Jim Balloun dies at 84, helped build Atlanta businesses, arts

Credit: Charlotte B. Teagle

Credit: Charlotte B. Teagle

Most Georgians have never heard of James Balloun, but they’ve enjoyed many contributions he made to Atlanta and the state. The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the Georgia Research Alliance, the Woodruff Arts Center, the Georgia Ports Authority — all benefitted from Balloun’s organizational skills, commitment and sense of civic engagement.

“Jim would never raise his voice, he was so even keeled,” said Atlanta businessman Larry Gellerstedt III. “I remember sitting with him and looking at a complex situation, and Jim would pull out some paper and do a three-point diagram to explain the way to solve it.”

James Stanley Balloun died unexpectedly on February 25. He was 84.

Balloun arrived in Atlanta in 1979 to direct the six-person office of McKinsey & Co., then a low-profile management consulting and strategy firm he joined after finishing Harvard Business School. He had worked for McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco and Tokyo before moving to Atlanta. Under his leadership, the Atlanta office grew to 120 employees. The firm undertook complex pro bono projects for many of Atlanta’s nonprofits and its public initiatives, such as the anti-poverty Atlanta Project.

“Jim was very civic-minded,” said Susan Nuegent, who knew him from her years with the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Balloun was on the chamber board, “and played an important role in data analysis and problem solving.”

Balloun served as chairman of the Commerce Club and the Woodruff Arts Center, and on the boards of Wachovia, Radiant Systems, Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta Rotary Club, the Westminster Schools, and Trinity Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder.

Rather than become a senior partner in McKinsey & Co., he left the firm in 1996 to head National Service Industries, a holding company for businesses. In his first two years at the helm, the stock price increased 41%. In 2001, Balloun became the CEO of Acuity Brands, a spinoff of NSI’s lighting equipment and chemicals businesses. He retired in 2004, but he continued to work on raising money for the Woodruff Arts Center and helping to strengthen Georgia’s research universities.

As a member of the Georgia Ports Authority, Balloun stressed the potential economic benefits of deepening the Port of Savannah. He was a founding member of the Georgia Research Alliance, a public-private partnership which recruits cutting-edge scholars to Georgia’s research institutions.

“One way to commercialize the scholars’ research and development was to have access to venture capital,” said GRA board chairman David Ratcliffe, former CEO of the Southern Company. GRA President Susan Shows remembered that when the idea of a GRA venture fund came before the board, “Jim looked around the table and said, ‘I’m in.’ He knew it was crucial.”

The GRA has spent about $700 million in state money on recruitment and commercialization, “and the return is north of $11 billion,” said Ratcliffe. “Five years ago, we were number 12 in university research spending and now we are number eight. It’s a tremendous success.”

Born in Sibley, Iowa, to Stanley and Edna Balloun, Jim Balloun spent much of his childhood in Alaska, where his father supervised U.S. Department of Agriculture experiment stations, before the family moved to Ames, Iowa, for his father to attend graduate school at Iowa State. At Ames High School, the tall and athletic Jim Balloun was a successful baseball player, finishing his senior year with a 0.95 earned run average and a .350 batting average. He earned a degree in industrial engineering from Iowa State in 1960, where he served as president of the student body.

For his alma mater, Jim Balloun funded two professorships in engineering, both named for his grandmother Vlasta Klima Balloun, whose parents were Bohemian immigrants. Jim Balloun and his wife Julie Balloun also contributed a lead gift to a turkey research center at Iowa State named for Stanley Balloun, who became an international expert on turkey production and turkey feed.

In addition to his wife, Balloun is survived by his brother Joe Balloun, son Mark Balloun, daughter Jill Balloun Webb, stepchildren Edie Wright and Whit Lanier, and ten grandchildren. A celebration of Jim’s life will be Friday, March 3, 2023, at 2:30 p.m. at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 3003 Howell Mill Rd NW, followed by a reception in the church’s fellowship hall.

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