By: Daniel Salazar / Austin Business Journal
Jason Ball came to appreciate the importance of economic development growing up in the small Nebraska town that’s home to the headquarters of sporting goods giant Cabela’s.
“You get to know real quick the value of what business and job creation in a community really means,” Ball said, “because it so directly affects the quality of life that people can have there.”
Ball is the new president and CEO of the Round Rock Chamber, tasked with leading the premier business advocacy organization for the booming suburb on Austin’s northern fringe.
Ball started work in Round Rock in September after leadership roles at several chambers of commerce around the Midwest. But he said he fell into the career “completely backwards, like most people do, actually, in the chamber and economic development world.”
After getting his undergraduate degree in chemistry, Ball decided to pursue an MBA, in part, as a way “to get out of the lab.”
“What I did not want for my career was to be by myself in a fume hood all day,” Ball said. “I loved the science … but I didn’t like the isolation.”
After working in the Office of Technology Development at the University of Nebraska, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce approached him about a job.
“It was through the chamber that I really did fall in love with the work,” Ball said.
He adjusted to the learning curve of a new career by simply diving into projects.
“A lot of that is just running down answers to questions with local government partners, local utility partners, land owners [and] building owners and just being … quick with getting responses to site consultants and businesses,” he said.
Ball’s first role running a chamber of commerce took him to Hutchinson and Reno County, Kansas — about an hour northwest of Wichita in the south-central part of the state. There, he led his first capital campaign and worked to grow the chamber’s annual event.
“Moving from being someone who’s producing a lot of work to someone who’s casting the vision and motivating teams to execute … was a lot to take in,” Ball said. “But it was a great place to do it.”
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Ball took over the top chamber role from a predecessor who had led the organization for 38 years.
“The difficult thing coming into an organization like that is it’s very settled into its standard practices,” Ball said. “Some of those need some adjustment and sometimes people can either be excited about that or resistant to it.”
Ball said he was drawn to the Round Rock role because of Texas’ business-friendly environment and Central Texas’ “aggressive and successful pursuit” of major economic development deals.
Through his other roles, Ball said he’s learned to eschew any sudden moves, listen a lot and invite people to be candid “about the things you need to know.”
In Round Rock, he’ll focus on getting a multi-year plan for the organization established and filling key open positions.
“My role here is going to be creating an environment where the team can be successful in executing the mission of the business community,” he said.
And he said he’s excited about working with the city of Round Rock, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and other economic development partners in Williamson County on common goals, such as passing a $447 million bond package in the next election.
“It doesn’t do any of us any good to try to steal one company from one city to the one next door,” he said. “That’s a race to the bottom.”
“Wins in those other communities turn into additional economic activity here and vice versa,” he added.
What’s the most challenging part of your job? Building consensus. When you work for an organization that’s as large as ours and have the number of stakeholders that we do, you’re going to naturally come into situations where people either just have differences of opinions or their core goals and objectives are just in different spaces.
Who’s been a big mentor for you? Wendy Birdsall is someone that I stay in touch with a lot. She’s the president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development.
What’s an organizational habit that helps you as a chief executive? What I’ve taken to is making handwritten thank you cards a habit. I don’t know if that’s necessarily helped me become a better organizational leader or manager, but … a physical manifestation of a thank you is, I think, one of the most important things that we can do.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned the hard way? Make sure to involve many people in key hiring decisions.
Where do you like to travel? We’re in the phase of life where travel is mostly going to the grandparents or other family members.
What do you like to do in your free time? I run, that’s my hobby. I’m so excited to get plugged into the running community in the area.
What podcasts do you listen to? The daily NPR one — Up First. That’s kind of a necessity in my life just to know what’s going on on the national scene.
What do you like to read? I got really into the Game of Thrones books, which probably doesn’t help my management skills at all. But I sure do like it.
Title: President and CEO, Round Rock Chamber
Hometown: Sidney, Nebraska
Education: Bachelor of Arts in chemistry, Nebraska Wesleyan University; MBA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Family: Wife, Sandy; son, Bennett, 6; daughter, Sadie, 3