S.B. Ballard may have started in pouring cement, but he was never stuck in it. Forty years and more than 200 projects later, he is still moving.
When city leaders cut the ribbon on the Virginia Beach Arena in 2019, the $220 million, 500,000-square-foot venue will seat 18,000, and provide state-of-the-art amenities capable of attracting national names in entertainment and sports.
The arena will be the latest milestone in the remarkable trajectory of S.B. Ballard Construction Company, the general contractor working with developer United States Management to bring the project to fruition. Approaching 40 years in business, Stephen B. Ballard began as a concrete contractor in Norfolk and has since steered his firm through the growing pains of steady expansion.
Ballard, 61, has earned a leading role in the construction industry through a tireless devotion to understanding and improving his craft. A major part of that expertise derives from staying ahead of challenges in a field that is constantly evolving.
S.B. Ballard has left its imprint on numerous iconic structures in Hampton Roads, such as the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, MacArthur Center and the Half Moone Cruise & Celebration Center. The company also completed a major renovation of Old Dominion University’s football stadium, which – since he is one of the school’s largest benefactors – bears Ballard’s name.
For a firm whose work is now hard to miss, S.B. Ballard came from humble beginnings. Ballard, a Maury High School graduate, had vocational training as an adolescent and tried a year of college, but says that he found purpose in the down-and-dirty work of accomplishing a project and learning by doing.
After gaining experience working for others, Ballard and his sister started their own firm in 1978. He began taking on small contracting jobs and pouring concrete for projects around Hampton Roads and expanded his business over nearly four decades.
When obstacles stood in his way, Ballard removed them. Once, the company was building a Jiffy Lube, and unusually long periods of rain threatened to push back completion. S.B. Ballard rented an enormous tent, placed it over the job site and finished construction on time.
Through the years other speedbumps surfaced, namely economic downturns. The early 1990s hit S.B. Ballard especially hard. When banks tightened their purse strings, Ballard took it as a learning opportunity. “That period taught me a lot of business savvy that helped me get through,” he said.
It was that combination of grit and hard-earned wisdom that helped catapult S.B. Ballard to a leadership role in the construction industry. In 2001, the company was one of the top 20 concrete contractors by revenue in the nation.
Throughout the past decade, S.B. Ballard transitioned to a general contractor, and arrived at its present size, with nearly 200 employees. The company has handled some 200 major projects through the years.
Even with so much experience under its belt, S.B. Ballard nevertheless remains in a competitive field where contracts are never guaranteed. In March 2016, the firm presented ODU officials an unsolicited proposal to rebuild major portions of S.B. Ballard Stadium, an overture that the school rejected. The work is now open for public bidding.
But S.B. Ballard’s size and expertise nevertheless position it to score major deals. The proposed work on the Virginia Beach Arena, for example, was not simply an offer to build the structure. S.B. Ballard and United States Management presented a total package, bringing to the table financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance a comprehensive plan that was able to withstand public and political scrutiny that threatened to scuttle the deal.
Andrea Kilmer is president and CEO of The ESG Companies, the affiliated parent company of United States Management. She has known and worked with Ballard for more than three decades. Ballard has “the perfect mix of being collaborative and listening to all ideas, but making a firm final decision when it’s called for,” she said.
Ballard’s business sense engendered his success and gained him a positive reputation among those in the construction industry, Kilmer said.
Nevertheless, growth and notoriety have not insulated S.B. Ballard from some of the emerging challenges in the construction industry. Among the most pressing concerns, according to Ballard, is a lack of skilled tradesmen, the backbone of the industry.
“We don’t have the number of tradesmen that we used to,” he said, attributing the decline to a few factors. For one, the work is hard and dirty, and fewer young adults entering the workforce are choosing careers that involve physical labor, opting instead for desk jobs.
What’s more, said Ballard, stricter hiring constraints limit the number of legally employable people. “It used to be that you would check two IDs and that was it,” Ballard said, but federal requirements are a lot more stringent now.
Even those who want to pursue trades are having trouble finding accessible training programs, Ballard said. Ballard’s solution? There should be more trade schools for young adults. For students who are pursuing college, he said, there should at least be some exposure to the trades.
One way the construction industry is adjusting to the changing workforce is with more automation in the building process. Prefabricated construction, even with concrete components, are an industry trend, and one that S.B. Ballard employs. Prefabrication is just one example of the ongoing technological evolution of construction, Ballard said.
Even parking garages now include technical elements they did not just a few years ago. Ballard is currently building three that include state-of-the-art features, such as advanced methods of vehicle counting, and advertising displays that can be tailored to the demographics of patrons in a garage at any given moment.
Many buildings Ballard constructs have technology at the core of their function. S.B. Ballard secured a contract for five Norfolk public schools, and is currently pursuing that ongoing work.
Ballard plans to keep his competitive edge, and understanding technology ensures his employees can make and deliver it properly, he said, which is why two of his priorities are research and education. “If you’re not ahead of your competition, you’re getting stomped by them,” he said.
Staying ahead is no easy feat. The more intricate a project, the more room there is for unexpected delays and cost overruns, said Tony Arnold, executive director of facilities services for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. There is something to be said when a major project comes in ahead of schedule and on budget, which was the case with S.B. Ballard’s 2014 completion of Kellam High School, a LEED-certified complex that won recognition from the nonprofit Association for Learning Environments for its innovative design.
For Arnold, Kellam High School, like so many other structures Ballard has built through the years, is a fitting testament to Ballard’s success. “Putting together a 350,000-square-foot, 21st century high school on a 100-plus-acre site is very complex,” Arnold said. “You have to empower your people, and be an innovator to do it well.”