THE SPLURGE

Unusual passion runs consultant $30,000 a year

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Ballard, wearing blue shoes, in action at a fencing tournament in Montreal in January, 2012. (HEATHER MACLAREN)

This continues our series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences – purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

Mark Ballard picked up a foil in his native England four decades ago – and has been thrusting and parrying ever since.

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“I started fencing when I was in school, in my last year before university,” says the 59-year-old founder and president of Charter House Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based information-technology consulting firm to the banking and insurance industries. Mr. Ballard has owned his business for 15 years.

“The sports master [gym teacher] gave me a choice – a cross-country run on a cold and wet afternoon, or fencing. It was a no-brainer.”

Mr. Ballard was a fan of silver-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn as a boy. After making that choice in gym, he joined fencing clubs at university, took lessons and is now one of the top-ranked veteran fencers in North America, and one of only about 1,000 Canadian Fencing Federation members in Canada, he says.

Mr. Ballard moved to Canada in 1981 and, when he turned 40, started to go to international tournaments as it was easier to win as a veteran (There are two categories: 40-plus and 50-plus). He now spends about half of his weekends every year competing across Canada, the United States and around the globe, spending about $33,000 annually on entry fees and travel, he says.

On top of that, Mr. Ballard has about $6,000 invested in equipment, which includes a complete set of fencing whites (jacket, breeches and sous-plastron – protective equipment worn on the fencer’s weapon arm underneath the jacket), as well as mask, weapons, tool kit and a Canadian Fencing Federation national team track suit. Replacement costs, such as for blades, run about $1,500 a year, and being part of the Toronto Fencing Club as well as other national and international memberships cost about $300.

Before Mr. Ballard married his wife, Carolyn, a decade ago, he used to stay in cheap hotels with two or three guys in a room. Now that his wife accompanies him, “the hotels are much nicer.” She looks after all of his gear and registration, “so when I do fence, all I have to worry about is fencing.”

All this for the glory of bringing home medals he estimates cost about $5 each.

“I do get bragging rights,” points out Mr. Ballard, who has earned more than 100 medals, most of which he keeps in a wooden wine case in a closet. The ones signifying noteworthy victories are hung around the neck of a bull statuette in the Ballards’ home.

Unlike many fencers who concentrate on one weapon, Mr. Ballard competes with all three associated with the sport: foil, sabre and épée, which is his forte.

The épée is the heaviest and has a triangular cross-section blade; the foil features a rectangular cross-section blade; and the sabre’s is flat. With the foil and épée, hits are scored with the point of the weapon while, in sabre, hits are usually scored with the edge, rarely with the point, he explains.

“The rules change somewhat between weapons. The target changes. With the foil, it’s just the torso, but it’s the whole body with the épée,” while with the sabre, the target area is the entire body above the waist, Mr. Ballard says.

The épée, he says, is “my favourite weapon as [it] relies more on reaction speed and intelligence than the other weapons,” he adds.

In competition, Mr. Ballard explains, fencers are first divided into pools, or groups of six or seven fencers, and compete against all fencers in their group. A “bout” continues until someone makes five hits; there’s a time limit of three minutes. A fencer’s pool scores are used seed to the final tableau (list of all fencers). Tableau bouts are sudden death, with the winning fencer being the first to score 15 hits within three three-minute periods, Mr. Ballard explains.

Mr. Ballard is currently ranked first in Canada in foil, sabre and épée for 50-plus veterans, and ranks first in foil, second in sabre and third in épéein the 40-plus category. He is also the Canadian/American Master of Arms champion, a title bestowed for success with all three weapons. At the Veterans World Fencing Championships in Croatia last year, he finished seventh.

His most memorable tournament, he says, was the 2012 Can/Am Veterans’ Cup held in Toronto, where he competed with all three weapons, makng the competition physically and mentally demanding. He was Master of Arms champion for the tournament.

“It’s the most memorable because I did badly in my strongest weapon and had to pick it up in my weaker weapons, specifically sabre. which I did, yet again beating the Americans.”

He describes himself as extremely competitive by nature and enjoys one-on-one sports.

“Fencing itself is a technical sport and very complicated to learn, but, even at my ripe old age, I’m still competitive,” Mr. Ballard says. “At a Bracebridge [Ont.] tournament last summer, I won most of the events. If you add the ages of my opponents, most of their combined ages didn’t add up to mine. If you’re old and treacherous, you can still win.”

He also has another tactic he uses to his advantage: “When I’m fencing, I tend to make a lot of noise while a lot of people like to be quiet when they fence. That tends to cause some friction.”

While there is a lot of camaraderie, teasing and cajoling among club mates, when they have to face each other, it’s serious duelling. “There’s no easy ride because they are teammates in the same club. We all want to win.”

Mr. Ballard spends long hours in his office and relies on his nights at the fencing club to be stress relievers.

“After a frustrating day in the office, hitting people with steel is a wonderful way to unwind,” he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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