TreeHouse spreads gospel of sustainable, affordable building products

Jason Ballard was not born in the bosom of green thinking. The co-founder of TreeHouse, Austin’s enviromentally friendly home improvement store, was born in the marshy Texas town of Nederland. He grew up in Orange and Bridge City.

“I was a tree-hugger in an area where the oil industry dominates,” Ballard, 33, says with a forbearing smile about the bend in the Gulf Coast, home to bristling refineries and petrochemical plants. “Yes, I was a tree-hugging, short-shorts-wearing, long-distance runner who was no good at football. Too small. That very much shaped who I am.”

Ballard was also influenced by his grandfather Marlon Henry “Paw Paw” Risinger, a refinery worker who grew up behind the Pine Curtain of East Texas.

“He had a strong conservation ethic,” Ballard says about the old-school outdoorsman. “You throw a fish back if you are not going to eat it. He got angry when he caught me chopping down a tree with a hatchet: ‘We don’t waste things!’”

Ballard — who met his South Dakota-born wife, Jennifer, when they acted as summer camp guides in Colorado — eventually put to work his early education in the Golden Triangle, his training in biology and ecology at Texas A&M University, his moral code molded by the Episcopal Church, his life-altering experiences with Jennifer and their daughter, and his quiet powers of persuasion to build a company now poised to export its Austin success with healthy, sustainable products.

“We’ve been called the Whole Foods of home improvement,” he says. “That’s a good and a bad thing. Good because they made what we do possible: made their business intelligible, values-driven. I’m very much standing on their shoulders. However, they have a reputation for being very expensive, and people project that onto TreeHouse. Our master plan is to make all this normal and affordable.”

Indeed, spot checks of various items, including paint, yard furniture and pet supplies, confirmed that TreeHouse can compete on price, and that should even improve as the company accrues economies of scale after its planned expansion.

Ballard’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in Austin’s deep-rooted green community.

“Jason is one of those special new-millennium entrepreneurs who places his heart, soul and wallet into what the building-product world has always needed,” says Pliny Fisk III, founder of the globally respected Center for Maximum Sustainable Building Systems, based in East Austin. “And most important: He is a really nice guy while doing all this.”

Two nice people

Jason and Jenny Ballard can explain almost any item in the store at the Westgate Center in South Austin, and why it is good for you and the planet. The couples lives, however, in an 800-square-foot bungalow that could use some TreeHouse love.

“It’s like the cobbler’s kids who don’t have shoes,” Jason jokes. “We run a home-improvement company. Why don’t we have more time to do this?”

Jason, 33, grew up at ease inside his own head.

“I’m an introvert who likes people,” Jason says. “I pace and go into a trance. I recharge alone.”

He spent part of his youth rafting on bayous and catching little alligators. His father, Doug Ballard, a longtime retailer, is now TreeHouse’s director of customer happiness.

“I realized that everyone I interviewed, I was comparing to my father,” Jason says. “I needed somebody who could be brutally honest with me.”

He describes his mother, Lequita Risinger Hoffpauir, a retired insurance broker, as an “incredibly hardworking, 100-hour-a-week supermom.”

Jason ran track in high school and at Texas A&M. At one point, he trained to become an Episcopal priest but turned his energies to the topics of shelter, conservation and sustainable building.

He met Jenny — whose smile is even sunnier than Jason’s — at a summer camp near Durango, Colo., where he served as a water sports guide and she led the rock-climbing activities.

“My friends and I had just seen the movie ‘Troy’ with Brad Pitt, so we referred to her as ‘Helen’ because she was so gorgeous,” says Jason, almost blushing. “I did everything I could to be near her. She was the darling of the camp, incredibly sweet, thoughtful, adventurous, beautiful.”

The Texan’s big chance came at a barn dance.

Jason: “I asked her to dance, and we danced all night.”

Jenny: “He was doing the Pretzel.”

Jason: “The biggest insecurity in my life is how did I get to marry her.”

Jenny: “He got to work on his sales pitch on my parents.”

Jason: “Nobody thought it was good news that a boy from Texas was wooing her.”

Jenny: “Don’t worry, you guys, I will never move to Texas.”

