In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, fear and anxiety about the future ran rampant. Fred Balda, president of Hillwood Communities—the residential development division of Dallas-based Hillwood—made a quick decision that was emblematic of his leadership style.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Hey, let’s get on the phone and call all our builders and offer them a quarter relief [three months’ reprieve] on their purchases,’” recalls Angie Mastrocola, a senior vice president at the company, who has worked with Balda for 30 years. “That was Fred telling customers that we’re in it for the long run with you guys and we want to help. He sets the stage for how we treat people. When we’re doing business, there’s a level of trust and appreciation and true camaraderie with customers.”
Balda, who is much more comfortable talking about the merits of the people on his team or the latest developments they’ve created, is the recipient of this year’s Legends Award, which honors those who have dedicated their careers to creating inspiring communities. He has been with Hillwood, which was launched by Ross Perot Jr. in 1988, almost since its inception. Balda, who took over the leadership of the communities division in 1999 at the comparatively young age of 39, has helped to grow the business and solidified its brand for high-quality work. Hillwood Communities has invested in or developed 100 projects, about half which have been in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The company’s other primary markets include Houston and Austin, and its joint ventures are focused in the Carolinas, Florida, and Washington, D.C.
“We always welcome calls from Fred,” says Gary Tesch, vice president of Coventry Homes, one of the largest builders in Texas, who has done business with Hillwood for the past 15 years. “It’s really refreshing to have a strong professional relationship with someone that is also just fun to work with. When there are challenges and opportunities, we’ve been able to structure deals that work for both companies. I’m able to be very transparent with him and his team, which opens the door to more dialogue and creativity. Fred is obviously very smart and sincere, and he’s one of those guys that when you talk to him, he really makes you feel like one of his friends.”
Alfred “Fred” James Balda’s ability to connect quickly and authentically with others may be related to his experience growing up in a large family. His parents, Alfredo (who also went by “Fred”) and Beatrice “Bea” Balda, were Ecuadorean and had immigrated to Cincinnati to start a new life. When he was 3, his parents returned to Ecuador to help with the family import/export business. The elder Fred died soon after from cancer. Young Fred and his four siblings spent their early years in Guayaquil, Ecuador, nurtured by his mother and her large extended family. In 1968, Bea Balda brought the family back to the U.S. and eventually remarried. Balda’s stepfather was an engineer who worked in the aerospace industry and had a child of his own from a previous marriage.
The Brady Bunch–like combination of two adults and six children lived a middle-class lifestyle in Dallas. The children were instilled with the importance of “church, good grades, and work,” says Balda, a virtuous trifecta that stuck with him. As a middle-school student, he started delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. “The paper job taught me to outperform what was normal—if you delivered the paper on the front porch instead of the driveway, you’d get a tip,” he recalls.
Inspired by his stepfather, Balda studied civil engineering at Texas A&M. Through the department’s cooperative education program, which alternated classes with work experience, he became interested in the construction side of engineering. His first job was for H.B. Zachry, a construction company that was doing work at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “It was unbelievable,” says Balda. “I got to see a variety of different types of construction—bridges, taxiways, runways, dirt jobs, paving, steel construction—which was incredible for a young engineer.” He also noticed all sorts of other development was going on near the airport, including new office towers, apartment complexes, and neighborhoods, which inspired him to consider a career change. “I really did enjoy construction, but I wanted to be on the owner’s side,” says Balda. “I wanted to understand the business side of real estate development and ultimately have influence on what gets built.”
Balda began his real estate career at Trammell Crow, whose name he had seen on a few projects around the airport. Balda’s role was managing the lot development process for Crow Development, the division focused on planned communities. On his first day at work, the division head invited him to join a city council meeting that evening, where an important zoning decision for a Crow project in Flower Mound, Texas, was up for a vote. The meeting went until after midnight, the zoning change was finally approved, and Balda was hooked. “I’ve been gunned up ever since then,” he says. “That day was really impactful. I got to hear both sides of a zoning case and what was important to the town and what was important to the developer. What became evident to me very quickly after joining Crow was how professional, intelligent, and creative the team was. And I realized how much I had to learn.”
