By Lydia Wheeler
After announcing Amazon would open two new distribution centers in Virginia at a legislative reception in 2011, Gov. Bob McDonnell was concerned about Margaret Ballard.
At the time, Ballard, who has been the Retail Alliance vice president, advocacy, since 2002, had been lobbying for more than a year for passage of a bill that would require Amazon to collect sales and use tax. The online retail giant was exempt under claims it lacked brick-and-mortar stores.
"He said, 'Margaret, dear, are you unhappy about this?'" Ballard said, recalling her conversation with the governor during an interview last week. "That gave us added incentive to get the governor on board."
And come September, Ballard's hard work will pay off. Senate Bill 597, informally known as the "Amazon tax loophole" will take effect, forcing Amazon to start charging the state's 5 percent sales and use tax on purchases in Virginia.
Colleagues said persistence is what has made Ballard, who retired from Retail Alliance last month, such a talented lobbyist.
"She's one of the best lobbyists in the state of Virginia," said Raymond Mattes, Retail Alliance president. "She was very good at forging partnerships."
Though Ballard officially stepped down from her position on Feb. 1, she is still working for the noprofit trade association.
"I've stayed on as a consultant," she said.
She started Margaret Ballard Consulting, an advocacy, strategic planning and public relations business and already has a couple of clients including Retail Alliance and The Chas Foundation, a new mental health nonprofit organization.
"I'm at an age where I feel like it's time to move on and let the organization and someone within it grow into my job," said Ballard, 62.
Kate Baker, a native of North Carolina, has been hired as Ballard's successor. Baker holds a law degree from the University of Mississippi and recently passed the Virginia Bar exam. She worked closely with Ballard through the most recent session of the General Assembly.
"We have youth and we have experience," Mattes said. "It's a good place for Kate to be in."
After 35 years in the workforce, half in public relations and the other as a lobbyist, Ballard has a growing list of accomplishments.
With a coalition, she lobbied for and gained new Virginia Beach businesses a two-year exemption from paying the Business Professional and Occupational License, BPOL, tax. The city of Chesapeake, in addition to Virginia Beach, adopted what became a statewide bill.
Virginia retailers now offer a sales tax holiday in August, thanks to Ballard. She was able to push a bill that allows for a three-day stretch in the beginning of August when consumers can make tax-free purchases on school supplies and clothing.
During her time with Retail Alliance, Ballard also worked on retail crime initiatives, which included preventing the threshold for felony larcenies from rising above $200 and passing organized retail theft legislation.
"I am very proud to have started, with the support of the Virginia Retail Federation, a loss prevention task force and annual conference," Ballard said.
Once a month retailers come together with local law enforcement to share information about criminals in their stores.
"It's proactive and reactive," Ballard said. "They get information from each other, build relationships with law enforcement and gain better tools to prevent shoplifters in their stores."
From the task force came the state's first organized retail crime bill, which doles out separate felonies for each conspirator if the total value stolen by all conspirators exceeds $200.
"I was really impressed with the respect she garnered from delegates," said Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books, an independent book store on Main Street in Norfolk.
Pishko worked closely with Ballard on the Amazon tax loophole bill, even traveled to Richmond with her to speak on behalf of retailers.
"She had a rapport no matter who the politician was," she said. "Her manners are impeccable and I think that has really helped her."
As vice president, advocacy, Ballard had to travel to Richmond three to four times a month and stay for the duration of the General Assembly sessions.
She credits her husband Bill Ballard, a property manager with S.L. Nusbaum, for her success as a lobbyist.
"We were practically newlyweds when I took the job. If he hadn't been behind me 100 percent, I wouldn't have been able to accomplish the lobbying job with Retail Alliance," she said. "With my children, his children, the household and all the traveling, nothing fell through the cracks because of him when I was on the road."
Ballard has two sons from a pervious marriage, Edward, 28, and Campbell, 25, as well as three step-children and two step-grandchildren.
She is a member of two book clubs, has an affinity for art history and dabbles in decorating, mostly for herself. Her quaint Larchmont home in Norfolk could be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, but Ballard's true passion, she said, has been lobbying for legislation on behalf of retailers.
"Everybody has a voice whether you believe you do or not," she said. "If you take the steps to create a voice, you will."