For 50 years, SML has been Willard’s canvas for creating community
As a young entrepreneur in 1973, Ron Willard Sr. put his vision for the budding Smith Mountain Lake area on its path to reality by creating Willard Construction. Fifty years later, the pioneering developer, as president of The Willard Companies, reflects on his influence in helping make SML among the most desirable residential and small-business communities on the East Coast.
“It’s a beautiful thing to witness all that the lake has become and to know that I had a hand in that,” said Willard Sr., surveying the millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of accomplishments he has initiated across the three counties bordering the lake.
The Smith Mountain Lake area has indeed undergone quite a change since Willard Sr.’s childhood. He was born December 17, 1945, to Virginia and Walter Willard and grew up in Franklin County before Smith Mountain Dam was built, when the region consisted largely of farm fields, mountains and the Roanoke River.
His family lived in a 19th-century farmhouse on a 75-acre Franklin County tobacco farm that his father purchased for $1,250. It had no running water and too few bedrooms, but his parents were determined to make their house a home for young Ron and his siblings, Betty, Carolyn and Calvin. His father worked tirelessly on renovations.
Willard Sr. developed his passion for construction from his father and uncles, who all worked in the industry. From them, Willard Sr. learned skills such as cutting hip rafters for roofs using just a framing square. Back then, everything was done with meticulous measurements and a depth of knowledge and craftmanship.
He graduated from Franklin County High School in 1964 with one goal: to work and educate himself so that he could be successful. He worked construction in the Roanoke and Danville areas and throughout North Carolina during the day and went to school at night to learn the ins and outs of the construction industry. Meanwhile, crews began building Smith Mountain Dam in 1960, with water slowly filling the lower elevations from its completion in 1963 until the lake finally reached full pond on March 7, 1966.
“I had become fascinated with the development business,” Willard Sr. told the Smith Mountain Eagle in 1998, for an article about the 25th anniversary of The Willard Companies. “I had grown up with sawdust in my bloodstream. I wanted to hear the power saws running and hear the nails banging. I enjoyed seeing all the parts come together.”
But working for another company was never Willard Sr.’s dream. He ruminated about the potential of that new lake back home. After 10 years laboring in the construction industry, he had saved $30,000 and invested it in the creation of his own business.
Initially, Willard Construction remodeled houses and built commercial properties. Willard Sr. traveled the country, touring and learning about residential communities that were being developed elsewhere, and he knew he could bring that vision home to Smith Mountain Lake.
Roanoke-based nationally renowned artist George Shumate worked with Willard Sr. in the construction industry in the early days, before The Willard Companies was founded.
“I watched him grow in the industry as a job superintendent, and when he told me he was going to start his own building and development business in the Roanoke area and Smith Mountain Lake, I knew he had the charisma to make it happen,” Shumate said.
“His trademark was like an artist,” Shumate said. “When Ron decided to retire and sell the golf courses, I told him he was just like an artist: you paint the picture, then sell your work. They don’t make them like Ron Willard every day.”
Just three years after launching Willard Construction, Willard Sr. looked to expand his portfolio and created The Willard Companies as a mechanism for his broader vision. He bought 755 acres near his family farm, and in 1977, he started developing The Waterfront community, opening The Waterfront Country Club in 1981. Over the next 25 years, he continued to develop single-family and multi-family properties within the community.
With his first successful development under his belt, Willard Sr. turned his sights toward the southern edge of the lake, developing The Water’s Edge, a 712-acre luxury golf community in Penhook. It broke ground in 1985, with the first residents moving in by 1986. Its golf course officially opened for play in 1988.
Willard Sr.’s long-time friend, Eddie Hearp, described the developer as a competitive, risk-taking visionary who has refused to compromise his integrity or his values to succeed.
“When Ron embarked on The Water’s Edge development,” Hearp said, “a lot of people thought he had lost it, because how are you going to do that? But the movie says ‘build it and they will come,’ and they did.” The Water’s Edge Country Club, which Willard sold to McConnell Golf in late 2020, now has 450-plus members and has set the standard for upscale lifestyle at Smith Mountain Lake.
Hearp — founder of Hearp and Associates, a National Financial Services affiliate in Roanoke — has counted Willard Sr. as a close friend for decades.
