Mention D.R.C. Brown’s name to an Aspen old-timer and it elicits either a warm smile or a grimace, rarely anything in between.Brown is a giant in the history of the Aspen and Colorado ski industries. He played a pivotal role in transforming a sputtering Aspen Skiing Corp. into a national powerhouse during the 1960s and ’70s.But for a variety of reasons he’s never been revered or celebrated locally to the same degree as some of his ski pioneering peers, like Friedl Pfeifer, Dick Durrance or Walter Paepcke.And frankly, D.R.C. Brown doesn’t really give a damn. Friends said he’s never been a self-promoter. That held true recently in an interview with the 91-year-old Aspenite at the modest Meadowood house he shares with his wife of 57 years, Ruth.”There weren’t any terribly important decisions that I was responsible for, as far as I was concerned anyhow,” he said.The facts show otherwise.Brown was one of the original investors in the fledgling company that erected the first chairlifts on Aspen Mountain in 1946. And the effort would have been impossible if Brown hadn’t also leased the company hundreds of acres of patented mining claims his family had acquired on the mountain.When asked if he invested because he saw the potential of recreational skiing after World War II, Brown answered simply. “I was just tired of walking up the hill to ski.”Guides company through growthAfter practically running the company by default as the only board member living full time in the Roaring Fork Valley, Brown formally took the helm in 1957 as the president and general manager, thus starting another interesting chapter in a rather remarkable life.
Brown went to one of the most prestigious boarding schools in America, traveled extensively in Europe and graduated from Yale in 1935. He began a successful career in the oil business in Wyoming and Denver before joining the Navy during World War II.After the war he came to the valley to run his family’s longtime ranch in Carbondale. He was as comfortable breaking horses and getting cow dung on his boots as he was rubbing elbows with some of the country’s wealthiest men, noted KNCB Moore, a friend of Brown’s since the late 1950s.Brown held high-profile positions on the Federal Reserve board of directors and in the Colorado state senate, but also performed local grunt work on the Carbondale Board of Education.Throughout his tenure at the helm of the Aspen Skiing Corp., he commuted from Carbondale, where he and Ruth raised five children on their ranch.He didn’t start skiing until age 23, but Brown developed an intense love for the sport. He felt it was important to get out for at least an hour every day during ski season, so he would know the issues firsthand that affected his customers.During his 22 years as president of the Ski Corp., he transformed the somewhat anemic company into one of the busiest and best-known ski resorts in North America. He supervised 25 employees when he assumed command. There were 1,200 by the time he left.During Brown’s tenure the Ski Corp. fully developed Aspen Mountain, bought and expanded Buttermilk and developed Snowmass Ski Area from scratch. The company more than quadrupled its volume, from 259,000 skier visits during winter 1964-65 to 1.23 million in 1978-79.While building that success, Brown earned an extremely loyal following within the company.
“D.R.C. was the kind of person who made you want to do your best,” said Sue Smedstad, who started working with Brown at the Ski Corp. in 1965 and became a vice president. “You knew one very carefully chosen word of praise from him was worth its weight in gold.”Brown had a reputation of running a tight ship. It wasn’t mandatory that endeavors benefit the bottom line, but they had to benefit the company, Smedstad said.That didn’t always sit well with the town. The Ski Corp.’s relations with the community were as bumpy as a trail on Bell Mountain.”When you are the president of the company in a company town, if you do your job right, you don’t get to be beloved,” Smedstad noted.Clashes with communityOne time of turmoil singled out by Brown was in the early 1970s when the ski patrols at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass voted to unionize. Buttermilk patrollers declined.Patrollers decided to strike at Christmas 1972. Some of their colleagues crossed the line and skiers from across the country flooded Aspen for a chance at what sounded to them like a dream job. Some striking patrollers eventually left their jobs rather than return on the Ski Corp.’s terms.The debate strained the allegiances of the town.Around the same time, young activists like Michael Kinsley, Stacy Standley and Herb Klein led protests over the Ski Corp.’s season pass price, claiming Brown jacked up the price to keep rambunctious locals off the slopes.A U.S. Senator held hearings in Aspen over the price charged to access ski trails that were partially on federal lands. A lawsuit was filed to try to get the Ski Corp. to capitulate.
