.  Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said that an agent is very important or essential to this process, with only 24 percent saying agents are helpful but not imperative.

“Americans continue to see real estate agents as having a very important role in helping them price, buy and sell their homes; which is reflective of our market as well,” added Daniel.  “Although the data underscores the value real estate agents provide, it also shows that the industry needs to continue to work hard to meet clients’ unique needs.”

The Prudential Real Estate Outlook Survey was conducted online. The margin of error is +/- 3 percent. A more detailed breakdown of the data is available, as well as supporting charts and visuals, at www.news.prudential.com.

Prudential Waterfront Properties markets property throughout Smith Mountain Lake and the surrounding areas. As members of the Multiple Listing Service, Prudential Waterfront Properties REALTORS® are able to assist buyers and sellers with all listed properties in a variety of price ranges and locations throughout the lake and surrounding areas. Prudential Waterfront Properties REALTORS® are consistent leaders in sales as well as customer and client service.

Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services is Prudential’s integrated real estate brokerage franchise and relocation services business. Prudential Real Estate franchises are independently owned and operated. Companies are selected based upon outstanding performance records, high levels of customer service and shared business values with those of Prudential. Prudential Real Estate is one of the largest real estate brokerage franchise networks in North America, with more than 1,600 franchise offices and 54,100 sales professionals in the franchise Network as of Dec. 31, 2010.

Prudential Financial, Inc. (NYSE: PRU), a financial services leader with approximately $784 billion of assets under management as of Dec. 31, 2010, has operations in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Leveraging its heritage of life insurance and asset management expertise, Prudential is focused on helping individual and institutional customers grow and protect their wealth. In the U.S., the company’s Rock symbol is an icon of strength, stability, expertise and innovation that has stood the test of time. Prudential’s businesses offer a variety of products and services, including life insurance, annuities, retirement-related services, mutual funds, investment management, and real estate services. For more information, please visit www.news.prudential.com.

Not Everyone Loves the New GFE Regulations

A year has gone by since The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) instituted the new Good Faith Estimate form in an effort to make a homebuyers’ journey through the mortgage process a bit easier, but many in the mortgage industry are not happy.

The form has gone through many different looks through the years, varying from lender to lender and software platform to software platform. Now, it has expanded to three pages and includes one “lump sum” for all lender charges.

The new standardized GFE must contain the exact language specified by HUD, which HUD says “consolidates closing costs into major categories to prevent junk fees and display total settlement costs prominently on the first page so the consumer can easily compare loan offers.”

The most significant changes to the new HUD-1 Settlement Statement were made with the intention of having consumers be able to easily compare their settlement charges on the GFE with those on the HUD-1.

HUD claims that the new regulations, which went completely into effect on April 20, 2010, is saving borrowers an average of $700. However, the goal was to make things clearer and a lot of confusion still exists.

One common complaint is that the new GFE does not fully explain to the consumer some of the more vital information the consumer is looking for, such as how much money they need to take to the closing.

Another is that the Total Estimated Settlement Charges listed on the new GFE forms does not include the down payment, which inevitably results in thousands of dollars more than what is expected.

There’s also a fear that consumers cannot distinguish between mortgage brokers and correspondent lenders.

The redesigned GFE also now requires consumers who are shopping for a loan to complete multiple loan applications with multiple mortgage providers, have their credit pulled by multiple mortgage providers, and possibly pay upfront fees to each of these providers.

HUD’s goal is to help consumers become better shoppers for settlement services. After all, right on the top of the first page it reads “Only you can shop for the best loan for you. Compare this GFE with other loan offers, so you can find the best loan.”

The new GFE goes a long way in doing this by forcing people to not infer general conclusions from their observations but actually apply rules and regulations.

While the mortgage industry may have complaints, the process was designed to help those searching for the loan and HUD believes they have done so.

Charity Home Tour announces Pacesetting Sponsors

Several businesses that serve the Smith Mountain Lake area have already made commitments to support the 2011 Charity Home Tour, to be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 7-9, Home Tour officials have announced.

“At this early stage—only a few weeks into the effort to contact potential sponsors–we are delighted by the enthusiasm we’re seeing from businesses that want to be part of this year’s Charity Home Tour and make it a huge success for the participating charities,” said Phil Servidea, who is leading the sponsor recruiting effort for the Tour’s Executive Operating Committee.

Centra Medical Group, providers of cardiovascular, urology and primary care services to patients at SML as well as in Lynchburg, Gretna, Altavista, Big Island, Brockneal, Danville and Farmville, is the first to sign on as Royal Sponsor.

“Their generous support as a leading sponsor again this year provides an all-important cornerstone to the 2011 sponsorship effort,” Servidea said.

“Centra Medical Group is excited to be the Royal sponsor for the third year running,” said Centra Vice President Skip Leavitt. “We understand the importance of investing in local charity organizations, which in turn support the residents of Smith Mountain Lake area and surrounding communities. In our effort to support the lake region, Centra serves residents through the Village Family Physicians and our Specialty Clinic, both of which are located in Moneta. We are continuing to work on our plans to expand our services in the lake area.”

Centra has also agreed to supply the hospital “booties” Tour-goers wear to protect floors and carpets, saving the Tour from purchasing them and thus increasing the funding that will be given to each participating charity in November.

Pacesetting Diamond Sponsor is The Willard Companies, developers of Westlake Towne Center and several residential & country club/golf-course communities on the shores of SML.

“The Willard Companies is proud to sponsor the Charity Home Tour because the event benefits a variety of local charities while attracting a large number of visitors to Smith Mountain Lake. While we certainly realize the current economic challenges, we hope other area businesses are able to find a way to support this wonderful cause,” said Christopher Finley, Director of Marketing and PR for The Willard Companies.

Capps Building Supply Center was the first Gold Sponsor on board for 2011, signaling a return in a big way of one of the founding and traditional sponsors of the Tour, going back 20 years.

Pacesetting Silver Sponsor is Dale E Angle, Custom Builder.

Westlake office supply and quick-print supplier Print-n-Paper led the way as the first of what is hoped will be many Bronze sponsors, and “Friends of Marty Bowers” became the first Patron with a donation in honor of Marty’s many years of service as Home Tour Chairperson.

Participating 2011 charities, chosen by lottery drawing from among the qualifying 501C-3 organizations serving the SML area that applied, will each receive an equal share of this year’s Home Tour proceeds. They are: Bedford Christian Free Clinic; Bedford Pregnancy Center; Crisis Line of Central Virginia; Franklin County Humane Society; Free Clinic of Central Virginia; Helping Hands of Franklin County; Lake Christian Ministries; and SML Good Neighbors.

This year’s 21st annual Charity Home Tour will be held on Columbus Day weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 7, 8 & 9. Now in its 21st year, the Charity Home Tour has donated over $2.5 million to help those in need. More information can be found on the Tour website, www.smlcharityhometour.com.