“Ron has always done quality work and attracted quality people. Everything he’s done has been quality. He never took shortcuts. He did it the right way the first time. His integrity couldn’t be questioned,” Hearp said. “Some people will come in wringing wet and tell you it’s raining, and you’ll want to look out the window and make sure. When Ron told you something, you could take it to the bank.”
Through the years, The Willard Companies steadily expanded its development portfolio beyond The Waterfront and The Water’s Edge until it had amassed 3,500 developed acres in the Smith Mountain Lake area, including 35 miles of shoreline. Among them are The Boardwalk, The Farm, South Harbour, Willard Office Plaza, Cypress Park, Meadow Farm Estates, Gangplank Pointe and Westlake Towne Center.
To support sales within his developments, Willard Sr. established Waterfront Properties real estate division in 1987, which now operates as Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Smith Mountain Lake Real Estate. Backed by its local leadership and worldwide network, it has become a consistent leader in market share, serving Smith Mountain Lake and the surrounding areas. Its agents specialize in various types of properties and are active in the community.
Under the leadership of Ronald Willard Sr. and his oldest son, Ronald L. Willard II, The Willard Companies owned and operated Smith Mountain Building Supply from 2000 until 2018. It opened Westlake Cinema within its Westlake Towne Center shopping center in 2004, and it continues to run the cinema today. Its most recent construction was in 2017, with the opening of Carilion Family Medicine in Rocky Mount.
Ron Willard II said his father “has the uncanny ability to visualize something that most people cannot see and create something that people are seeking or need. He is relentless in making sure what he produces is quality and will make a lasting impact on the community.”
Chris Finley spent 12 years as Director of Marketing of The Willard Companies and considers Willard Sr. to be a mentor who had a profound impact on his life.
“He has a mantra that truly resonates with me: ‘Good enough is not OK. It must be right,’” Finley said. “From a healthy perfectionism approach, it’s important to give your absolute maximum attention and effort to every aspect of your life.”
Finley has gone on to become the Senior Market Director, Communications, for LewisGale Regional Health System.
In late 2020, Willard Sr. sold his flagship developments, The Waterfront and The Water’s Edge, along with a public golf course, The Westlake, which he owned and operated beginning in 1996. Soon thereafter, Willard Sr. started slowing down in the workplace, spending more time traveling and golfing. He has also advised Ron II when asked, although he says his son’s own expertise in development and leadership is well honed.
The Willard Companies will continue under the guiding hand of Ron II, with Ron Sr. advising when asked.
“Carving communities for residential life and commercial centers for these communities has been so rewarding,” Willard Sr. said. “Then I got to build the golf courses and clubhouses, which gives the residents a place to play. And now, moving on in life, retiring … it has a bittersweet taste. I know I’ll stay busy with consulting.”
Garnett Smith, a longtime leader of Advance Auto, served alongside Willard Sr. as officers on the Board of Directors for the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center.
“Congratulations on the anniversary celebration of your 50 years in business,” Smith wrote to Willard recently. “This is quite an accomplishment and one that you should be very proud of. As I reflect back over the years of our association and friendship, I cherish the memories of being a property owner in one of your developments, a member of one of your Country Clubs, and serving with you for over 35 years on the Board of Directors of The Skelton 4-H Center at Smith Mountain Lake. In all of these, I have witnessed first-hand your commitment to the communities you developed, the Clubs you operated and your charitable support of many causes. You can take great pride in all of these, as well as your legacy of leading the way on the growth and development of Smith Mountain Lake.”
Willard Sr.’s wife, Kris, an interior designer, retired a couple of years ago upon the sale of her business, Interiors by Kris, and she also continues to be active through consulting in the Smith Mountain Lake and Charlotte, N.C., areas. The couple travel often to South Carolina, where they maintain a house in DeBordieu, but Smith Mountain Lake remains their primary residence.
Family is “everything” to Willard Sr., who talks proudly about his three children Ron Willard II, Kim Willard Waters, W. Lee Willard, and his stepdaughter Heather Montgomery, who have given him eight grandchildren. He also fondly remembers his late parents and brother.
“He didn’t forget his roots,” Hearp said. “He remembered where he came from, and I think that’s an admirable and rare trait, to remember your roots. And Ron was proud of his roots.”