21st century whiz kid
January 9, 2007
When the Aspen Skiing Co. owners promoted 42-year-old Mike Kaplan to run the company in November, it wasn’t the first time the helm was turned over to a business whiz kid. The last time ended in disaster.Jerry Blann, a somewhat brash go-getter, was a rising, 30-something star in the ski industry when he took the helm of the company in 1984. He had been hired out of business school as a management trainee and groomed by the company as president.Blann lasted less than three years – he resigned in 1987 after he sparked a community uprising by declaring Aspen was the best resort in the world and damn well should price itself that way. (It seems almost laughable now that a $35 single-day lift ticket could raise such a ruckus.)The Skico ownership played it safe with its next two hires as president and chief executive officer. Both Bob Maynard, who served from 1987 until 1996, and Pat O’Donnell, in office from 1996 until last fall, were ski industry veterans, part of an older generation who gave the owners steady hands on the wheel.O’Donnell’s decision to retire early this fall and turn the company over to his second in command marks the return of a veritable whiz kid. Kaplan is one of the youngest leaders of a major U.S. skiing company. But the cautious Kaplan seems unlikely to follow Blann’s path and blow a promising career with a devastating mistake.In informal chats with Skico workers, past and present, one theme kept popping up about Kaplan: “He’s a good listener,” people said.He seems to have an innate ability to make everyone from managing partner Jim Crown to a rookie chairlift operator feel like he understands their issues.When Kaplan was introduced as O’Donnell’s successor in a surprise announcement at a preseason rally attended by a couple of hundred Skico employees in November, the crowd erupted in applause.”I think he’s widely seen as the best possible choice for the job,” said one employee.
It helps to be a ski bumThe key to understanding Kaplan’s leadership is to understand his background. He worked at Taos Ski Valley during and after his undergraduate years in college. He immersed himself in every department. He was on patrol, he taught lessons, he operated and maintained chairlifts and even made snow.He credited Mickey Blake with immersing him in all jobs of all departments at Taos Ski Valley. Mickey is the son of the late Ernie Blake, founder of Taos Ski Valley.Kaplan said another mentor at Taos and in life generally was Jean Mayer, technical director of the ski school there and the proprietor of the Hotel St. Bernard. “His love of skiing and the people attached to the sport is a true inspiration for me,” Kaplan said.Kaplan was hungry for a career in the ski business but he was smart enough to realize he would plateau in middle management without additional preparation.”I feel lucky in that I had the opportunity to be a ski bum, as I like to call it, in Taos for six years, teaching skiing and working in all the departments,” Kaplan said. “Then I sort of hit a point where I started to say, if I’m going to go to the next level in this business I should probably go after some education and think about the business side a little more.”He earned an MBA from Denver University. His case studies always examined the ski industry. A cornerstone of his education was strategic planning, something Crown noted when he announced Kaplan’s promotion.Kaplan believes he gained a unique perspective by earning his business degree, which garnered the respect of someone like Crown and, on the other hand, working as a ski area grunt, which enabled him to relate to frontline employees.He was hired by the Skico in 1993 to head the Aspen Mountain ski school. He worked through the ranks of the ski school before moving into mountain operations and again earning promotions. He was appointed chief operating officer in 2005, the company’s second in command and a sure sign the top post was there for the taking.Kaplan sees himself as part of a new breed.”The industry, up until very recently, was run by a lot of the founders and the original entrepreneurs who were true ski pioneers, great mountaineers and great visionaries, but they didn’t have a lot of professional business background,” he said.Kaplan acknowledged that a lot of people in Aspen, inside and out of the Skico, are anxious to see if he will be “an agent of change” for the Skico.He said the company is in such good shape – with a strong core work force, loyal customers and “the best skiing and snowboarding on the planet” – that he would be crazy to make changes just for change’s sake. However, he also wants the company to constantly challenge its past practices and “remain edgy in our approach.”He credited the company’s innovation under O’Donnell in setting an environmental agenda, hosting cutting-edge events like the Winter X Games, and expanding terrain into places like Highland Bowl and Deep Temerity at Aspen Highlands.
‘He’s the whole package’Doug Mackenzie, a Skico veteran of more than 30 years in mountain operations, said Kaplan inherited a company in good shape. O’Donnell “put us in a pretty good position in the industry” and improved relations with the community, noted Mackenzie, who was the longtime general manager of Snowmass.It’s difficult to gauge where Kaplan will lead the company, but Mackenzie noted the new president and CEO is “on the path of constant improvement.” Mackenzie said he admires Kaplan’s experience, willingness to work hard and proven ability to think through problems and find solutions.”I just think he’s the whole package,” said Mackenzie.Kaplan isn’t aloof despite education or powerful position. He’s earned the respect of people at all levels in the Skico because he spends time with them, Mackenzie said. He hiked Highland Bowl on a recent Saturday with working ski patrol members. He regularly stops and talks to lift operators and other mountain operations workers.Jeff Tippett, who regularly worked with the Skico as a Snowmass Village businessman, said Kaplan’s accessibility seems to extend beyond the slopes. Mike and his wife, Laura, have four kids, ages 13, 11, 9 and 2. They are involved in school and youth activities and community organizations. He seems connected to a much broader cross section of the community than many of his predecessors, according to Tippett.Indeed, Kaplan comes across as an average Joe. The Chicago native – and dedicated Chicago Bears fan – even regularly participates with some local scalawags in a fantasy football league, something impossible to imagine Maynard or O’Donnell doing.
