Diverse owners, diverse approaches
First five operators all have left their marks on Steamboat
December 20, 2006
Steamboat Springs — Assuming the deal is closed, Intrawest would become the sixth owner of the Steamboat Ski Area in the ski area’s 43-year history.
Steamboat began as the dream of local cattle ranchers, was launched into international stature by a Texas aerospace company, underwent landmark expansion and augmented its champagne powder with man-made snow with a Kansan at the helm. It installed its first high-speed quad chairlifts with a privately held Japanese company in charge and opened a massive new hotel under current owner, American Skiing Company.
Changes in ownership often seemed to come at the eve of a new decade. And amid all of the changes in corporate culture, Steamboat’s ingrained commitment to Western hospitality and unpretentiousness was always preserved.
The genesis of the Steamboat Ski Area we know today actually began in the 1950s, the dream of a man named Jim Temple. “Storm Mountain” ski area, under the ownership of the Storm Mountain Ski Corp., opened for a season, offering only a 2,220-foot-long Poma lift named Bear Claw. Ski historian Sureva Towler records that gross receipts from lift tickets that winter of 1961-62 was $1,213, leaving operating profit of $267.47 after expenses were deducted.
The inability to get the first double chairlift open for that first tentative season hampered the fledgling corporation. A separate company, the Steamboat Partnership, was formed to infuse the struggling little ski area with cash.
Storm Mountain officially opened on Jan. 12, 1963. Towler reported that the temperature was 25 degrees below zero and the oil in the gearbox was so stiff that it was difficult to start the new chairlift. A dozen skiers rode the lift that first day; seven had passes and five paid cash. Receipts for the first day were $13.75.
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The pioneer ski developers pushed on, John Fetcher, Hank Perry and Marv Crawford among them.
By the winter of 1965-66, the ski area was able to offer the new Thunderhead double chair and Storm Mountain came within a few skiers of 20,000 skier days. In the winter of 1968-69, with more terrain than ever to ski on, including the new Four Points Chairlift, Steamboat jumped up to 99,000 skier days, nearly doubling the numbers from the previous winter.
Steamboat caught the eye of Paul Thayer, an ex-fighter jock, who had become a top executive at Dallas aerospace giant LTV. The corporation added a recreation division and purchased the ski area. The company had big money to invest, and the $10 million it committed to Steamboat allowed the company to begin developing the Steamboat Village Resort, (now the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center).
LTV-RDI moved quickly and in 1970 installed the six-passenger Stagecoach gondola, which put Steamboat on the map of the world’s top ski areas.
The gondola took skiers to Thunderhead Peak in 13 minutes. The 3,330-foot span between towers one and two was hailed as the world’s longest. And the new gondola reached the dizzying height of 252 feet between towers two and three.
LTV took a year off before installing the Priest Creek chairlift in 1972. The first chairlift to be installed by helicopter, it opened the gladed Aspen skiing that Steamboat is famous for today.
In a new economic climate, LTV began returning to its core businesses and Steamboat no longer made philosophical sense.
A group of eight investors formed the Northwest Colorado Ski Corp. and led by Martin Hart purchased the ski area from LTV and changed the name to the Steamboat Ski Corp.
Hart is an affable but intensely private businessman, and the ski area management never released a biography that detailed his background.
He has served on the board of directors of the Hardees fast food chain, and his name was associated with the Carney brothers who founded Pizza Hut. When PepsiCo acquired Pizza Hut in 1977, Hart emerged with a small stake in the giant soft drink company. Hart’s other business interests have included banks, an industrial park in Boulder, an Oklahoma City travel agency and a large ranch near Loveland. During Northwest Colorado Ski Corp.’s tenure as owner of the Steamboat Ski Area, Hart continued to oversee his business interests from his Denver home.
The new owners would invest $36 million in the ski area during their tenure, and they immediately installed three new triple chairs (Christie III, Arrowhead and Southface), cut a new trail on the lower mountain called Ted’s Ridge and added 10,000 square feet to the Thunderhead restaurant.
In 1981, Steamboat invested millions in a new form of insurance policy – snowmaking systems were installed on 160 acres serviced by nine lifts. Northwest Colorado Ski Corp. kept up its investment pace, installing important new triple chairs, Sundown and Storm Peak, in 1983, and completed the Sunshine Bowl expansion over 1984 and 1985.
The new eight-passenger Dopplemayr gondola was installed in 1986, the same year a gourmet restaurant named after Hazie Werner was installed at Thunderhead.
Northwest Colorado Ski Corp. retained a New York investment banking company to market Steamboat. Hart was closed-mouthed about the process and it was not known if some of the original investors wanted out or the company felt it would take a greater infusion of cash to move the ski area forward.
Hart’s group was tempted by an offer of more than $100 million and in 1989, a family-owned Japanese company called Kamori Kanko Co. Ltd, became the new owner of Steamboat. The patron of the company, Kimihito Kamori, owned the Rusutsu Kogen ski resort on the island of Hokkaido, along with a koala bear preserve in Australia and other recreation investments. He purchased Heavenly ski area in California at the same time he purchased Steamboat. He was largely an absentee owner, represented by Japanese executives based at the ski area.
Kamori immediately approved the expansion of the Rendezvous Saddle facility in 1990 and gave Steamboat skiers inbounds extreme terrain with the opening of Chutes Two, Three and Christmas Tree Bowl.
Kamori himself presided over the opening of the Storm Peak Express and Sundown Express high-speed quad chairlifts in 1992. Steamboat jumped into employee housing with the construction of Walton Pond apartments in 1995, but the dollar was slipping against the yen. In 1997 Kamori sold both Steamboat and Heavenly to American Skiing Company the same year Les Otten took the ambitious company public.
The anticipated Pioneer Ridge expansion with 260 acres and a dozen new trails debuted under Otten’s tenure.
Otten quickly introduced his model for a “grand hotel” to Steamboat, but the hotel took a year longer to build than expected, and cost overruns undermined profitability.
ASC’s debt quickly became a problem, but in December 2000 Otten offered the promise of new efficiencies with a merger to the MeriStar hotel management group. Wall Street did not respond favorably and when the merger fell apart in the first quarter of 2001, Otten’s departure from the company was not far behind.
B.J. Fair was named to succeed Otten at the company’s helm and began working with the company’s creditors to restructure its debt. Steamboat quickly revamped its marketing strategies in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and salvaged a better season than anyone had dared pray for. In succeeding years, Steamboat has continued to perform well despite the struggles of its parent company. This summer, ASC made a significant investment in the ski area by replacing the Sunshine Express chairlift.
ASC announced in July that it had retained the New York firm of Bear Stearns to market the ski area to potential buyers.