Lester Crown reflects on buying Aspen Skiing Co. on dawn of induction into Hall of Fame

Lester Crown will be inducted Saturday into the Aspen Hall of Fame.
Ana Miyares Photography,courtesy photo |

When Lester Crown and his family bought into Aspen Skiing Co. in July 1985, they pledged to treat the investment as a business rather than a hobby, Lester Crown recounted Thursday by telephone from his office in Chicago.

The ski industry was so foreign to them at the time that they insisted on staying out of Skico management. They were quick learners. Eight years later in March 1993 they became sole owners of Aspen Skiing Co. and now, after teaming with KSL Capital Partners in 2017, they oversee one of the two biggest empires in the mountain resort business.

The Crowns’ business, Henry Crown and Co., and KSL went on a buying binge that wedded 12 premier ski and summer resorts, including Steamboat, Winter Park and Deer Valley. The Crowns own Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas separately, but the connection to Alterra Mountain Co., as the new conglomerate is known, is clear. Lester Crown said the acquisitions were a matter of survival.

“It was a question of whether the ski company could stand alone and attract the clientele it needed and deserved,” he said.

“To begin with, we knew nothing about the ski industry until Tom Klutznick approached us.” — Lester Crown

Crown, 92, is the patriarch of the family who stabilized and solidified ownership of Aspen Skiing Co. and positioned it to compete with Vail Resorts. He will be inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame at its annual banquet Saturday evening.

The nomination was unexpected, he said, as well as humbling and appreciated. Crown said he will attend the ceremony.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the honor is appropriate not only for Lester but the entire Crown family. Kaplan said he cannot imagine “a more perfect ownership group” for Skico than the Crown family.

“Aspen is such a storied place where history and legacy matter, and the Crowns’ long-term commitment to people, business and community makes for a perfect match,” Kaplan said Thursday. “They are truly passionate about this valley, about skiing, and they share the values that are embraced and embodied by this community.”

Also inducted this year are musician Bobby Mason and the late Bob and Tee Child, ranchers who immersed themselves in countless civic endeavors.

The Crowns helped stabilize Skico after a tumultuous seven-year period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., a publicly held company, purchased 100 percent of outstanding shares in the company in June 1978. Marvin Davis bought the film company in June 1981 and took Aspen Skiing Co. private.

Davis packaged it with other companies in September that year and sold a 50 percent interest to a subsidiary of Aetna Life Insurance. That 50 percent interest was sold to Miller-Klutznick-Davis-Gray in December 1983. Davis held the other 50 percent through Twentieth Century Fox.

Davis shopped that half-interest a couple of years later. Crown family friend Tom Klutznick approached Lester to see if he was interested in buying.

“To begin with, we knew nothing about the ski industry until Tom Klutznick approached us,” Crown said. “He said you should look at it as a business rather than a hobby.”

The Crowns brought in another family friend and ski-industry veteran Bob Maynard to brief them on opportunities and risks of the ski industry and buying into Skico. Based on that advice, they invested in the company but insisted on staying on the sidelines and out of management.

Eight years later, Miller-Klutznick-Davis-Gray was prepared to sell its interest.

The Crowns had three options, Lester said: They could accept whoever bought the half-interest as a new partner, they could sell their interest or they could buy to own the company in full.

They chose the latter. It’s a decision Lester Crown has never regretted.

“I think Aspen is a very, very unique place,” he said. “I think Aspen was really put on the map when Walter Paepcke came there, what, 70 years ago.

“We would like to perpetuate what Walter Paepcke did,” Crown added.

Paepcke was instrumental in starting the Aspen Skiing Corp. as well as the Aspen Institute. Crown has played a key role in advancing the institutions.

The Aspen Hall of Fame recognized Crown’s role in assuring the Aspen Institute remained in Aspen. The program for Saturday’s banquet recounts that the Institute sold its Aspen Meadows property and was prepared to relocate in 1987.

Crown worked with officials of the Institute, Aspen Physics Institute and Music Associates as well as city officials and a developer on a deal that secured the nonprofit’s campus. A separate initiative raised $32 million for necessary capital improvement projects and deferred maintenance at the Meadows.

Crown is a lifetime trustee of the Aspen Institute and a member of the board of overseers of the Henry Crown Fellowship Program, named after his father. The program develops the next generation of community-spirited leaders.

Kaplan said the Crowns live the Aspen Idea, the founding principles of the town’s rebirth, and they keep the vision alive and relevant.

“At the end of the day they care, and that is obvious to all of us who work here,” Kaplan said. “Their support for the community is so widespread, it’s nearly impossible to find an institution here that has not been touched by their generosity. Lester is a gracious leader and humane citizen who inspires me and countless others to be their best selves.”

Crown remains chairman of Henry Crown and Co., a private investment group that has holdings in banking, transportation, oil and gas as well as ski areas, according to Bloomberg. He is a former executive and member of the board of directors of General Dynamics Corp. and he was on the Maytag Corp. board until 2005.

His son Jim is the managing partner of Aspen Skiing Co., a position he has held since the Crowns became 100 percent owners.

“Jim is more than the point man on it,” Lester said.

Crown said his family’s biggest accomplishment with Skico has been installing top-notch management, starting with Jerry Blann in the 1980s. They courted Maynard to head the company in January 1988 while they were still partial owners. After they gained full control of the company and Maynard retired, they hired Pat O’Donnell and, after his retirement, Kaplan.

“Our primary contribution was hiring extraordinary leadership,” Crown said.

In addition to investing in Alterra Mountain Co., Crown said the big development in the resort business has been the emergence of summer activities at what have traditionally been ski resorts. That’s a trend he sees expanding.

Crown said he sees his family’s role as maintaining the unique and special feel of Aspen.

“We treated it as a business from the beginning,” he said, “but we looked at it as a responsibility more than a place.”