In High Gear
A figurative and literal driver
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Wes Balda, academic dean of the Robert P. Stiller School of Business at Champlain College since 2013, stands in the hallway near the school’s elegant two-story main entry area.
Wesley Balda never met a job he didn’t like. That includes one summer as a professional salmon fisherman in Alaska, and flying a helicopter during his “midlife crisis” as a police officer. “And the one I’m in right now is probably the most fun I’ve ever had,” he adds.
That “one right now” is serving as academic dean of the Robert B. Stiller School of Business at Champlain College — the Stiller School for short.
Balda came to Vermont in 2013 to be interim dean for two years. He had just completed a one-year contract with the University of Oregon to launch the Oregon Business Institute, and his wife, Janis, was hired as a management professor by Unity College in Maine. Champlain’s interim deanship provided a perfect way for him to make a professional move east.
Halfway through his two-year service, he decided he was having so much fun that he persuaded the college to keep him on. “We had bought a little farm in Maine,” he says, “so that’s where she lives with the dog, and our youngest son came back to finish up his degree at her college.”
The Baldas have three children — two sons, ages 36 and 27, and a daughter, 31 — “plus one who’s semi adopted,” he says. “She was our babysitter and when she was 17, her loony mother threw her out, and she moved in with us and has been our adopted daughter ever since.”
He and Janis commute back and forth, and try to see each other every two to three weeks. “We’re doing fine,” he says of the arrangement. “March of this year was our 42nd anniversary.”
When they met, Balda was in the Navy, where he had, in his words, “an all-expenses-paid cruise in the Tonkin Gulf on an aircraft carrier.” A native of Washington state, he joined the Navy in ’71 after earning his degree in urban planning from the University of Washington.
A ROTC member, he turned down a Naval Academy appointment because engineering was then the only study option. Instead, he took a commission as a lieutenant and reported to the USS Lynde McCormick DDG-8, a guided-missile destroyer.
He and Janis met on a blind date while he was aboard his ship in San Diego. “She had been in England on a study-abroad program and had come back because her mother was very ill,” he says. “We got engaged five weeks later.”
The next week, Balda left for six months — his last tour in Vietnam. She finished her undergraduate degree in Indiana, and they married in 1974. Then, he says with a grin, “I started the first of many professions.”
He worked for a year and a half at a San Diego firm that made video and specialty TV cameras for testing things, then began to study for his master’s degree in historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena while serving as an administrator.
With a baby on the way, he and Janis left for Cambridge, England, where he earned his Ph.D. in history (organizational sustainability) in ’81. “I’m told I may still hold the record for finishing in two years, “he says, “but that was because I had only two years’ worth of money. It was constrained, but we pulled it off.”
Back in the States, he and Janis spent several years with World Vision International, based in Southern California but traveling to Ethiopia working on famine relief. He says that after a brief stint at another graduate school in Southern California, “I had my midlife crisis and went to the police academy in Ontario, California, at 39. I was a cop there for seven years and ended up flying the helicopter, supporting officers on the ground, doing drug surveillance, things like that. I was the only officer with a Ph.D. They all thought I was a DOJ plant.”
By 1991, having “built up a fair amount of expertise in crisis management,” he and Janis started “a little nonprofit institute.” With a grant from the State Department, they conducted all the training in emergency management for senior officials from the Soviet Union. “We ended up bringing in cabinet members, generals, and, we later determined, KGB agents.” They trained a few Chernobyl survivors, and eventually created the emergency management manual for Ukraine. They also traveled around the United States visiting disaster sites with students and teaching how to handle crises with FEMA.
In 1996, Balda returned to academe as director “of a faltering MBA program in California” that was about to lose its accreditation, and in ’99, he joined the Drucker School at Claremont as director of the executive managment and Ph.D programs, where he became good friends with its founder, the late management guru Peter Drucker.
From there, in 2003, he and Janis moved to Oregon where, for five years, he served as founding dean at George Fox University’s school of management, and she taught. “It was in Newburg, the gateway to the Willamette Valley.” He sighs as he adds, “We had wonderful wine.” After that, following a three-year stint in the Caribbean, where they taught MBAs at the medical school in Grenada, they returned to Oregon and, eventually, to Vermont.
Although its curriculum has expanded in recent years, from the beginning, Champlain College has had a business focus. Rod Shedd has been involved with the college since he was human resources director at IDX in the 1990s.
“I met Wes at the annual elevator pitch competition in 2015 and stayed in touch with him,” says Shedd, now a management/HR consultant and the founder of Vine and Wine Concierge, among other companies. “We got together a few times and discussed potential projects for students and my introducing students to business people in the community.”
Among Shedd’s activities have been practice interviews and coaching of students, helping to write business plans, and working to find jobs for graduates. “It’s been a wonderful experience working with Champlain College staff and the students,” he says.
The naming of the college’s school of business for Stiller, the founder of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, was announced in 2012. “That name,” Balda says, validated the whole Appreciative Inquiry movement for the school of business.”
Appreciative Inquiry is a technique for management practice founded by David Cooperrider, the author of A Positive Revolution in Change, that Balda had known about in the 1980s when he was at World Vision. “My first day at Champlain was when David Cooperrider was training the faculty in how to use Appreciative Inquiry,” he says. A year later, Champlain’s David L. Cooperrider International Academic Center for Appreciative Inquiry was a reality.
Balda’s enthusiasm for the college is almost palpable. “We have quite an amazing group here,” he says. “I think it’s one of Vermont’s best kept secrets.” That enthusiasm appears to run both directions.
“He understands the needs that businesses have today in the market and works to marry those with the skills kids are getting in school,” says Amy Mailloux, northeastern regional director for KeyBank. Mailloux sits on the school’s leadership council.
“I just think he’s extremely open-minded and eager to take in all types of people’s new ideas for relating to education,” says Jason Levinthal, the creator of Line skis, Full Tilt boots, and J skis. Levinthal, who designed his first skis when he was in college, jokes that he’s an “entrepreneur in residence” who will visit a class whenever he’s asked and tell his story.
Every new student must go through the integrated business experience, running a simulated coffee shop, says Balda, so they don’t have to wait until they declare a major. Every aspect of business — marketing, when to buy insurance, what the risk is, capital development — is covered.
Internships are offered at businesses in Burlington, Montreal, Dublin, and beyond, as well as through the Build Your Own Business entrepreneurial program.
The Study Abroad program is “something that kind of sneaked up on us, funded by a grant from the Freeman Foundation,” Balda says. “We realized this was a pretty slick deal. At the same time, Freeman decided we were one of their model sites for doing this. They doubled our grant, and we’re now sending around 25 business students a summer to Shanghai to learn some Mandarin and do internships in many types of companies.
“The first time we did it, we had several employers for the internships trying to persuade students to take full-time jobs and not return to finish their degrees.” Students are now applying to the college because of the Freeman grant.
Job placement, he says, is “incredible”: 97 percent of graduates are in jobs related to their majors or in graduate schools. This year, Champlain was named the Most Innovative by U.S. News & World Report. To meet the growth in applications, the college, over the years, has bought up many of the former University of Vermont frat houses, which make great dorms, he says.
A big challenge is trying to keep up with the immense creativity that exists. He says he’s done quite well in finding good faculty who want to live in Burlington. “We sell a lot of that here.”
At his own Burlington home, Balda is building a model ship and doing some condo renovations, but mostly, when he’s not working, he drives a lot. “I know highway 2 very well; ask me about any stop on the way to Maine.”•