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.
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)