Jennifer Uhre Ballard, 31, grew up in a stunningly beautiful part of southwestern South Dakota, a place nothing at all like Jason’s stomping grounds. Her father, Craig Uhre, a retired semitrailer dealer, counts Norwegians among his ancestors. Her mother, Joan Rypkema Uhre, once a local TV reporter, contributed Swedish and Dutch genes.

By her own account, Jennifer was an easygoing, adventurous kid who spent every weekend outdoors — skiing, boating, hiking, camping — and was a perfectionist in school. She thought she would never leave the Rapid City, S.D., area.

Jenny majored in global studies at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian school in Southern California.

“I was fascinated by going somewhere with diversity, different from what I grew up with,” she says. “I had an anthropology focus geared for people interested in nonprofit work.”

She recalls vowing not to fall for anybody during summer camp.

“It was such a cliche,” she laughs. “We dated for two years long-distance. We made it through all that.”

They settled first in Boulder, Colo., where she worked for an integrated pharmacy. Jason eventually helped build a straw house in Fort Collins. Without any idea of their business future, they were gathering ideas that would sprout into TreeHouse.

The Ballards married in 2007 and are rearing a 5-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl.

“The life force burns hot in our children,” Jenny says. “I wish I had the energy to keep up with them.”

Their otherwise unclouded lives have already been visited by shadows. Three months after TreeHouse opened, Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery at MD Anderson in Houston. She avoided chemotherapy and radiation, but her prognosis is clear. Then, their daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy and was prescribed strong medication.

“It completely changed her,” Jennifer says. “It turned her into a different person. That frightened us. We took the risky, scary decision to take her off of it. She hasn’t had any more seizures. We’re thankful.”

Setting up TreeHouse

Once, while building that straw house in Colorado, Jason said to Jennifer: “Honey, I have an idea.”

“She didn’t laugh at me,” Jason says about the store concept. “Which was probably the most important thing. She came up with the name TreeHouse. We were young enough and naive enough to think we could do it.”

Why home improvement?

“Here’s a jarring fact: Environmental and human health issues all lead to the home,” Jason says. “It’s the No. 1 user of energy, No. 2 user of water after agriculture. And if you consider water in power production, it’s No. 1 as well. The No. 1 filler of landfill waste is building construction. The No. 1 toxic exposure is not smog, but, unless you work in particular fields, the home.”

Knowing that it wouldn’t work as a costly boutique and, at the same time, make an impact, the couple figured it would take something like $1 million to get started. They wound up raising $7 million in the first round of fundraising, with the help of a college friend and TreeHouse co-founder, Evan Loomis, who helped head an angel investing network.

The founders shopped around for locations and landed on Austin.

“It’s a city of true believers,” Jason say. “But it’s also a decent-size market with a start-up culture. And many people don’t know this: It’s the birthplace of green, sustainable building architecture. Texas is where it all started.”

Midsize big-box stores were failing left and right in 2011. That allowed TreeHouse to land an ideal location that formerly housed a Borders bookstore near Central Market and Whole Earth Provision Co. Still, Ballard and his team were among the only ones betting on a new big-box brand of any size.

“It was always a long shot,” Jason says before using a skiing term. “Retail is the double-black-diamond of start-ups. It requires a lot of everything — people, capital, inventory, long-term leases, which people don’t want to give to a start-up. Garrett Boone, co-founder of Container Store, was our largest investor. He told us: ‘This is going to be very hard. There’s a very good chance you will fail. But you have to try.’”

Other sustainable housing retailers came online around that time but turned out too small to be generally affordable.

“It can’t be for the 2 percent,” Jason says. “You have to lower prices. You do that with volume and scale.”

TreeHouse has raised $16 million in capital to expand to other major metro areas in Texas. It also made news recently by announcing that it will close on Black Friday. The Ballards eschewed venture capital firms because their concept will take time to mature, which isn’t what venture capital usually seeks out.

It might not shock the observer that Jason makes a “Lord of the Rings” reference about the prospect of expanding outside green Austin.

“Frodo had to leave Shire,” he says. “We had to leave the woods to make all this happen.”

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