Ronald Willard

Ronald L. Willard, Sr. was born on December 17, 1945, on a tobacco farm in Franklin County. He was the third child of Virginia Robertson of Rocky Mount and Walter Lee Willard of Scruggs.  Ron’s parents displayed a great amount of love for family and great tenacity to manage a 65-acre farm that provided income and food for the family.  This acreage was covered with wheat, orchards, chickens, pigs and six milk cows.

Ron’s mother Virginia had an 8th grade education, and his father Walter Lee had a third-grade education – they were married at a very young age and purchased their farm on the Franklin County courthouse steps for $1250 when Ron was two years old.  They had to pay off a $650 mortgage within months, they were confident that the corn that was planted and milk from the cows would be sufficient revenue to pay the mortgage.  Mother nature was not kind that summer, and a storm destroyed the corn, no insurance and things appeared desperate.   One morning Walter shared with his wife that he had a dream of “coming into money”.  In a matter of days, a letter was addressed to him from an attorney, the details shared that a great aunt had passed away and he was listed as an heir that she was leaving $650 to, ironically the same amount of money needed to pay off the mortgage.  That one remarkable incident made his father seek work and keep two jobs so he would not ever be in a monetary bind again.  Walter was a gifted self-taught carpenter who added on rooms to their home and outbuildings plus a livery stable and all the timber came from his land.  Additionally, Walter farmed, made moonshine, sold timber and when Ron was 14 years old the times were lean, and his dad took a job with Bartlett Tree Service working 10 hour shifts 5 days a week at $1 per hour. 

Ron at an early age worked on the farm and spent a large amount of his time tying tobacco leaves together so they could dry/cure by the age of eight years old he was earning $2 a day for this work. As the high school years approached Ron got a part time job at Taylor’s Esso in Rocky Mount and this meant working one weeknight and every Saturday and Sunday at the station making 50 cents an hour. This one job and being in a rural area where many young people operate farm equipment led to getting a driver’s license early, and the temptation to drag race down the dirt roads was frequent.  So frequent for young Ron that he managed to rack up 19 traffic violations by the age of 19.  His need for speed earned him many drag race challenges from other young men from surrounding counties.   His pride and joy were 1956 Chevy with a blue interior and blue race stripes on the exterior and it was a great magnet when it came to dating.  Ron remembers vividly tracking his dating money and he would calculate car insurance, gas at 20 cents a gallon, $1 movie theater ticket and $1 would get a cheeseburger and fries.

Once young Ron graduated high school, he gained a wealth of experience from his multiple jobs in local businesses/factories:  at Lane Furniture Company he patched furniture for four months and realized he wanted more.  Next, he was employed at the Weaving Mill as a weaver fixer on the graveyard shift which made him realize his need to try construction with his first remodeling job taking place on the Keister-Greer Home in Rocky Mount.

At the young age of 19 Ron had embarked upon another milestone he married Brenda Cox a hairdresser, they would eventually become parents to three children, and they first lived on Williamson Road in Roanoke.  At the time of the marriage, he was working on Hollins College campus hanging solid core doors in the dorms for English Construction.  He had heard of more permanent work being done by Martin Brothers construction at the new construction site for the Roanoke County/Salem Civic Center.  To land this job meant young Ron had to rise before the sun shone in January, ride a city bus from Williamson Road to the Salem site and walk through ten inches of snow on non-shoveled sidewalks.  When Ron arrived on the site, he thought possibly he had arrived very early he was about to knock on the door of the construction trailer to ask for work when the door flung open and a trail of chaw flew out of the mouth of the site supervisor (H.A. Dickerson) who informed him that the other workers were told not to come on the site because of the snow accumulation.  He proceeded to tell Ron that when work began, he would not need any crew members.  Ron was determined to make an impression on the site supervisor after his long commute and he stayed on the site from 8am -5pm removing snow from the steel beams and rebar.  He did this for three days in a row as a solo worker with the site supervisor telling him that he would not be paid, because he was not needed.  Due to Ron’s persistence in removing the snow the first full operational day for construction that January put the whole crew ahead of schedule because they could access the steel and rebar as needed.   Payment to the men on the crew was cash in a little brown envelope on the Friday of that week.  All the crew received pay and as Ron turned to leave, the site supervisor called out his name and threw him an envelope as a sign of gratitude for maintaining their construction schedule and for Ron’s work ethic rising before the sun, riding the bus and staying until late afternoon.  No surprise Ron remained with the civic center crew putting up all the partitions for the building.

When Ron was 21 years old, he found his niche in the precast division using iron and steel and handing re-bar work.  His innate ability to work with medium earned him an opportunity to attend classes in AR for two weeks.  Upon his return he is given supervisory position and the youngest person compared to the work crew.  To gain their confidence required perseverance and demonstrating his ability to move along projects by reading blueprints.   This one job led to Ron getting additional education through the International Correspondence School (ICS) in business management classes that were offered two nights a week for a full month.

