Published September 21, 2010
Volume 18, Number 9

Sherman Balch: Puzzle-Solving Philanthropist Turns His Attention to Haiti

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Sherman Balch has spent most of his life figuring out how things fit together. His primary focus has been the construction arena, where, as a contractor, design/builder, and developer, he has spent the past 33 years reveling in the challenge of efficiently translating plans and diagrams into functional commercial buildings. Last March, he decided to apply his special talents to a totally different playing field. Pondering the plight of Haitian earthquake victims after a fact-finding trip to the devastated island, he started assembling a handful of puzzle pieces that hold great promise for relieving that nation’s endemic housing crisis.

Traveling around the island with a team from Livermore’s Cornerstone Fellowship Church, the Bay Area entrepreneur saw first-hand the full extent of Haiti’s needs. They were almost overwhelming. He also had another concern: Despite the outpouring of assistance from countries around the globe, what would happen when the flow of aid ended?

 To the eyes of the seasoned contractor, the wooden structures being erected as temporary housing posed a special threat. “In third-world countries, people live in transitional housing not just for a couple of years, as intended, but until it falls down,” he observes. “That’s one of the reasons why there was so much destruction on January 12.” He did notice that the buildings erected in the 1960s were still standing. They had been built to higher standards, before shortcuts like skimping on the amount of cement in the concrete became the norm. “There hadn’t been a major quake for so long, people were naïve about the consequences of the poor building practices that had been going on over the last 40 years,” he says. 

A tour through the island’s material supply houses revealed that masonry and concrete were much more plentiful than wood. The local labor force was also abundant. The missing pieces started falling into place as Balch made the connection to the technology and methodology he had developed in his years of using site-cast Tilt-Up construction to satisfy Silicon Valley’s appetite for commercial buildings. “We had to fast track because of the heavy demand and high cost of labor. In 2000, we were turning out buildings in an unbelievably short time.” The idea then crystallized: “We could train and employ Haitians to the proper standards to build components with their materials in a precast plant offsite. The plants would produce modular pieces that could be used in everything from a small 10 by 20-foot house to a 60 by 60-foot orphanage,” he explains, adding, “There is no economic payoff to sending in U.S. workers when Haitian labor is just seven dollars a day.”

This realization sparked the creation of Extollo International, a philanthropic organization Balch established to turn his vision into reality. Recruiting a long-time associate, Ruth Corbin, as director of operations, he located the nonprofit in a building his firm, Hayward-based Balch Enterprises, purchased and remodeled at 4160 Hacienda Drive. 

At the end of August, Extollo, which means “to rise up,” secured permission from the Haitian government to open a trade school, training center, and production facility on a three-acre site in Gressier, near the quake epicenter. “In conjunction with Cornerstone Church volunteers and other NGOs, we will set up production and train locals to use readily available materials in the rebuilding of Haiti,” Balch reports.

Housing is not the only challenge that captured Balch’s attention during his Haitian trip. In high-poverty Saint Mark’s, where many refugees congregated, he encountered the organization Kids Against Hunger, which was serving a unique prepared food, a fortified soy/rice casserole-type combination, “specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of starving children.”  In contrast to the cases of rice and beans sitting in warehouses, these pre-packaged, boil-in-bag meals are easily distributed and conveniently prepared on the spot, “the perfect match to a long-term need,” he comments.

After some research on his return to California, Balch also launched Kids Against Hunger (KAH) Pleasanton, a satellite of the national organization, in the same office as Extollo. “The program is very simple—you get groups of volunteers together to package the food. About 25 cents covers the cost of all ingredients and shipping.  A small group of people can package 5,000 to 10,000 meals in a matter of hours.”

The local community has responded enthusiastically to the mission, as evidenced by the packing event that accompanied July’s First Wednesday in downtown Pleasanton. As he did with Extollo, Balch enlisted another veteran associate, Sherri Leal, as program manager for the local KAH operation.

“The best thing you can do for any business is to find and hire people smarter than you,” he notes with customary modesty.

Balch sees himself as naturally wired to embrace challenges. Academics were not his strong suit. “I probably wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t have shop class in my high school,” he admits. His father, Sherman L. Balch, was a contractor building custom homes in the East Bay when the younger Balch, who had grown up in Fresno, decided to join him out in the field as a carpenter. He went on to earn his own contractor license and when his older brother returned from Viet Nam, the three formed Balch Enterprises to focus on commercial building.

Their timing coincided with the 1970s Silicon Valley boom, and they enjoyed a lot of repeat business, from San Jose to Brentwood. The design/build specialty emerged as Balch found more efficient ways to put up buildings.

“When you get a set of plans and specs from the architect, there are no instructions on how to put it all  together. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit, and you have to make adjustments. What really surprised me is that few people in this industry stood back and asked, ‘what if we do this differently?’ They could have the same end product while saving substantial money.”

Following his own instincts, Balch made his mark in tilt-up technology. One of his contributions was a way to create round corners, giving the normally ho-hum structures a more attractive look. He won awards and recognition for this and other innovations, and the firm was thriving.

In his spare time he avidly pursued another passion, off-road racing. For almost 20 years he was quite successful at it, earning the sponsorship of Nissan and B.F. Goodrich. The hobby came to a abrupt end, however, when in 1990, out scouting a course, he was involved in a helicopter crash and wound up on life support for four days. He suffered a broken back, and in surgery his lungs collapsed. “It was pretty hard on my wife, but I slept through most of it,” is the way he recalls this brush with mortality. “By the grace of God I wasn’t paralyzed.”

He then redirected his talents into “doing good for others.” Balch Enterprises took on the remodel and expansion of Cornerstone Fellowship Church in 2003, and he and his wife started Celebration Christian preschool in Brentwood, now a self-sustaining operation that “meets a real need for young families by providing a positive environment for kids.”

In Extollo and KAH Pleasanton he is taking the next logical step on his journey, excited about what these organizations can accomplish.

“Haiti had many problems even before the earthquake. If money could have fixed them, they would have been resolved a long time ago,” he remarks. Once again, Balch’s ability to put things together differently has led to a novel solution, one that is about to bear very gratifying fruit.


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