Expect more developmentKaplan inherits a company that lagged behind major competitors in developing lucrative real estate at ski area bases and finding other ways to diversify its business.”As we look at the business, we’ve been late to the party in getting out of the uphill-transportation business only,” he said.Kaplan made it clear that a key to keeping the company viable and sustainable is real estate development. Its real estate ventures won’t end after Base Village, where the Skico acquired land for a 1 million-square-foot development at the base of Snowmass Ski Area, then sold to more experienced developer.”Real estate is the only way to pay for on-mountain improvements,” Kaplan said. “It is nothing new – look at Highlands and Base Village.”The redevelopment of 1A (the base area on the western side of Aspen Mountain) is a good example of how we will look at this going forward, meaning we don’t necessarily have to serve as developer, but we will work with developers to partner in funding on-mountain improvements.”The Skico is also working on a new master plan for the Buttermilk base. Details aren’t available yet but the proposal will likely include skier services, employee housing and free-market housing components, he said.The Skico, out of necessity, will continue to add to its employee housing stock, as it did in fall 2006 when it acquired the old Thunder River Lodge in Carbondale. Employees were immediately housed in the turnkey property.”Truthfully, to continue to be successful on the mountain and support our infrastructure, we need to be in the real estate business,” Kaplan said.
Three-pronged business approachReal estate is only part of the equation he believes the company must follow to be successful. Kaplan likened the Skico’s business model to a three-legged stool. Real estate development is one leg. The mountain operations are another. The hotels and retail operations make up the third.To diversify its interests, the Skico is also operating more of the on-mountain restaurants; it’s renting ski and snowboard equipment at more shops, and expanding its management of hotels – all activities designed to increase the amount of money that visiting skiers and riders spend with the Skico.In addition to the 89-room Little Nell hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain, the Skico will operate the adjacent Residences at Little Nell. It will operate a new Little Nell at Snowmass, and the Snowmass Club golf resort and spa is already in its portfolio.
Under Kaplan, the head of the retail division and the hotel branch are as important in the Skico business lineup as the mountain managers.Kaplan’s directionIn conversations and an e-mail interview with Kaplan, he gave glimpses into his philosophy in a number of areas. The highlights include:• Ski area improvements. “Burnt Mountain is our only remaining area of any significance that we can offer to our guests,” Kaplan said. “I believe a gladed intermediate and moderate expert area in Burnt Mountain would be fantastic for the overall Snowmass experience for destination visitors and locals.”He indicated the company won’t back down from its interest in Burnt Mountain, which is a popular backcountry powder stash.”We have made that terrain available through our open boundary policy and now those very same users of our lifts and access policy have decided that terrain belongs to them and want to limit access, even though it is within our permit area,” he said.At Aspen Mountain, Kaplan said the Pandora area south of the gondola terminal requires more study “but does represent a nice area of potential trail improvements.”At Highlands, there are plenty of opportunities in Deep Temerity, according to Kaplan. “There is the long-term potential to go East of Eden and into Loge Bowl [both on the resort’s west side, south of No Name Bowl],” he said.• Environmental activism. The Skico was already known as an environmental leader in the ski industry before 2006. Under O’Donnell’s direction it upped the ante by trying to draw national attention to global warming and its potential impact on the ski industry. It filed a brief in support of petitioners in a U.S. Supreme Court case who are trying to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. The Skico also devoted part of its print advertising campaign to warning about the stakes of global warming and directing customers to a website called “savesnow.com.”
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The Skico will stay active on the environment under Kaplan for a couple of reasons. First, he said, environmentalism is aligned with “our values, our employee base, our community and what we’re all about.”Second, “it’s the right thing to do because this is the biggest issue facing our civilization, I think,” he continued.The Skico has hopefully evolved to the point where it will be an environmental leader in the ski industry, regardless of who is heading the company, Kaplan said.• Customer service. While O’Donnell made that an area of focus, Kaplan believes there is room to improve. Skico facilities are improving, especially at Snowmass with the construction of Base Village, which will include a centralized kids center. Currently parents take kids to one of four different places for lessons, depending on the students’ ages.As the type of resort that depends heavily on people coming from out of state for extended vacations, Aspen/Snowmass depends on retaining customers “and the key to retention is customer service,” Kaplan said. “The service side I still think is an untapped opportunity.”When talking general philosophy, Kaplan frequently refers to the Skico’s guiding principles, a sort of mission statement prepared 10 years ago. The central theme of those principles is “renew the human spirit.”It comes across as genuine for Kaplan.”I love skiing. I love snowboarding. I love being out on the mountain. So I’m a customer, I’m a local, and I’m also the business manager,” Kaplan said. “Hopefully that’s going to bring some additional perspective and lead to success in the end.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.