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Vail CEO stepping down

Alex Miller
Vail correspondent
Adam Aron has been the chief executive of Vail Resorts since 1996. He will leave the company at the end of June. (Vail Daily)
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VAIL ” Adam Aron, the Vail Resorts chief executive who oversaw the transition from a private ski area to a publicly traded resort company, has announced his resignation effective June 28.

The announcement came Monday morning, surprising locals and industry insiders apparently unaware Aron was planning to leave after 10 years with the company. Aron gave no specific reason for his decision to leave.

“I have the most wonderful job in the world, but it’s a very demanding, 24/7 job,” he said. “At some point, you need to close the chapter and look back and say, ‘How’d I do?'”

Aron said he could go out with his “head held high” and listed a number of things he was proud of accomplishing during his tenure ” the most important of which, he said, was soothing local fears during the transition to a public company.

“We weren’t the most popular company on the planet when I joined it,” he said. “There was a lot of fear and mistrust about what it would mean as Vail Associates grew and became public.”

Ten years later, he said, the answer to those concerns is clear.

“We’re a very popular company locally,” Aron said. “We have our critics, but everyone in the community has benefited from how well we run these ski resorts.”

Harry Frampton, who was president of Vail Associates in the 1980s, had nothing but praise for the leadership of Aron and Apollo Partners, the New York investment firm that brought the company public in 1997.

“He done good,” Frampton said, echoing Aron’s thoughts on how the company was perceived in the community. “There was a lot of concern that Adam and Apollo Partners were short timers, and here we are 10 years later ” it’s hard not to give Adam and Apollo an extraordinary grade.”

In addition to running Vail Resorts, Aron has been involved in the community and sits on several nonprofit boards, including that of the Vail Valley Foundation.

“It seems like his timing is perfect for going out on top,” said Ceil Folz, executive director of the Vail Valley Foundation. “We’ll miss him, and we value his support greatly.”

By most measures, it has been a good year for Vail Resorts. In the midst of record snowfall and strong skier numbers, the company’s stock is trading near its highest levels ever ” although it closed slightly lower at $31.22 Monday.

The company has made profitable sales of some of its hotel properties in the past year, while forging ahead with the billion-dollar renovation of Vail Village and Lionshead.

Aron said he plans to continue with his purchase of a home in the Arrabelle Lodge, currently under construction in Lionshead. He said Monday he had no immediate plans for his next move, other than working over the next five months to make a smooth transition to his successor.

“I want to make sure I really do leave this company in the best shape I can,” Aron said. “After that, there are a number of options open that look to be quite exciting. But I doubt I’ll be working full-time in the Vail Valley.”

Unlike many heads of winter resorts, Aron, 51, came to Vail with little knowledge of skiing but a strong background in marketing leisure industries.

Having worked previously for Norwegian Cruise Lines, United Airlines and Hyatt Hotels, Aron came to Vail looking to apply some of that knowledge to the ski industry.

Known locally for his offbeat sense of humor and bright ski sweaters, Aron was all business when it came to moving Vail Resorts into a dominant position in the resort industry.

A graduate of Harvard College with a master’s in business from Harvard Business School, he was the pick of a group of investors from New York-based Apollo Holdings to lead the merger of Ralcorp’s Breckenridge and Keystone resorts with Vail and Beaver Creek, then forming a new public company called Vail Resorts.

With the later addition of Heavenly Resort in Lake Tahoe, Vail Resorts under Aron became the second-largest ski area operator in North America, after Canada’s Intrawest.

The company also owns a controlling interest in the luxury hotel chain Rock Resorts, based in Denver, as well as the Grand Teton Lodge Company in Jackson, Wyo.

Aron was an innovator, said Nolan Rosall of Boulder-based RRC Associates, a marketing and consulting company that specializes in the ski industry.

“He brought a combination of broad marketing and a business background in the leisure industry to the ski industry,” Rosall said. “The range of amenities on and off the mountain was a real focus for him, and he pioneered the use of the Internet for marketing and communications.”

While the ski industry in the past often promoted mountain personnel to the top ranks, Aron was, from the start, a leisure industry professional, Rosall said.

“He was a bridge between Wall Street and the mountain operations, and he worked in both worlds,” he said.

As Aron noted, Vail Resorts quadrupled in size during his tenure ” a rise Rosall attributed to Aron’s pursuit of a more diversified company.

“I think Vail has mainted the idea of a full-service resort development with real estate and other amenities in addition to the ski core business,” he said.

Rosall said he thought Aron took the work done by former Vail executives like George Gillett and Harry Frampton and continued it, focusing on guest relations and an improved mountain experience. With the financial power of a larger, publicly traded company, he said Vail Resorts was able to do more with the resorts it owned.

Frampton, speaking of the Vail and Beaver Creek resorts, said Aron accomplished a tremendous amount in his time here.

“Bachelor Gulch was an incredible addition,” he said. “Adam was responsible for bringing the Ritz-Carlton (in Beaver Creek), Blue Sky Basin, a lot of the new lifts, the Vail Renaissance, the Arrabelle, the Christiana parking lot, and they’re getting close on the Front Door project.”

Noting the criticism that greeted Aron upon his arrival as a non-skier, Frampton said Aron proved them all wrong.

“People said he wouldn’t be any good because he wasn’t a skier, but he’s been extraordinary, and haven’t we been lucky?” he said.

Folz at the Vail Valley Foundation said Aron’s image as a skier has been enhanced by his participation in recent years in the American Ski Classic, a celebrity ski race held in the spring on Vail Mountain.

“He’s a good racer,” she said. “I think he started to show people that he knew how to do it.”

Aron said he plans to remain on the board of the foundation and other nonprofits with which he’s associated locally. “I expect to have a strong connection to Vail for the rest of my life,” he said.

As for a successor, Aron said the company has to pick someone who’s intelligent and affable.

“It’s a complex, complicated company,” he said. “And it’s a small community where relationships matter.”

Rosall said a successor will need to take into account some of the changing landscape of the industry.

“They’ll need to focus on the international community and the increasingly aging baby boomers,” he said. “There’s also growing multiculturalism, relationships between the towns and the company and attracting those destination guests.”

As the industry leader, he said, Vail Resorts is a driving force, and its chief executive needs to reflect that.

Rob Perlman, president of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA, said Aron has seen the resort through challenging and interesting times.

“His legacy will long be remembered at Vail,” Perlman said.


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