Pat O’Donnell honored for ski career successes |

Pat O’Donnell honored for ski career successes

Pat O'Donnell

ASPEN ” Pat O’Donnell spent much of his early career in the ski business in awe of some of the giants of the industry. He didn’t see himself ending up beside them on a pedestal.

But O’Donnell’s trophy case is getting crowded since his retirement 16 months ago as president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Co. He was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in July. On Thursday, the International Skiing History Association will recognize him for his lifetime achievements in the ski industry with a ceremony at the Hotel Jerome.

“Anybody would appreciate recognition by their peers in the industry. I certainly do,” O’Donnell said.

The recognition also is humbling, said O’Donnell, because both organizations have, by and large, honored pioneers of the industry ” people with a passion for skiing, who helped build the industry before and after World War II. A look at the honorees’ achievements, he said, shows “they’re usually hitting the ball out of some park.”

O’Donnell, 69, didn’t necessarily consider himself in their league. And if he deserves to be honored, he said, much of it has to do with the lessons he learned while rubbing elbows with big names in the ski industry and environmental movement.

O’Donnell recalled that as a young executive in the 1960s at Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park, then in his role of building and running Kirkwood Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe, he rubbed elbows with industry legends such as Dave McCoy, founder of Mammoth Mountain.

When he left the California ski industry in the early 1970s to help run Keystone in Colorado, he networked with other giants of the industry as a board member of a ski trade association in the state. He recalled being somewhat intimidated when asked to consider proposals suggested by Aspen Skiing Corp. frontman DRC Brown and Vail founder Pete Seibert.

“Those are guys that I just used to read about in the (National Ski Areas Association) magazine,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell left the ski industry in the 1980s, but his education expanded as president of the Yosemite Institute and later as president and CEO of Patagonia clothing company. His role at the Yosemite Institute connected him with William Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who took the legendary Earthrise photograph while on lunar orbit. O’Donnell was influenced at Patagonia by company founder and acclaimed environmentalist Yon Chouinard.

“When you talk to all those guys, you start to see this rub off on you,” O’Donnell said. “They made a real difference in my life.”

And his experiences would eventually mold the Aspen Skiing Co. O’Donnell returned to the ski industry in 1991 as president of Whistler. He was recruited by former Skico president and CEO Bob Maynard to become Skico’s second in command in 1994. He took the helm of the company a year later.

The International Skiing History Association is focusing on O’Donnell’s accomplishments during his tenure at Aspen.

“Pat was instrumental in moving the company from a profit-driven to a values-driven organization,” said a release from the ski history association. “He empowered employees to look for ways to make the company a better environmental, social and community citizen.

“During Pat’s tenure, ASC became the leading ‘green’ ski resort in the industry through pioneering use of renewable energy, biodiesel in snowcats, and green development. ASC is the only resort in the U.S. with a climate policy, an employee run and funded foundation dedicated to environmental protection and an annual Sustainability Report,” the association’s release said.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan, who was groomed by O’Donnell as his replacement, said his former boss’s accomplishments in the environmental area are obviously what jump out. O’Donnell was “so far ahead” of the rest of the ski industry and, to a large extent, many industries.

“Obviously now it’s the hot topic,” Kaplan said.

O’Donnell hired a environmental director and encouraged creation of innovative programs. The Skico also became an activist in areas such as global warming.

O’Donnell didn’t create those efforts because of the business opportunity, but because “it was the right thing to do,” Kaplan said. He proved his commitment when ski industry business slumped in the early 2000s. The Skico was scaling back employees and programs.

“The environment was not something he would cut back on,” Kaplan said.

And while O’Donnell’s competitive side pushed his desire to make the Skico the leader in green efforts, he also wanted to inspire the entire ski industry, Kaplan noted. At Colorado Ski Country USA board of director meetings, O’Donnell “pounded the table ” ‘We need to do more for the environment in the industry,'” Kaplan said.

Thursday’s Skiing Heritage Gala at the Hotel Jerome starts at 6 p.m. with a reception and silent auction, followed by dinner and presentations. Tickets are $150 and available through the Aspen Historical Society by calling 925-3721, extension 109.

O’Donnell will give a speech at the event. He promised he will unabashedly drop the names of the people who helped him accomplish what he did.

O’Donnell said retirement has allowed him to look back on his career in a way he never could while “on the front lines.”

“I did the best I could,” he said.

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