O’Donnell retires, Kaplan takes Skico reins
November 13, 2006
Pat O’Donnell handed Mike Kaplan the reins to the Aspen Skiing Co. on Monday, about five months sooner than planned.O’Donnell caught nearly everyone in the company off guard with the announcement he would retire early as president and chief executive officer. He stepped down, effective immediately, after 10 years in the top post, and 13 years with the company.”It’s been a pretty good ride,” he said.O’Donnell, 68, announced last summer that this ski season would be his last. But as summer turned to fall, he concluded there was “no merit” to sticking around for another season. There is a strong management team in place and Kaplan “has come more and more to the forefront” on issues beyond mountain operations, O’Donnell said.”There’s no question the time is right,” O’Donnell said.He concluded several weeks ago that he would step down before the season, but kept it a closely guarded secret until Monday. O’Donnell said only a handful of people within the company knew before the announcement, including Skico managing partner Jim Crown.O’Donnell made it official with an announcement to a couple of hundred employees attending an orientation meeting in Basalt on Monday afternoon and in an e-mail that went out to all employees.”I knew this was going to get emotional,” he said while disclosing his decision. He received a standing ovation from a mix of Skico veterans and rookies.Crown flew to the Roaring Fork Valley from Chicago to officially pass the torch from O’Donnell to Kaplan at the employee orientation.
“It has been a terrific decade under your leadership,” Crown told the outgoing executive.Kaplan worked the trenches Kaplan, 42, became one of the youngest top executives in the ski industry when he joined the Skico in 1993 and worked his way up through the ski school, being named vice president of mountain operations for the 1996-97 season.He was promoted to chief operating officer, second in command in the company, in July 2005. The decision was made at that time that Kaplan would succeed O’Donnell, whenever he retired, Crown said.Crown credited O’Donnell with assembling a superb management team that extends beyond Kaplan. He told the crowd of Skico employees that people within the ski industry have told him the leadership is a powerhouse “like the Yankees of years gone by.”Kaplan’s background reveals a diversity of strengths. He received an MBA from Denver University in 1993, which shows an understanding and ability to engage in strategic planning, Crown said.But Kaplan was far from a bookworm. Before getting his MBA, he worked as a front-line grunt for six years at the Taos ski area. Kaplan made snow, patrolled, drove a Snowcat as a groomer, worked as a chairlift mechanic and dabbled in the retail side of the business. Due to those experiences, he has empathy for all front-line employees and understands their importance.Kaplan said he is facing “self-applied pressure” as the new head of the firm, but he welcomes the challenges. “This is something I’ve been working toward for 20 years,” he said.Kaplan said he will announce management moves, which he called “tweaks,” later this week. One step may be naming his own second-in-command.
What’s next for Pat?O’Donnell was recruited to the Aspen Skiing Co. in June 1994 as the second-in-command and successor to Bob Maynard. He was appointed president and CEO when Maynard retired in 1996.He spent nearly 30 years in the ski industry, beginning in 1969, running the Badger Pass ski area in Yosemite National Park. He oversaw construction and opened Kirkwood in Lake Tahoe. He was vice president of operations at Keystone for a decade and was president of Whistler Mountain Ski Corp. in the 1990s before he was lured to Aspen by Maynard.O’Donnell took seven years off from the industry as president and CEO of the Yosemite National Institute in San Francisco and later as an executive with the outdoor clothier and gear manufacturer Patagonia.O’Donnell said he will not return to the ski industry and won’t serve as any formal advisor for the Skico. He will move to Grand Junction where he and his wife, Jennifer, purchased a house two years ago because of its central location. It’s close to mountain biking in Moab and close to rivers they want to run, yet still close to the prime skiing in Colorado’s mountains, he said.After taking some time off, he will likely end up promoting environmental causes, he said.Busy decade for SkicoO’Donnell said he is proud of building strong relationships with local governments and environmental organizations. The Skico accomplishments during his tenure that he cited included:• Promoting the opening of Aspen Mountain to snowboarding. “That was a drum I was constantly beating,” he said. After internal debates, the opening finally came on April 2, 2001.
• Landing the ESPN Winter X Games. He credited former staff members Killeen Brettmann and John Norton with working hard to attract the games, and current staff for keeping them. “None of us knew how big it was going to be for Aspen,” he said.• Opening of the expert terrain in Highland Bowl. “Now it’s given us bragging rights in North America that’s incomparable,” he said.• Securing rights to develop Base Village at Snowmass.• Building an environmental legacy for the company and poising it as a leader in the ski industry.O’Donnell acknowledged he was also caught off guard by one aspect of working in Aspen. He was never previously in a position, or aware of one, where a president and CEO of a resort was placed under such intense scrutiny by the locals. O’Donnell adapted and came up with a philosophical saying for the situation.”It was like licking honey off a thorn,” he said. “You get stung now and then.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.