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The Long View

Written by Rick Kahl
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NSAA president Michael Berry outside 133 S. Van Gordon Street, home to NSAA, PSIA-AASI, and the National Ski Patrol, in Lakewood, Colo. NSAA president Michael Berry outside 133 S. Van Gordon Street, home to NSAA, PSIA-AASI, and the National Ski Patrol, in Lakewood, Colo.

Retiring NSAA president Michael Berry talks about he past, present, and future of the industry he's served for more than 50 years.

Michael Berry has shepherded the National Ski Areas Association for the past 25 years as its president. He assumed that title and directed the rebirth of the organization following the dissolution of the United Ski Industries Association (USIA), which was a failed attempt to unite the wholesale suppliers and NSAA, and has been the head ever since.

During his tenure, NSAA has become a thriving organization that supports resorts in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most important of these has been to instill a forward-thinking mindset on growth, guest safety, and the environment.

As Berry prepares for retirement later this year, we sat down with him at NSAA’s Lakewood, Colo., office to explore his unique perspective on the industry, the association, leadership, and the future of winter sports.

 

SAM: It takes a special person to have a long and successful industry career. What traits are most important?

MICHAEL BERRY: I’ve had two careers, essentially. I started working at ski areas as a kid, and ended up as the CEO of Kirkwood, so that was one career. Then I made a midlife change into running an association. At the time I didn’t realize they were somewhat distinctly different in nature. That’s not to say there wasn’t huge crossover from the ski area side to the association side.

But I think if you look at people in the ski industry and look at people who have succeeded over time, the first thing is, you have to be in love with the activity. You have to be in love with skiing, with winter, with all of the things that are embodied in the sport, and particularly the things that are embodied in providing the venue for the sport. Which means the 150-day work week. The 12-14 hour days, the ability to manage crises, to deal with the vagaries of the weather, and come out of that still with enthusiasm and passion for tomorrow. And I think if you find that tiresome or tedious, you leave. All of us who have been around the industry for our working lifetimes have seen literally hundreds of people who have said, “You know what? There’s an easier way to do this, to make a living.” For those of us who stayed, the unbelievable belief we have in winter sports, and in providing the venues particularly, and the joy we get from doing that is what drives people to stay.

 

SAM: So, at what moment did you know that this was the industry for you?

BERRY: I can tell you exactly when it was.

I started working in the industry as a kid, at Hunter, as a 14-year-old doing a lot of different things. The story that has gone on about me being 14 years old with the pickup truck and a chain saw and a box of dynamite, that didn’t really happen until I was maybe 16. But my supervisor was also 16. So it’s not as though it didn’t happen.

After college I took a little time and thought I’d have a different life. I moved to Cambridge, Mass., and got a job at the education school at Harvard. But the Sirens of Titan sang loudly and drew me back to the industry. I ended up at Hunter.

The day that I decided I was going to be in the industry forever was in the summer of 1968. I was about 20. A friend and I drove across Canada, down the West Coast, and ended up at Squaw Valley. And I stood in the parking lot there, and said, “Someday, I’m gonna run one of these places.” Not specifically in Tahoe, but I always knew I wanted to be in the ski business. And 12 years later I ended up at Kirkwood as VP and later as president.

 

SAM: Who were some of your key mentors along the way?

BERRY: There were a number of people who gave me a great opportunity. I always viewed my task as to exceed their expectations and take advantage of the opportunity that they gave me. It was, first, the Slutzky family at Hunter, then it was Bill Brown and Pete Seibert at Vail, at Sun Valley it was Bill Janss and later, Earl Holding. Pat O’Donnell at Keystone and then, quite honestly, in Kirkwood it was the Klein family, Bud Klein was kind of the founder and originator.

All those people created incredible opportunity for me, and I think the challenge for me, and for anyone, is that when someone creates opportunity for you, is to exceed their expectations and satisfy the opportunity they provided for you.

 

SAM: Can you recall a pivotal moment where something went really right or really wrong, something that stands out?

BERRY: At one point, before Whistler Blackcomb was combined, I was negotiating with the Young family, which then owned Whistler, to be the CEO. And for a range of complex reasons, I turned down the job. Pat O’Donnell, my old boss at Keystone, called me the next day and said, “I’m leaving Patagonia [where he was CEO] and thinking about getting back into the resort industry,” And I said, “I think I have an opportunity for you, and you should take advantage of it.” And he did.

