Kind words for a CEO?
November 22, 2006
We’re going to miss Pat O’Donnell. Over the years, as a cranky reporter, cranky editor and cranky columnist for The Aspen Times, I have often made it a point to take shots (cheap and otherwise) at the top guy at the Aspen Skiing Company.Back when I started out, that top guy was DRC “Darcy” Brown. He was one tough old bird who far out-classed me in all ways, including being cranky. Darcy’s attitude was that what was good for the Skico was good for Aspen – and if you disagreed with him, you were an idiot.It was fun taking shots at him, though I’m not sure he ever noticed. I suspect my best attempts just bounced off his hide like a mosquito off a rhino.Still a few years later, I found that I missed that old bird. That was after the Skico had been sold to 20th Century Fox in 1978. Suddenly, the company was no longer a privately owned, stand-alone (and, OK, arrogant) operation. Now it was corporate hockey puck, out on the icy arena of commerce getting knocked this way and that.And Darcy Brown had been replaced by a series of much less abrasive and much less interesting corporate managers.Things ran smoothly enough, but there was less excitement and less character. There were more movie stars and fewer hard-core skiers. They ditched the World Cup races.And then, in 1993, after a series of business maneuvers, suddenly the Skico was no longer a minor part of a major corporation. Suddenly the company was back in private hands, owned by a specific family, the Crowns – actual people, with actual names and actual character.And pretty soon after that, the human beings who owned the company brought in a human being to run it – and that was Pat O’Donnell.And he was exactly the right guy.I know, a lot of people disagree about that. A lot of you take the position I used to hold (and an honorable position it is) that whoever is running the big company in this little company town has got to be an evil SOB.And I know that Pat has his flaws. There was that minor matter of him choking a motorist in a road rage incident in Snowmass.But never mind. Pat O’Donnell was the real thing. He wasn’t just a corporate executive. He climbed some of the world’s toughest mountains. He sailed a small boat from California to South America. He does 100-mile bike rides. He’s done long solo hikes on the John Muir trail. He switched from skiing to snowboarding a few years ago because it was “more fun.”Sure, he’s a tough corporate exec, but he’s also a risk-taking hard-core mountain guy.Stop for a moment and compare him to his opposite number over at Vail – a guy named Adam Aron, who is also retiring right now.Adam Aron came to Vail from running a cruise ship company. Pat O’Donnell came to Aspen from Keystone and Whistler Mountain and Patagonia.Adam Aron brags about having dinner with billionaires and celebrities. Pat O’Donnell has a “no dinner engagement” rule.Adam Aron is proud of having turned Vail Resorts into a real estate development company that makes millions building condominiums – and runs a ski mountain on the side. That’s been his lasting mark on the ski industry.Pat O’Donnell has been involved in the Skico’s real estate ventures, but admits he considers them a “necessary evil.”And Pat O’Donnell’s real mark on the ski industry – I hope and believe – will be his dedication to fighting for the environment. I’ve heard people complain that he drives an SUV and, well, maybe he does, but the efforts he has made to change his company – and, by example, the entire industry – go far, far beyond the question of what car he happens to drive.In his own way, Pat O’Donnell was the best thing to happen to Aspen in many decades.I have a high opinion and high hopes for Mike Kaplan, the new top guy at the Skico.But I still think we’re going to miss Pat O’Donnell.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.