“They were going to hang him in effigy over lift rates,” said Moore.Brown stuck to his guns. As was typical, he let the criticism center on him while defending a group decision by the management, according to Smedstad.”D.R.C. took all the heat. He didn’t push responsibility downhill,” she said.In retrospect, Kinsley said, the whole pass-price fight seems overblown. At the time, he and his crowd felt Brown was a gruff old dictator who couldn’t care less about their complaints. But today the issue seems small in comparison to other issues that were facing the town.”We thought he was the enemy. We didn’t know what the enemy looked like,” Kinsley said.A community debate that left a particularly bad taste in Brown’s mouth was a lawsuit with Aspen Highlands developer and longtime operator Whip Jones.The business community had asked Brown to work with the independent Highlands to offer a four-mountain pass for visitors. For a few seasons the ski companies cooperated, but Brown said he received too many complaints about Highlands from tourists.”I finally decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I decided to cut this off,” Brown said. “He sued me for trying to put him out of business, which wasn’t my intention. I just didn’t want to be bothered with his mistakes.”Jones prevailed with a $7 million judgment. Brown cannot shake the memory. To this day he said he remains “ambivalent” about Highlands even though it is now in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s fold.Building a giant
If Highlands left a bad taste in his mouth, Brown is downright bitter about the results of a sale he helped orchestrate in 1977. The key to understanding his bitterness is rooted in the history of the company, which was like a child to Brown.He didn’t hesitate to get involved when Walter Paepcke first invited him to invest in the new corporation.”The company in the first few years didn’t make any money,” he said. It scraped by, in part, from the generosity of American Steel and Wire, which provided the materials for the first chairlift and charged only 2 percent interest.The corporation performed slightly better after Durrance was able to lure European racers for the 1950 FIS championships and Aspen made a name for itself, according to Brown.But even as late as 1957, “we had problems,” he said. Under Brown, the company stayed out of trouble by carefully limiting its debt and plowing profits back into mountain improvements. Aspen Mountain was steadily expanded through the late 1950s and into the ’60s. In 1964, the company took over the young and financially strained Buttermilk Ski Area.And by the late 1960s, the company was ready to expand again.”We started getting long lift lines on Aspen Mountain and realized we had to do something about it,” Brown said. “By then we had the wherewithal to do it. We were always borrowing money but we were always paying it off by then. That made it a little easier.”Bill Janss, a developer, had acquired numerous properties in the Brush Creek Valley and approached the Ski Corp. about building and operating lifts. The corporation agreed to start operations once Janss provided 500 beds.Snowmass Ski Area has since evolved into the company’s bread-and-butter mountain, accounting for 50-55 percent of the company’s skier visits.D.R.C.’s ‘one regret’
Throughout the 1970s the expansion continued. The Ski Corp. acquired Breckenridge, Mt. Tremblant in Quebec and an interest in Blackcomb, British Columbia.In December 1977, Brown received an offer he advised the board of directors not to refuse. Twentieth Century-Fox, fattened by profits from its smash-hit “Star Wars” movie, offered to buy 100 percent of the shares.Brown said he knew a couple of the members of film corporation’s board of directors and thought they would be good owners of the Ski Corp. Plus, he said, he felt the longtime holders of Ski Corp. stock finally deserved a return on their investments. It hadn’t paid dividends since the company’s founding. Original stock purchased for 33 cents per share in 1947 was worth, at a minimum, $49 per share in the Twentieth-Century-Fox deal, depending on what option a shareholder accepted, Brown explained.At first the deal appeared to be a match made in heaven. Twentieth Century- Fox’s board of directors kept the Ski Corp.’s board intact, according to sources familiar with the deal, and the film corporation kept plowing money into the ski operation. Brown said he had agreed to stay on as president