Kaplan outlines final role at Aspen Skiing Co. and looks beyond retirement in 2023
He will help search for successor, continue in advisory role with Crowns
One of Mike Kaplan’s last big projects will be helping find and train his successor as president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co.
Kaplan said Thursday he will stay on for about 13 months to help with the search this summer and fall and help his successor transition into the role next ski season. He will retire in April 2023.
Once his time is up at Skico, he plans to remain in Aspen and work as an adviser for the Crown family, owners of Skico and partners in Alterra Mountain Co., owner of 15 resorts and the Ikon Pass. Kaplan stressed that he won’t work in Alterra’s operations, but there may be an opportunity in an advisory capacity.
“I go to their board meetings now,” he said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “I participate in some of their long-range planning. Hopefully I will be able to continue to do that.”
Kaplan announced his retirement Wednesday night at a party for Skico employees who have 20 and more years of service. About 540 employees were invited to the party, along with one guest each. He said it was an “amazing group” and he spent more than four hours hugging and hobknobbing with people.
Kaplan said he reached the decision in December that it was time to retire. All four of his kids are out of the house. He’s closing in on 30 years at Skico, and at age 57 is still young enough to pursue some other career paths. He and his wife, Laura, will remain in Aspen.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Kaplan said. “People have tried to talk me out of it. I know in my heart of hearts this is the right thing for the company and the right thing for me in this stage of my life and stage of my career.”
Kaplan joined Skico in 1993 as a supervisor of the Aspen Mountain Ski School. He spent six years in ski school management before he was appointed vice president of mountain operations in 1999. He was appointed as chief operating officer in 2005 in a signal that he would be successor to then-president and CEO Pat O’Donnell. Kaplan took the reins of Skico the following year.
“We have been involved in the ski industry for almost 40 years,” Skico managing partner Jim Crown said in a statement. “Over that time, we have come to know Mike Kaplan — and his team — as the best in the industry.”
Kaplan brought a combination of business acumen with an MBA from University of Denver and firsthand knowledge of ski operations from his work in various departments at Taos Ski Valley and Aspen Skiing Co.
During his tenure, Skico has expanded ski terrain and boosted its ski area bases. Skico added trails on Burnt Mountain at Snowmass and just last year secured approvals to add Pandora’s terrain to Aspen Mountain starting with the 2023-24 season.
Snowmass Base Village was completed during his tenure and the company plans to revamp the base of Buttermilk this summer.
His personnel moves included appointing Katie Ertl senior vice president of ski operations, making her one of the highest-ranking women in the industry.
Kaplan also diversified Skico’s interests. In January 2007, he told The Aspen Times, “As we look at the business, we’ve been late to the part in getting out of the uphill transportation business only.”
One big move in diversification was beefing up the company’s summer offerings, most notably with mountain biking and the Lost Forest adventure center at Snowmass.
“It’s a big deal and it’s really taken off,” Kaplan said. “It’s proven up and we’re thinking of what summer 2.0 looks like in terms of next phase of bike trails and experiences on the mountain.”
On the lodging front, the Little Nell Hotel Group has grown to include Limelight Hotels in Aspen, Snowmass and Ketchum, and one is in the works in Boulder.
Skico made an $18.5 million investment in easing the seasonal housing crunch by building the Hub at Willits prior to this season.
The company has remained aggressive on the environmental and social justice fronts, lobbying for systemic change on climate policy.
Aspen marketing executive R.J. Gallagher has known Kaplan since 1993 and said Kaplan’s professional and personal approach to his craft is rare in any day and age.
“Mike truly possesses the elusive ‘it’ factor, no matter how one defines ‘it,’” he said.
One of Kaplan’s most important achievements was nurturing a strong relationship with the community, according to Gallagher.
“I believe his legacy will include that he was commander in chief of the ‘big, bad corporation’ in town when he focused his energy on transforming the ‘us versus them’ dynamic relationship with the Aspen community and beyond,” Gallagher said.
Kaplan is also highly regarded within the ski industry. Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade group, said Kaplan’s industry leadership was “quiet and persistent.” He pressed the industry to take a much more active role on climate advocacy and he was a leader with speaking out for climate action in Washington, D.C., she said.
Mills also credited him for promoting and encouraging women to step into leadership roles in the ski industry, and he has actively led on development of employee housing.
“Mike has never been one to toot his own horn and he’s not a drama guy,” Mills said, “but he has been a lead mover on many important industry efforts.”
Kaplan said there is no succession plan in place at Skico, though he thinks there are strong candidates for the president and CEO position.
“I’ve got five direct (reporting employees) that are involved in virtually every decision. We have an executive committee with six more people, 11 total, and again, they are super involved,” he said. “There’s that team then there are 46 members of senior staff. We have a lot of strong leaders in this company, and I expect some will apply and they will have been directly involved in key decisions in the company.”
A search firm will be hired to immediately start searching for a new leader. Kaplan expects there will be applicants from outside the company, as well.
“We’re going to make sure we have just the right fit to keep the momentum moving forward and continue to emphasize the values that the Crowns espouse,” he said.
As Mills noted, Kaplan doesn’t like to toot his own horn. When asked what his living legacy will be at Skico, Kaplan responded, “I hate that question.” He proceeded to credit his colleagues for any successes during his tenure.
“I like to say that I do none of the work and I get all of the credit, and I might get more of the blame than I deserve too,” he said. “That comes with the role.
“The things that the team does that I get credit for is really amazing,” he continued. “The work and dedication of the team that I’ve worked with is something that’s inspired me and hopefully continues well beyond me, because this crew is the best. I’m really just appreciative of everything they’ve done to make me look good.”
One of Mike Kaplan’s disappointments during his 16 years as Skico president and CEO came recently when Lowe Enterprises and Jeff Gorsuch sold an acre of property near the base of Aspen Mountain and the approvals for a hotel for $76.25 million to a Russian billionaire. Skico sold the property to Lowe and Gorsuch about one year earlier for $10 million. Skico also collected nearly $1 million in extensions on the option while Lowe and Gorsuch sought approvals for a hotel.
Kaplan said Skico remains hopeful that the plan for redevelopment of the Lift 1A base area, achieved through painstaking negotiations and a hard-fought election, remains in play.
“We still believe in the plan but (we’re) disappointed that that partner has exited,” Kaplan said. “I’m really hopeful we can continue to execute it with the new owner but obviously concerned about ability to execute quickly and deliver on the plan.”
When asked if his jaw dropped when he saw the most recent sales price, he replied: “Yes. That’s all I can say.”
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