The Hardest Working Man In Hospitality Shares The Secret To Inspiring Confidence In Your Team

In this edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, Ballard Brands CEO Steven Ballard digs deep into his experiences as an athlete and coach to offer tools business leaders can use to build a “never say die” culture in their organizations.

Ballard Brands CEO Steven Ballard

As a walk-on freshman wide receiver at Tulane University, Steven Ballard was shorter, lighter, and slower than every other receiver on the team. But he was determined to make the Green Wave and worked so hard on the practice squad that when he got a chance to play a single down at a first-team practice, he made a great catch and set himself on course for a scholarship, a place on the travel squad, and a 1,000+ yard receiving career.

But what Ballard recalls most vividly about the moment he made that first catch was the reaction of Tulane’s star quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate Terrence Jones, “I’ve never forgotten how Terrence sprinted down the field to celebrate the catch with me,” said Ballard. “His reaction not only put me on cloud nine and made me feel like this was my team now, it also fired up his entire offense.” To this day, Ballard marvels at how deftly a great leader can leverage a pat on the back to bring a team closer together.

Ballard originally wanted to pursue a career as an athletics director and earned a masters degree in sports management at the University of Georgia. There he coached with the women’s gymnastics team—known as the Gym Dogs—with his wife Lori, who competed on the Canadian Olympic Team.

Before his athletic administration master plan could be put into play, however, “life stepped in,” and he found himself going into business with his brothers, Paul and Scott, opening a restaurant and a couple of coffee houses. Under the banner Ballard Brands, the brothers went on to form a company that today owns, operates, and manages more than 150 restaurants and food and beverage “concepts” in 28 states and 3 countries, including the acclaimed PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans and Smoothie King franchises.

As their company has grown and the brothers have expanded their portfolio of businesses and hired additional layers of leadership and staff, Ballard has found himself drawing more and more on the tools he used to succeed as an athlete.

This podcast offers numerous examples of such tools that will interest business leaders, including:

• How getting called out by Tulane Coach Tim Nunez for dropping a difficult pass during a game taught Ballard that you do your team no favors by lowering standards for any reason. “We all fall short of expectations from time to time,” Ballard noted, “but we should never lower our standards.”

• How transforming himself from a walk-on to a scholarship player taught Ballard to turn uncomfortable and even desperate situations into opportunities to step up and make a difference in business.

• How to empower your leadership team not only to identify problems, but also to propose solutions when sharing them  with the top brass.

“For me, the connection between athletics and business is that at some point, you have to make an internal decision on who you are as a person,” says Ballard. “Are you a leader or follower, are you a fighter or a quitter?”

Recently, Ballard had the chance to catch up with Coach Nunez and thank him for the many lessons learned. The coach countered with a thank you of his own. “You know, Steve, in my office I have photographs of three people hanging on my wall: (first-round NFL Draft pick) Chad Pennington, (first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer) Randy Moss, and you,” Nunez said. “Pennington was the smartest player I ever coached. Moss was the best athlete. And you were the hardest working. You are the reason a guy like me devotes his life to coaching.”

Enjoy this conversation with the hardest working man in hospitality, Steven Ballard.


4:30 How to turn disappointment into fuel

6:30 How to congratulate your team in a meaningful way

9:30 How to navigate leadership transitions from the top down.
23:30 How to hire people that bring something new to the table.

28:00 How to empower your teammates to be problem-solvers.

Check out the full Corporate Competitor Podcast interview archive and subscribe to new episodes.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events