Slopefillers on SAM: Sean Mirus, on passion, patience, and perspective
Beneath the laid-back demeanor, Sean Mirus has a fascinating story that starts on an international stage with the Air Force and ends in the director's chair at Schweitzer. What connects the dots? Hard work, perseverance, and one gutsy decision.
Gregg: Sean, 13 years ago you were a world away from the ski industry but at a crossroads with your career and future. Talk about where you were both career-wise and location-wise, but also mentally with that path.
Sean: In 2004, I was starting my 7th year of active duty in the Air Force, but my path had started long before… After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1997, my career in the military led me into field communications…the team that I led could be dropped anywhere in the world and we would set up an array of communications for military forces moving into that area. I bounced around the world doing my thing and actually loved it…the travel, the camaraderie of a tight team on their own, and being in charge with very little oversight as long as I got the job done.
Along came 9-11 and needless to say, things got a little more hectic. I was spending more and more time in and out of the Middle East. When I was home, I was focused on training teams to take my place in the field and get ready for the next rotation.
Gregg: What was the breaking point for you?
Sean: I returned from one of my rotations overseas, and unbeknownst to me, had a new assignment waiting for me. I was sent to the Air Force Test Center in Albuquerque, NM to help write test plans for new communications systems that were in development. When I got there, it was not what I was hoping for. I was put in a cubicle (imagine a Dilbert comic) where I worked mostly with contractors that wore ties. I didn’t get to travel anymore. I didn’t get to go in the field. And I felt the life getting sucked out of me. I tried to get a new assignment doing more of what I loved (and was really good at), but was told there are boxes that needed to be checked in order to get promoted and my days in the field were most likely over.
Back to 2004. I was a Captain in the Air Force, getting ready to meet my promotion board for Major. Anytime an office accepts a new rank, it comes with an extended time commitment to the military. I would have pinned on Major at about 8 years, owed at least 4 years more for that promotion and could retire at 20 years… if I stay in 12, shouldn’t I just do 20 and retire? If I do that, will I be miserable for 10 years just to get a retirement check? So for me, it really was a cross roads. Do I get out of the military now (after 4 years of military school and 8 years of active duty), find a new career… or stick it out and potentially be unhappy for 12 years of my life just to get a retirement.
Gregg: And the the military wasn’t just a recent part of your life, correct?
Sean: The military was definitely nothing new to me. I grew up in a military family. Bounced around mostly the east coast and europe as a child, only living in a place for about 3 years, before moving to the next. The typical, “army brat” story. My dad retired from the Army after a highly decorated career in the Green Berets, the army’s special forces…just think of every hard core military movie you watched in the 80s ;) I had family in every major conflict you can think of WWII, I, Korea, etc.
Gregg: Was there any family pressure or personal pressure or financial pressure to stick it out and stay the original course?
Sean: I think there’s always pressure when looking at a major change in lifestyle. There were a lot of people that thought I was throwing away everything I had worked for. An education at one of the top universities in the US, a stellar military career so far, I was single, owned a house and had a pretty good paycheck coming in. The worst part was I knew I was unhappy, but didn’t really know what my alternative was going to be.
Gregg: So you decide to move on. Why skiing?
Sean: I’ve always loved skiing. My dad was a skier and got my family hooked on it. Some of my earliest memories are from the slopes. Living on the military base in Germany, we had a very active ski club and I got the amazing opportunity to ski all over Europe before I even went to high school. So I guess you could say skiing was in my blood.
My dad started ski patrolling while still in the military. He got me involved when I was in high school and was the Junior Patroller of the Year for the Eastern Division of the National Ski Patrol. I ski raced at the Air Force Academy and one of the biggest reasons I agreed to go to school there was because it was in Colorado.
While stationed in Albuquerque, I got a call from the guy that was my coach from junior high school while living in Germany. He was the ski school director at a place called Angel Fire…about 2.5-3 hours from Albuquerque and wanted to know if I wanted to get back into racing. I said great! And started driving up every weekend in the winter that I could to work as a coach for their race team.
Gregg: And why graphic design? How does an former cadet find work as a designer?
Sean: The graphic design part was a little more random ;) I have always been interested in art, especially photography. I took art classes in school, was a photographer for the yearbook, did independent study classes and more. What I found about my “art” was I was pretty good at replicating things, but not as much creating my own from scratch. I had done some architectural drawing work with CAD, had started to learn photoshop on my own for my photography and definitely picked up the computer side of it quickly.
Gregg: What was your first step after you made that decision?
Sean: After I finally made the decision to leave the Air Force, I decided to move to Panama to live with my uncle and cousins down there to do a little soul searching. I had a full time coaching gig waiting for me at Angel Fire that winter, but had most of the summer and fall off so I headed south. I coached that next winter and at the season was stuck with another decision of what to do. I could go back to Panama for another summer and work with my uncle…and trust me, the idea of skiing all winter and surfing all summer was pretty appealing. But there was definitely a side of me that was still looking for more. I couldn’t quite leave the structure of a lifetime of military tendencies to the wind just yet ;)
I heard through other employees that the marketing office at Angel Fire was looking for some extra help with graphic design. They had an in-house designer, but she was starting to ease her way into retirement. So I jumped up and said I could do the work (even though I wasn’t sure I could). I learned from their designer, called a friend in Denver that was a designer a bunch and just faked the rest ;) That eventually led into more of a full time design position and a part time coaching job to the point where I was doing marketing, design and events year round.
