Norton heads back to Crested Butte |

Norton heads back to Crested Butte

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Aspen Ski Co. C.E.O. John Norton will return to Crested Butte in time for the upcoming ski season after 11 years in Aspen. Daniel Bayer photo.

The go-to guy at the Aspen Skiing Co. is going to Crested Butte.

John Norton, the chief operating officer of the Skico, resigned his post Tuesday and announced he is the new president and chief executive officer of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski area.

“I’m definitely ready to run my own ship,” said Norton, 47.

Crested Butte will be familiar ground for Norton, who started in the ski industry as vice president of marketing and sales for the Crested Butte ski area from 1985 to 1991.

Norton left Crested Butte to join the Skico in 1991 as vice president of communications under former President and CEO Bob Maynard. Over the past 11 years, Norton has marched through executive ranks to reach the number-two spot behind President and CEO Pat O’Donnell.

“Whenever something came up, he was the go-to guy in the company,” said O’Donnell. “John was always willing to take on any task no matter how difficult it seemed to be. It was nice to have a guy like that on the team.”

Norton recently engineered the merger of Aspen’s and Snowmass Village’s reservations systems into Stay Aspen/Snowmass, which provides one-stop shopping for visitors to both towns.

He was the point man on getting World Cup ski racing back to Aspen, helped bring the ESPN Winter X Games here and played a key role in keeping the 24 Hours race up and running.

With his sales and marketing hat on, Norton worked to increase international business to the resort from 5 percent to 20 percent of its destination visitors. And he persuaded leaders in both Aspen and Snowmass that they should get behind one brand – Aspen/Snowmass.

He also helped lead the Skico into new business ventures, including the Channel 16 television station, local ski shops and the management of more on-mountain restaurants.

Norton, a relentless skier, also pushed to open more of Highland Bowl, fought an internal battle to open Aspen Mountain to snowboarding and in the mid-1990s, helped defuse an attempt to unionize the ski school.

“We had the votes for a union, people were ready to do it,” said Kirk Baker, a 32-year veteran of the Aspen Mountain ski school. “And on his word, basically, we stopped the union, and he did everything he promised. He did it all. That’s one thing I have a lot of respect for him about.”

O’Donnell said he was surprised by Norton’s decision but that he understood it.

“It’s a chance to be president and CEO of a ski area and do it with your own style,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a small industry. When an opportunity presents itself, if you don’t take it, then somebody else will.”

The Skico did not immediately name a successor to Norton.

“I will probably change the pieces around a little bit,” said O’Donnell, who does not plan on retiring soon. “I enjoy living here. I enjoy working here. It’s a great job. So there is no opening for a while.”

And that may be something that Norton understood.

“I don’t know what Pat’s future plans are,” said Norton. “But my move to Crested Butte is full of positive energy and absolutely no negative energy.”

In Crested Butte, Norton’s former college roommate and fraternity brother, Edward Callaway, is ecstatic that Norton is returning. Callaway is the son of Bo Callaway, who along with Ralph Walton bought the Crested Butte ski area in 1970.

Today, Edward Callaway is president and CEO of CBMR. When Norton leaves the Skico on June 7 and arrives in Crested Butte after a 10-day vacation, Callaway will move up to become chairman of the board and make way for his old friend in the corner office.

“I’m a happy man,” said Callaway. “The big parts of the job for us are in community relations and marketing, and I don’t think there is anybody in the ski business or America that does those things as well as John.”

The Callaway family has been fighting for years with Crested Butte locals about real estate approvals and mountain expansions, and as a result, it has not spent a lot of money on the ski area.

“They’ve been struggling,” said Crested Butte Mayor Linda Powers. “Crested Butte is a gem, and we should be a good stand-alone resort. We hope that Norton puts CBMR’s house in order and that he finds a good buyer for the Crested Butte Mountain Resort.”

It’s not clear if the ski area is for sale, but some are speculating that Norton’s job is to spruce up the area and then sell it.

“The ski area had a very good year this year,” Norton said. “The Callaways would like to do even better next year, and my job is to go over and run the resort.”

Yes, but is Crested Butte for sale?

“It is not actively shopped on the market,” Norton said. “At the same time, any owner is always going to speak to a responsible investor.”

On Norton’s to-do list will be to get community support for an expansion onto the intermediate slopes of Snodgrass Mountain, redevelop the main base area and help develop the resort’s real estate holdings.

And he’s already defining the market position for the resort.

“Crested Butte may be a bit harder to get to than the crowded interstate highway resorts, but it’s worth the trouble because here, a visitor really has a sense of having gotten away from it all,” Norton said in a press release from CBMR announcing his new position.

Norton’s ability to attract the media’s attention is well-known, as he was always willing to have a tall drink and a big dinner with a visiting travel writer.

“He completely endeared all these British travel writers to Aspen,” said former Skico vice president Killeen Brettmann, remembering a press trip to London with Norton. “He brought some real color to ski country. He is a fun person to be around. And skiing is supposed to be a fun sport.”

For some Aspenites, Norton’s decision to go back over the mountain to Crested Butte is a disappointment.

“It’s truly a loss,” said Molly Campbell, general manager of The Gant condos and chair of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors. “From my viewpoint, John is the CEO of the Aspen Skiing Co. He really was the skiing company to the public. He was the guy.

“And I feel strongly about the leadership he has shown our community over the last 10 years. It has been tremendous.”

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