For the next few years, Balda set out to supplement his education by taking night classes and seminars in finance, accounting, entrepreneurship, and real estate—the rough equivalent of a formal MBA program. When the recession of the early ’90s hit, he also learned what it was like to be in real estate during a down cycle. While he survived a massive layoff, which he attributes to his youth and modest salary, there wasn’t much going on in the office. So when a former Trammell Crow executive called him up and said that ClubCorp America needed someone to help with golf course development, Balda joined her there. Though he wasn’t particularly interested in golf, he knew golf courses were integral to some planned communities, which remained his real passion.
Another Trammell Crow connection, Ron White, brought him to Hillwood in 1992. A few years before, Ross Perot Jr. had launched an ambitious plan to develop thousands of rural acreage that the family owned, centered around a new cargo airport, Fort Worth Alliance Airport. Perot’s newly formed real estate development company, Hillwood, offered sites for warehouses, offices, and retail businesses, as well as lots in a new 1,500-acre community, Park Glen. Balda and Mastrocola were among White’s first hires to work on the residential component. They helped set the tone for Hillwood developments, inspired by the level of detail and landscape design that had gone into Trammell Crow projects.
Since Park Glen, Hillwood has distinguished itself in a state that is celebrated for its planned communities. Of particular note is Harvest, a 1,200-acre agrihood in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which has received numerous local and national accolades. Its lifestyle program, which is led by an on-site director, received a 2020 Gold Award from the NAHB. Like most Hillwood residential developments, Harvest has a relationship with a charitable organization to help residents give back. At Harvest, various community fundraisers and locally harvested produce go to support the North Texas Food Bank. More recently, Pecan Square was named Master Planned Community of the Year by the Dallas Builders Association. The 1,200-acre community, also located in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, promotes gatherings with the Arena, a 22,000-square-foot covered space for open-air events.
For 18 years, Balda and his wife, Cindy, lived in Estates of Russell Creek, a Hillwood community in Plano, Texas, and raised their three sons.
“The best thing I ever did was to live there,” says Balda. “It taught me what was really important in a neighborhood, which is having places where families can gather. It should be convenient to live there, so you don’t need to drive your kid to school or drive across the city to go to church. Plano is a big city, and Russell Creek felt like a small town in a big city.”
Among Balda’s biggest concerns today is the lack of affordable housing. “There’s a misconception that affordable home products are cheap and attract less desirable people,” he says. “Just because someone lives in an apartment doesn’t make them less of a person than someone who owns a home. We need to help people see that the lack of affordability is a problem that will persist and likely worsen over time, which will affect our children and their children. If municipalities had a better understanding of this problem, then they could make zoning changes that would allow for higher density of products and help affordability.” He points to Harvest and Union Park in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Wolf Ranch near Austin as examples of Hillwood communities that have been able to address affordability with high-density, multifamily, and build-to-rent product.
During the previous recession, Balda took advantage of the downtime to work on improving the business so the company would be in a stronger position once the economy picked up again. Looking for cost efficiencies, the firm decided to outsource landscape maintenance services. It also invested in a complete brand refresh, an effort that produced the guiding principles for the company’s communities: connection, well-being, enrichment, stewardship, and convenience.
If Balda were going through the process of defining his own personal brand, his descriptors would definitely include “integrity,” according to his boss, Ross Perot Jr. “Funny” is another adjective used by friends like Terry Mitchell, principal at Contrast Development, who has known Balda since the H.B. Zachry days. And “caring” would definitely be in the mix. Mastrocola talks about how much it meant to her when Balda came to the hospital after her mother had a heart valve replaced several years ago.
“Next thing I know, there he is. Just to give me a hug and say ‘How’s it going?’ and shake my dad’s hand. That’s the kind of guy he is,” she says. “He genuinely cares about people.”