Gregg: Most people that know you will know you from your current gig at Schweitzer. How did that path bring you to Sandpoint, Idaho?
Sean: My best friend and roommate in Angel Fire and I had started to look around outside NM. He had been there for over 10 years, there were some leadership changes happening at the resort and we had just finished the worst winter in recorded history. Sounded like a great reason for a road trip. We spent that whole winter renovating his VW van, loaded up our skis, snowboards and bikes and hit the road. My buddy was originally from Seattle, so we had our sights set on the NW. Our plan was to hit every ski resort town in the NW where we knew someone and hopefully something would pan out.
After a month in Moab…the van broke down ;)… we made it to Ashland, OR. We were staying with the previous ski school director from Angel Fire that was running Mt Ashland at the time. Over beers that night, he told us that a buddy of his was the GM at a place called Schweitzer and they were looking for an events manager. My friend that I was travelling with had been the Angel Fire events manager, so we jumped online, tried to figure out where Schweitzer was and he applied for the job. Our trip progressed, we made it to the Seattle area and hit up Crystal, Baker and Stevens. While there, my friend got a call from Schweitzer for an interview. We decided to drive over and do the interview in person instead of over the phone. Got a chance to check out Sandpoint, hike the mountain (it had just closed for the season) and check out the local scene. After a couple days there, we continued on our trip. About a week later, we had just left Jackson, he got a call with the job offer. We both looked at each other and nodded. “That place was pretty sweet…let’s do it.” I didn’t even have a job prospect yet, but we went home, packed up our stuff and made the move.
Gregg: If I remember right, you had to be a bit persistent to finally land a job with the resort. How long did that take and what were you doing for work until then?
Sean: Ha ha, I guess that’s one way to put it ;) But they say good things come to those who wait. As I said, I didn’t really have a job prospect when we made the decision to move, but I was able to get a job right away with the trail/slopes crew. My intention was to work on the bike trails and try and recreate the success we had at Angel Fire (the year prior, we put on the UCI World Cup). I spent a couple of days doing bike trails then got pulled to work on winter slopes crew. They gave me a truck, a propane torch and a few bags of grass seed. My mission was to work my way down a couple of new slopes, burn the slash piles and reseed the ski runs that had recently been cut. That winter, I tried to get a position with the local race team, Schweitzer Alpine Racing School. SARS seemed interested, but weren’t going to hire someone they hadn’t seen ski… made sense to me. So i did what every ski bum does, got a job tuning skis during the day and slung drinks in the bar at night.
Gregg: How long did that last?
Sean: I did the seasonal thing for a few years, all the while hoping an opening would present itself in the marketing office. Tuned skis, wrenched on bikes, built trails, poured drinks, supervised the rental shop…applied for a graphic design job – didn’t get it. Applied for another marketing job – didn’t get it. But the persistence paid off, another opening came up and I got it – graphic designer for the resort. A year or two later, the manager left and I got that position. A year or two after that, the Director left and I got that position. Schweitzer has been great promoting from within and given me some great opportunities that i’ve jumped on with everything I had.
Gregg: When you look back at this path of spending time out of the country and seeing the world, of the AIr Force culture of discipline, and the fruit of being persistent and working hard before seeing success, do you feel those dots are connected?
Sean: I would like to think so. As much as my life seems to have two distinct chapters, it’s really hard to imagine it any way other than the way it’s been. Each job i had or decision i made, somehow led to the next one… and so on. Travelling and moving my entire young life made me realize how much I loved the Sandpoint area without actually living here long. I also appreciate everything i have now because i’ve seen so much other stuff – both good and bad. I still love to travel and get the “bug” or the “itch” to hit the road, but for the first time in my life I have a sense of community, a true sense of “home” and am surrounded by an extraordinary place and an amazing group of people.
Gregg: Big picture aside, do you see your unique experiences influencing your day-to-day work or style as a marketing director?
Sean: I think my style as a director stems from a true love of skiing, snowboarding, mountain life and the outdoors in general. I don’t think I would be in marketing if it was for another product – tissues, or corn flakes, or prescription meds. I just wouldn’t have the passion… it would have to be in the outdoor industry.
When it comes to my experiences, i think the biggest thing is they put my life in perspective. I’ve seen some pretty rough times, and been in some pretty stressful spots… now, it’s all smooth sailing. Everyone I work with says I always seem even-keeled, get along with everyone and never seem to get worked up. Even the worst of days now don’t come close to some of the days i’ve already had, so i try to keep things pretty low stress. When you wake up every day in this place, go to work 25 feet from a chairlift and are tasked with convincing people how awesome skiing, riding and mountain life can be, I say bring it :)
Gregg: To wrap up, any advice for those reading this who may be working in that rental shop or hoping for the “director” title one day?
Sean: Keep at it. There’s no job too small…especially if you want to make it to the top. I think the best bosses i’ve had have done a lot of different things, so they have perspective, they get it.
Be willing to move. The ski industry is a tight nit group and the funnel to the top gets smaller and smaller with opportunities to rise up through the ranks fewer and fewer. I feel lucky that i’ve been able to make a lot of my progression all at one place, but i know that’s not true for many resorts. One of my toughest challenges is having a bright group of motivated, young employees seeking year round/full time work, but don’t have a spot for them.
Love what you do. It’s worth it :)