Barbara Balman: From Managing Guests to Pruning Plants  

rsz_barbara_balman_2Like most women, Swiss-born Barbara Balman wanted it all: a career, family, happy marriage, good friendships, and time for hobbies. And, like most women, she quickly realized having it all was going to be close to impossible. That is, at least, until she found a career as a landscape designer transforming outdoor spaces into magical gardens. Changing gears offered her the flexibility to still be a stay-at-home mom and run a successful business.

Educated in Switzerland and a graduate of Ecole Hôtelière Lausanne (EHL), Balman spent 12 years in the hospitality and hotel management business. She worked mostly in hotels in Zurich, but when Cornell University offered her a spot in their hospitality management school, she took the opportunity to come to the US to study in their summer program. Afterwards she joined a hotel management company in Dallas, and for a brief, albeit sweet period of time, even oversaw a traveling circus in Texas with her husband. “That was a great gig,” says Balman.

Following her husband to Washington, D.C. where he decided to get his MA in journalism, Balman had to support both of them. For many years she was the catering sales director for the now-defunct Fourways restaurant. It was a wonderful experience. “I worked with the very talented chef, John Moeller, who later became the sous-chef at the White House and just published his first book, Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours … After being sworn in as a new citizen by Chief Justice Warren Burger and then VP George W. Bush, my boss at Fourways dared me to give Mr Bush my business card. I did and ended up organizing a few events for his and Dan Quayle’s presidential campaign.”

Balman and her husband and always wanted a gaggle of kids, so when she got pregnant at 32, she stopped working assuming more would be on the way. But that wasn’t meant to be and after three years of being a stay-at-home mom, Balman decided to return to school to try her hand at something new, especially as the work hours in the hospitality industry leave little room for a family.

She wasn’t sure where to start and, in a serendipitous moment, met a Swiss connection who happened to be a career counselor at George Washington University (GWU). “She issued me the Briggs-Meyer personality test and it revealed I should be a farmer, policeman, or landscape architect. Actually I think electrician was also on the list because I like to tinker with things.” Fortunately for the D.C. criminal underground, the no-nonsense Balman decided to pursue landscape design. “I knew this would enable me to manage my own schedule and achieve a good work–life balance.”

In her late 30s, she graduated from GWU’s professional studies program only to discover she was pregnant again. Afraid she might lose momentum if she delayed starting to work, Balman took small steps into the business. “I really wanted to work for someone else but with the baby it was difficult so I started on my own, one garden at a time.”

And Balman Landscape Design was born.

But Balman, who has always considered herself extremely lucky, had some help. Rocky, a “toothless, 5’4” Moroccan guy in his 60s” just showed up one day and said, “Let’s go to work.” The owner of a big pick-up truck, who roamed the neighborhood helping people out, Rocky hauled junk and did gardening and handyman work … anything that was needed. “He was like my angel. Nothing was ever a problem for him. Rocky got me going, helped me jump in and realize my dream.” The pair worked together for ten years before Rocky died in 2008.

With Rocky’s passing and feeling like she should spread her wings, Balman considered taking on bigger projects and getting out of the neighborhood to grow her business in a difficult economic climate. But something held her back: “I’m so glad I didn’t move on. The neighborhood is clearly my bread and butter. No job is too small for me and this has been the key to my success. I love it that people care so much about their garden. I want to help them get it right.”

Instead of expanding her business, when she was 48, Balman went back to school to get a MA from GWU, this time in sustainable design. “With one child just finishing college, one about to go, and one in elementary school, I knew it was now or never. I wanted the knowledge of green building and the Masters degree.”

Going back to school was the hardest thing she ever did. She was still managing her business, running between her kids’ sports events, and trying to be home when school got out every day: “It’s a blur … I really don’t know how I managed. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it definitely burned me out. You won’t see me at midnight baking birthday cakes like I used to. But as a mom, you just do it!”

A key part of Balman’s success was her willingness to volunteer at local D.C.P.S. Janney Elementary, where she created outdoor play spaces and secret gardens, while building up her reputation. “People got to know me, saw my work, and it went from there. Seventeen years later, I’m still in business and still volunteer at Janney.”

But her involvement at the local public school went beyond normal volunteerism. Wary of rumblings about school over-crowding and the need for more space, Balman jumped into action to come up with a plan for the school’s grounds so they would not be sold to finance renovation or used directly for new construction. “I pulled two all-nighters to design the Janney garden. I wanted to build an emotional attachment of both parents and children to the garden. We need every square foot that we can keep of this land for our kids.” Her foresight paid off. Janney school kids now enjoy an unparalleled outdoor space, and the school won the Golden Shovel Award for best new school garden in 2012.

For Balman, it’s always been more than just a business. “It makes me a happier person to do something good while I am working!”

She is keen to share the secret of her success. “I cannot stress enough the fact that the springboard for all the courage and perseverance you need to start a business is a solid foundation built on good health, a supportive network of friends and family, and doing what you love.” And for Balman, this includes getting dirty at least once a day!

Tips From Barbara Balman
  • I learned some very simple but important things in hotel management that I have applied to my business … the client is always #1, be on time, show up when you say you are going to show up, and finish the job. It seems so basic and yet it is lacking in the service sector.
  • Be sure you see yourself ten years from now living your new life, if you can’t see it, it’s not real.
  • You have got to feel that horse kicking inside you every morning, getting you out of bed. Find your passion!
  • If you are serious about making a career change, you must get your life in order. You will have so little time outside of your current commitments so plan to use your time efficiently.
  • Although the bottom line for a successful business, it is not all about money. A job well done pays off in many more ways.

Discussion

Have you done the Briggs-Meyer or other personality tests and been surprised by what it says about you? Have you considered changing careers as a result?

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