By the age of 23 years Ron was putting into practice his management skills that allowed him to work on large building projects for the John W. Daniel Company.  He went to Petersburg, VA to oversee the construction of a six story Howard Johnson motel. This led to being employed with the company for six and a half years and supervising three crews. The rapid growth in his construction knowledge led Ron to take a six month leave of absence to explore his options as he entertained the idea of going into business for himself.  To increase his construction knowledge Ron sought two-year employment at the Ed Frye Building Company.  This opportunity led to more commercial builds like a factory on Kessler Mill Road in Salem, an ABC Store, Virginia Fiberglass plant- he was superintendent on site and dug all the footers working with Turner/Long and the Virginia Tech Field House, all these structures required steel or iron framing and that became Ron’s specialty.  Ron was brought onto the VT campus with the owner who shared that the project was $70,000 in the red and Ron’s first response was “you have too many men on the job”. Mr. Frye then gave Ron the chance to turn things around and the first thing was the firing of 22 people and then he made sure to line up men with the proper equipment and a new timeline.   That one action elevated his worth for the Frye company.  

As Ron ventured into the construction world on his own, he was able to contract with Frye to construct a Williamsburg addition to Mr. Frye’s doctor friend for $50,000, that was Job 101 for Ron.  His first employees beside himself were one carpenter and his older brother, the company grew exponentially to eight employees in the second year, 16 employees in three years, and 24 employees by the fourth year in 1974.  His peak was eleven jobs and three crews in Hunting Hills and then Botetourt County, Roanoke City, Roanoke County, and Danville with each crew on 3-4 jobs.  Ron built the New Yorker Delicatessen in 1974.

The success of Ron Willard is documented in taking a dam construction that flooded farmland and transformed into the most desired lake front property and community East of the Mississippi.  Ron went from construction in 1973 to real estate development in 1977 of 3,000 acres that includes 33 acres of lake shoreline.  Ron realized early on that his “gift” was to see undeveloped land and recall blueprints that would match with the square footage needed to do new construction.

 Today the inventory of Willard Company structures includes 1000 units from low to high rise units, villas, assisted living, two marinas and three golf courses. Other conveniences added to the counties are the first Cinema, Kroger, banks, Velocity Care, building supply store, salons, restaurants, and Grand Home Furnishings.  The later housing developments like Boardwalk include multi-family units, croquet and badminton courts.  Ron has worked tirelessly to host outdoor events like – “Jive@ Five” Charity Home Tours, October Fest, Toys for Tots and Christmas Tree Lighting primarily to support the Cool Branch Fire and Rescue departments.  There were still some projects in Roanoke like the business complex Cypress Park that kept Ron’s attention. 

The motto that Ron has embraced in his years as a businessman was also the same motto that sat on the desk of his first employer John W. Daniel. “When a task is once begun, never leave it until it’s done; be it large or be it small, do it well or not at all. ”Ron has summed up the enthusiasm he has with construction and real estate by saying “the reward is not about the money, but knowing you have carved out the woods to make a home.  Like an artist who completes their painting on the canvas, the final signature on a new construct is to see it the first time the lights come on at night.”

When asked about the advice he would give to young people.  He is reminded of his late teens when he became a high school graduate and started thinking “where do I go?”  As he watched the yellow school busses take off for the high school and other friends off to college.  Work was his only option.  He feels today’s youth is not as driven and that they allow themselves to be put into boxes or enroll for welfare programs.  Ron believes entitlement programs have separated society, and kids are posed with the question “Do you want to win?”  this is based upon the young people he hires for wait staff, he is paying health benefits and paying better than local restaurants, but the work ethic is not strong.  As he recalled he had to figure out how to pay his parents room and board and he walked and hopped busses to get work. 

Ron has been a self-starter and visionary; along the way he got involved on boards that increased the viability of his industry that resulted in several honors and appointments. Ron was named the Roanoke Regional Builder of the Year from 1981-82. He was awarded Senior Life Director of the National Home Builders Association in February 2000 giving him voting power – at that time he was only the second person from the Roanoke region to receive this honor, —he had a 20- year perfect attendance record. He was also a board member of the Golf industry that evaluates the grounds, soils, and horticulture.

Ron’s civic roles include 4-H board, Amphitheater board, creating the Smith Mt. Lake Backbone Club in 1979, Lions, Virginia Chamber of Commerce Board, and SML Lions Club Golf Tournament chair. He and Carol Leggett convened the Smith Mountain Lake Partnership, and he served as the first president of the organization for two years.  They in turn got local businesses together to establish the Wine Festival, SML Open Golf Tournament, and the SML Regional Chamber of which Lee Willard is the current board chair.

He has won the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year Award, founded the Willard scholarship fund that is available through Ferrum College and established the Willard Amphitheater at the W. E. Skelton 4-H Camp and Educational Conference Center. 

Ronald Willard was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 2016.

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