It would have changed my life if I had taken the Whistler job, with the merger or sale of Whistler to Blackcomb and then the organization that was subsequent. So staying at Kirkwood and, quite honestly, having the NSAA opportunity present itself a year later, was one of those fortuitous combinations of events. I may not have ended up as head of NSAA had I taken the Whistler job.

 

SAM: What was the biggest challenge in going from running a resort to running an association?

BERRY: Running a ski area is an interesting process. Often, when you are running a mid-sized resort like Kirkwood, you don’t have time to think strategically about the future of your resort. In the ’70s and ’80s, we were consumed by running the resort. Whether it was too much snowfall or too little snowfall, or technical or mechanical problems—you had a plan, but you managed every day by the seat of your pants.

So the biggest change for me, after I took this job, and got through the initial six months of this job, was I had the time to think about actually what was the nature of the industry, why it was in the situation it was at the time. Which was to say, what was the future of the industry? And that was the biggest single difference, I had time to think about what was over the horizon.

 

SAM: What were those things you saw coming over the horizon at that point?

BERRY: I think at the time we were kind of stuck in that 51-, 52-million skier visit number nationwide. We had absorbed snowboarding to at least some degree. But really, the issue was, why we were where we were, and what was going to come in the future? What was over the horizon that we couldn’t see?

This job allowed me to start to think a lot about that. In the period from ’93 to ’96, we started trying to understand the demographics that were going to impact the industry over the next 20 years. That was when we started to really lay the groundwork for the Growth Model. And the Growth Model, really, is just recognizing the ebbs and flows of population, and the ebbs and flows of the economic element of groups and subgroups in the industry.

 

SAM: What kind of things keep you up at night? What motivates you to get up in the morning?

BERRY: I think the thing that troubles me the most is when I see the industry trying to do the same thing time and time again, thinking that there will be different outcomes. And I think the issue of not recognizing how rapidly things are changing, particularly as it relates to our customer or potential customer. The adage that we lived by in the ‘50s and ‘60s, even into the ‘70s and ‘80s and maybe even the ‘90s was, “if we build it they’re going to come.” Which is to say, if we improve the lift structure or system or the snowmaking system, they will come in droves. At times, has been the case. And we persist in that idea.

But as I look forward, I think it’s more complicated than that. We still have to do all of those things, but also understand the societal pressures, the reality of people’s economic situation, particularly those under the age of 40. Are we sophisticated enough to develop an understanding of what the future holds, particularly as it relates to our new customer?

There’s customer challenges, there’s employee challenges. There’s business and environmental challenges. While not unique to the industry, they may be a bit more complicated than they have been in the past. Do we have the sophistication as an industry to come to grips with them and maintain our place in the scheme of things? That is really the most important challenge.

 

SAM: What are you most proud of in your career?

BERRY: I think being able to look over the horizon and develop the Growth Model, the platform that we’ve built much of our research on. We’re one of the few industries in our cohort that really did have a good understanding of what was going to happen, what the exit of the Baby Boomers was going to mean to us, what the replacement strategy was that we were going to have to implement, in terms of specifically saying, “this is what we need to do here in terms of the percentage, and this is what we need to do here.” That has served the industry well over the past 15 to 18 years, and I think that, if kept current and up to date, it should be the foundation of the decision-making matrix going forward.

 

SAM: What didn’t you get a chance to do that you wish you had?

BERRY: Go helicopter skiing.

 

SAM: Well there you go, there’s something you can do in the next couple of years.

Berry: [chuckles]

 

SAM: With the benefit of hindsight, if you could tell your younger self just one thing, what would it be?

BERRY: It’s a balance of patience and ambition, of knowing when to be patient and when to be ambitious. And having a more refined understanding of misapplying one or the other. Probably the more penal is misapplying the ambition side of the equation. So understanding the fine balance between patience and ambition.

 

SAM: It’s not easy to be right all the time. Is there anyone you want to apologize to?

BERRY: I think when I’ve made mistakes along the way, I’ve recognized those, and always made an effort to reach out to people that I may have offended before they became permanent enemies of mine. Otherwise I don’t think I would have lasted 25 years. When you inadvertently offend someone, the sooner you can remedy that, the better it is.

