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July 2006

Grooming for the Future

The aging of our industry leaders is inevitable, but what are we doing to ensure that we leave the business in good hands?
Written by Tim Sweeney | 0 comment

Though only in their 50s and still banking on plenty of working years ahead of them, the leaders of many resorts have already begun the process of finding capable individuals to someday replace them. "Most of the people in top spots at resorts certainly are from the Baby Boomer generation," says Mammoth Mountain president and CEO Rusty Gregory. "Those people have a lot of responsibilities but one of the most important ones is to plan for their own succession, to look for people with an enthusiasm for the resort business and the core sports and recreational activities each resort offers."

Independent consultant Nicole Voth of Mountain Performance Consulting works with a host of ski resorts across the country. Voth has been a featured speaker at conferences for NSAA and Ski Maine and she likes to jolt audiences of ski industry leaders by asking what would happen to their resorts if they were hit by a beer truck tomorrow. Apparently, it's a sobering thought. Judging by the show of hands she sees, Voth believes most resorts would be left scrambling to find new leadership.

Starting the Process
David Perry, senior VP at Aspen Skiing Company, says grooming up-and-coming stars in different management positions is an ongoing goal within his organization. "I'm 51 and everyone else at the senior level of our company is in their 40s and early 50s," Perry says. "It's a group that has 15 to 20 years of time left. So I see our transition as being steady and gradual. That said, in the industry there's definitely a graying of the leaders. So, I can see where there will be a changing of the guard."

There is no doubt the current generation of leaders has left an enduring mark on the industry. Voth, a veteran of Vail Resorts' Training and Human Resource departments, says Baby Boomers have increased the use of training and development, brought service to a new level, showed a more open management style, and turned the ski industry into big business. "All the major players came to fruition under the Baby Boomers-Vail Resorts, American Skiing Company, Intrawest and Booth Creek," she says. "They changed the business from something you do just for fun to working 14 hours a day in some cases. They also enabled the growth of the industry by looking into other revenue streams like tubing, focusing on families, and making that all-in-one package that's attractive to the consumer."

But who will continue their efforts? Will they be replaced by young professionals from outside the industry or by resort up-and-comers who have earned their stripes shoveling snow and clearing lunch tables? Perry, who began his career at Banff, then held senior marketing positions at Whistler from 1985 to 2000, worries that the industry has become too enamored with young professionals.

"If you look at the current crop of top leaders-the Baby Boomers-they've all been in the trenches working a multitude of jobs at a mountain when it's been small or struggling," he says. "They have a deep understanding of all the jobs it takes. The people that attend the NSAA meetings, 90 percent still have grease under their fingernails. They come from a working background. Are we entering a period where we are recruiting young professionals? I personally hope it doesn't go that way. I hope we still recruit from within."

Gregory agrees but also sees the advantages of injecting new blood into the business. "I think it's very important to first look within. Unless your people know you're first looking at them, the best ones aren't going to stay around," he says. "Having said that, the ski industry is notoriously incestuous and when that's overdone, it weakens the industry. So it's very important not to be afraid to hire from outside your company and outside the industry."

But today, it takes a greater variety of skill sets to staff a resort, making hiring from within the industry very hard to do across the board. At Aspen, Perry filled three marketing positions last winter and was forced to go outside the valley for each hire. "Recruiting top talent to come into this valley is a challenge," he says. "One of these jobs was for a web developer and we just couldn't find the talent locally. He came from Boulder."

Growing Your Own or Hire Outside?
Having begun his career as a ski school director, Blaise Carrig, senior VP and COO at Heavenly and a Baby Boomer himself, has a soft spot for in-house candidates. "You have an obligation to offer opportunities to the people who made your success," he says, adding that those people have already decided to sacrifice economic opportunities in the city in favor of quality of life. But Carrig is a realist, recognizing that hiring from outside the industry is a necessity. "I think what may happen in five years, as we all develop deeper and more sophisticated web departments, for example, you'll see depth being groomed internally in that area, too," he says. "We hired our most recent web person from Vail. Prior to that, we brought in people from the Bay Area. Now we see those people training other people within the company."

Many resorts have a plan in place to evaluate and cultivate in-house talent. Heavenly's is called the Benchmarks Program. Carrig started a similar program while president at Sugarbush 15 years ago when he realized the people being promoted from within were not prepared to succeed in their new positions. The Benchmarks Program uses five blocks of courses consisting of management tactics, guest service implementation, budgeting, human resource management, and safety and risk management. "It gets all the managers on the same page and also provides our up-and-coming stars with a way to learn, so that when they have the opportunity they can compete with people from outside the company who have years of experience," Carrig says.