for 18 months, and stepped down in May 1979. “I didn’t like the idea of working for someone else,” he explained.In June 1981, Denver oil billionaire Marvin Davis bought Twentieth Century-Fox and all its assets. The Ski Corp. became the Aspen Skiing Co., and was spun off as Davis split and sold the film corporation’s assets.Fifty percent of the Skico was sold to a subsidiary of Aetna Life Insurance and later to Miller-Davis-Klutznick-Gray partnership, which included Marvin Davis. In July 1985, the Lester Crown family of Chicago bought the Twentieth Century-Fox share of the Skico. And in 1993, the Crown family acquired the Miller-Davis-Klutznick-Gray half, making the private company wholly owned.”My only real regret is selling the company to Twentieth Century, not knowing that Twentieth Century was going to be taken over by Marvin Davis. If I’d known he was ever going to have anything to do with it,” Brown said, his voice trailing off.Davis “milked the company,” according to Brown. He sold off assets like Breckenridge and the interest in Blackcomb. He sold old hotels that the Ski Corp. had acquired for employee housing, which Brown felt was vital.
The company’s profits went to Davis’ pockets, Brown claimed. “They sat there and made no improvements to the company. It went gradually downhill,” he said.He is much more enthusiastic about the Crowns’ ownership. “I’m glad to see the Crown family come in and put some money and effort and interest in it,” he said. “Having deep pockets doesn’t hurt.”Following in the footstepsBrown probably has a keener interest than anyone in seeing Aspen thrive. Just as he played a key role in the rebirth in Aspen, his dad, David Robinson Crocker Brown, also known as D.R.C., played a key role in its birth.The senior Brown came to Aspen in 1880 when it was a struggling silver mining camp with an estimated 500 residents. He and H.P. Cowenhoven, his boss and eventual business partner and father-in-law, used their success in a mercantile business to venture into mining. They both became self-made millionaires.Unlike many magnates who built their fortunes in silver mining, Brown didn’t lose his fortune when the silver market crashed in 1893. He diversified his investments in areas like the electric light company and the water utility.Brown “remained closely identified over half a century with Aspen, spanning the range of its birth, youth, growth and prosperity, decline and struggle for survival,” wrote author Malcolm Rohrbough in his excellent history book, “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town, 1879-1893.The younger Brown acknowledged that it was his family’s good fortune that his dad diversified. “That’s why he was able to send me to Yale,” he quipped.Brown was raised in Denver but he spent summers for as long as he can remember in Aspen. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot of firsthand knowledge of his father’s experiences in Aspen’s formative years.”There are a lot of things I would like to ask my father that I never got around to,” he said. “He died when I was 16.
“Sometimes I wish the old man could come back and see what happened to [Aspen]. I don’t know whether he’d turn over in his grave or not.”If the older Brown would dislike today’s Aspen, Moore said, the blame wouldn’t rest with the younger Brown. He credits D.R.C. with helping develop Aspen’s special character during the skiing era.Brown concentrated exclusively on developing the infrastructure of the ski areas. He steered the Ski Corp. away from operating hotels, restaurants and retail shops. That provided opportunities for numerous entrepreneurs as the town started attracting hundreds of thousands of skiers.”The little guys could come into Aspen without a big competitor gobbling things up,” said Moore, who developed the Tipple Inn at the base of Aspen Mountain in the late 1950s.That approach helped Aspen assemble an eclectic bunch of properties, shops and restaurants that many people felt created the town’s charm.Smedstad said she isn’t sure that D.R.C. Brown has received his due for working in so many ways to create a successful town and resort.She said she considers Brown “the single-most-influential person” in her life. He is beyond a father figure to her. He is a hero, she said.”He’s just so kind and good the core,” she said. “Even people who worked with him didn’t always get to see it.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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