 

SAM: So you’ve been taking care of that as you go.

BERRY: Absolutely. Otherwise I don’t think I would have lasted 25 years.

 

SAM: Looking across the industry, which you get to do more than anyone else, who do you see as the future leaders? Who are the people to watch?

BERRY: It’s a fascinating question. If you look at the number of CEO spots that have been opening up and will continue to open up for the next five to seven years, that’s the biggest challenge. I think there’s a bunch of young people who are under 40 who are ready, willing, and able to move into those middle management positions and senior management positions.

What I see now is a dearth of people right now who are positioned and desirous of the CEO jobs that are out there. And there have been a number that opened up in the past three or four years, and there are going to be more. And I think to some extent we’ve absorbed all the best candidates already, and it’s going to get tougher and tougher for people who are looking to employ chief operating officers and CEOs.

 

SAM: So you think some of those young people out there should maybe show a little more ambition and a little less patience.

BERRY: I think there’s a void in the number of people out there who are interested in these positions and have a 20- or 25-year history of experience. If I go back to 1975—and admittedly, we didn’t have 25 years of experience—and you ask, “who are your peers?” I can give you a list of 25 people who wanted to run ski areas. It was very obvious they wanted to be ski area operators, CEOs, heads of marketing. The list is the people who are currently in those roles and have been for the last 20 years or even longer.

I can’t make such a list right now. I can’t tell you that there are 25 or 30 people 40 or younger whose stated objective is to be president and CEO of a resort somewhere in the United States. And that’s a bit of a problem.

And I think we, by which I mean my generation, bear some responsibility for that, because we got these jobs in some cases in the early ’80s or mid ’80s, and we loved them. And we kept our elbows out a little bit to protect our positions. And the consequence of that is when it comes time for you to step aside, there may not be someone immediately available to take over for you. And I see that as a bit of a problem.

 

SAM: Institutional memory is a critical notion at a time like this. What is the one thing you would most like your successors to know and understand?

BERRY: There’s no silver bullet. The reality is, if you look at growing participation, it happens at the grassroots level. There is no magic wand, there is no amount of money, no Super Bowl halftime ad, that’s going to change the trajectory of the industry. It’s focusing on the issues, the basics. Which is to say, when someone gives you the opportunity to help them become a customer of yours, you find ways to see that they do, and become a customer for life. And there is no silver bullet in that matrix.

It is nothing other than paying attention to the harsh reality that there’s no easy way to become a skier or snowboarder. There are inherent barriers, and we have a need for mentors. We firmly believe that the only way people come to the sport is to be delivered by an existing participant. There are barriers in the process—14 year olds don’t have drivers’ licenses. All of the challenges we have require an in-the-trenches mentality. You can’t hire an ad agency to change the trajectory of the industry.

 

SAM: Let’s talk about retirement, which is on the horizon. What’s it like to say goodbye?

BERRY: It’s been interesting. This summer I was in the East for the better part of two weeks, at the meetings for Ski Areas of New York, Ski New Hampshire, Vermont ski areas. As I was driving down roads I’ve driven down many times over the past 40 years, maybe even 50 years, I realized this might be the last time I pass through these places. And for me, there was some degree of emotion. I might even have gotten a hot lump in my throat. I’m gonna miss it.

As far as what I do, I’m talking to those who’ve done it recently, trying to understand it. My wife has made it clear that she doesn’t expect me to be sitting at the kitchen table the first day I don’t go to work and ask her “what are we going to do today?” She’s made it clear that we will do some things together, we will travel, but she has her life and I should develop my life in retirement as well.

 

SAM: What is your six-word memoir?

BERRY: Not to sound pretentious, but the Latin is, “Esse non vidare.” Loosely translated it is, “To be, not to be seen.” And behind my desk, for the entire 25 years I’ve been here, is a little slip of paper that says, “Esse non vidare.” I think, quite possibly, that best explains my role here. I tried to create the architecture of a smart organization that is proactive and also reactive, which is to say, we would think long term but always be able to deal with crises in the moment. What I wanted to do was create an institution the industry could depend on, not necessarily a person. And I think I’ve done that.

 

SAM: Can you describe yourself in one word?

BERRY: [pause] Um, yeah: curious. I’m still curious. And I think that’s a key component. I’m curious. I want to know stuff.

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