A company the size of Vail Resorts, which owns Heavenly, also has the luxury of taking qualified candidates from one resort and moving them up the ladder at a different resort. For that reason, VR's current executives spend time sharing information about the various rising stars on each of their staffs. At Sugarbush, Carrig was forced to find ways to develop his up-and-comers. "Sometimes the challenge at smaller resorts is you don't have opportunities for people," he says. "So you have to see what other things people can do, put people on teams and bring them into the decision process. It's good for the company, too." At Sugarbush, Carrig sent his young talent to Colorado's Rocky Mountain Lift Association and Disney World, or even to competitors and competing recreation tourism entities. "Let them go, come back, share ideas," he explains. "Keep them stimulated and growing and use them to bring intelligence back to your resort."

At Mammoth, Gregory and his eight vice presidents give their employees a ranking between 1 and 10 in an effort to find rising stars who will someday run divisions of the company and perhaps the entire organization. Each senior manager makes a presentation about his staff members and with help from the other executives who have worked with the individual being discussed, they come up with a consensus score for the employee. "The top 20 percent-the rising stars-we make sure we put a retention and cultivation plan in place," Gregory says. "We try to understand what they want to accomplish and where they are heading within the company and in life. And we put a career path in place to make sure they get exposed to more than one area of the company. It's important they have a generalist view."

They also make sure to cultivate the next 70 percent of their workforce, the consistently solid performers. "There's no reason to have managers and leaders unless they have someone to lead," Gregory points out. "So we want to make sure we take that next 70 percent and cultivate their desire to learn more about the part of the business they're interested in." They also identify the bottom 10 percent and determine if it's the company, misplacement, or a lack of training that have caused poor performance. Then they devise a way to move them up or out.

The Location Hurdle
For new hires that come from outside the industry, the job may be the easiest part of the transition; actually living in a resort town requires certain sacrifices. For that reason, Perry tries to ascertain if a candidate really wants to live in a ski town. He looks for three ingredients in candidates: educational background, acceptance and understanding of lifestyle versus cost of living, and fit. That final piece of the equation is the most intangible, and most difficult to gauge, and therefore the most critical, according to Perry. "To have a high-powered working team you have to like the people you're going to work with, be stimulated by them and have a positive working culture," he says. "We've all seen the guy who has the professional experience and walks in wearing a suit and tie. Well, it's highly likely he doesn't understand the culture."

While Perry was CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA in Denver from 2000 to 2002, he saw firsthand the difference in recruiting to a ski town versus a city office. He has a feeling there are hundreds of talented people who would be a good fit professionally at a resort, but not personally. "One foot is in a ski town and one foot is in the economic realities of working in the city. It's almost this constant tug," Perry says. "Anyone who lives in a mountain town has had people who don't live there say to them, 'When are you going to get a real job?' Well, I have a job. I tie that back to desiring the mountain lifestyle and the fit."

So, where do you find those candidates that "fit," particularly for management positions? John Norton, a consultant at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, says that while candidates should know a little something about everything, attention to detail is more important. "Each ski season is over in the blink of an eye. Most of the areas have less than four solid months of business," he explains. "Consequently, a good manager has to be on his department's performance quickly and fix problems quickly. Waiting for month-end reports really doesn't cut it. So everyone needs to feel urgency."

Norton believes housing is far and away the biggest issue facing every resort community, and that affects every position on the mountain. "It's getting tougher to live close to the ski areas than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago," he says. "For instance, in Crested Butte and Aspen there are ski instructors and patrollers who own their own places in town-free market places, unsubsidized. And that's terrific for them and for the community generally. The next generation won't have that opportunity. It's either subsidized housing that won't appreciate with the market, or moving further away from the ski town."

The Next Generation
And that's not the only area where a generation gap exists. Voth cautions Baby Boomers to be mindful of the fact that the Gen Xers following in their footsteps could not be more different than they are. First, because of the presence of Baby Boomers, opportunities to move up will require Gen Xers to move to other locations. They are the first generation to be confronted with that, she says. "From my experience, in designing succession planning, Boomers should be very cautious because we all fall into the habit of looking at what would motivate us," Voth says. "Gen Xers look at life balance and Boomers wear their hours like a badge of honor. Gen Xers are willing to work hard but don't want their work to be their life. Work is part of their life. So balance is a key word for Gen Xers."

But to Gregory, the ability to lead any organization begins with passion for the industry, and it doesn't end there. "Great businesses that we might think are boring often have people who are passionate about what they do," he points out. "It's about the culture and the people that are drawn to that culture. There are resorts where you can just feel the electricity around the people and the mountain. Other places you don't. And it's not enough to just have passion. You have to execute on it. You need a healthy combination of people that want to make a plan and then people who are willing to scrap the plan if it's not working."