Former Steamboat top exec Chris Diamond writes about his eventful years in ski resort industry | SteamboatToday.com
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Former Steamboat top exec Chris Diamond writes about his eventful years in ski resort industry

Chris
John F. Russell

If you go:

What: Launch party for Chris Diamond’s new book, “Ski Inc.”

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Dec. 5

Where: Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffeehouse, 68 Ninth St., Steamboat Springs. Also available at SkiDiamondConsulting.com

— Author Chris Diamond has released his first book, “Ski Inc.,” about his 40-plus years in the ski industry — 17 of them at the helm of the Steamboat Ski Area.

And unless readers happened to be sitting in the board room when Les Otten arrived to shake up Steamboat’s veteran management team or were on the inside of the abandoned sale of Steamboat Ski Area to Tim and Dianne Mueller, they are certain to gain new insights into the modern history of Steamboat.

Diamond praises Otten, CEO of the ill-fated American Skiing Company (ASC), for his brilliance in assembling a ski resort empire the likes of which North America had not seen before. But also points out the hubris that led to his downfall.

Diamond also disapproves of the bad form ASC showed in 2002 when the Muellers received the abrupt news on closing day that ASC was calling off the Vermont couple’s purchase of Steamboat with a phone call, instead of a face-to-face meeting.

If you go:

What: Launch party for Chris Diamond’s new book, “Ski Inc.”

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Dec. 5

Where: Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffeehouse, 68 Ninth St., Steamboat Springs. Also available at SkiDiamondConsulting.com

But “Ski Inc.” is also an engaging account of the rise of the modern ski resort beginning with Diamond’s full-time job at Killington, Vermont, as assistant to ski area president Preston “Pres” Smith. It’s a book that doesn’t pull punches but also honors the people who nourished the industry.

Diamond listened to his mentor. By the time he was 31, he was named director of nearby Mount Snow, which had recently come under the ownership of Killington.

“I was very lucky,” Diamond said. “I think I got the job because I was rootless. And because I did the due diligence (on the purchase), I knew what we were getting.”

What Killington had acquired was a storied New England resort. Mount Snow had its quirks, like mirrors on the roof of the base lodge to enhance the guests’ tanning experience. And there was an indoor ice rink in the middle of palm trees. Diamond ironed out some of the kinks but still regrets some of those moves.

Humble beginnings

Diamond grew up in the small factory town of East Hampton, Massachusetts.

“I can remember both my mother and father making the drive to Berkshire Snow Basin in our black ’54 Chevy and watching us ski,” he said.

Diamond worked off his trail passes by boot-packing the slopes.

American Skiing Company

Otten’s American Skiing Company had built a dominant portfolio of New England ski areas by 1997 when the company acquired Steamboat from its Japanese owners, Kamori International Corp. ASC quickly pursued construction of the Steamboat Grand Summit hotel and wasted no time in selling quarter-shares in the suites.

On the mountain, the new Pioneer Ridge area, with its own lift, was opened for the 1998-99 season. However, the winter got off to a mild start, and Otten was already in a fiscal bind.

“Given where ASC stood financially, it’s fair to say that some level of panic set in,” Diamond writes. “The company was highly leveraged and needed to make the best of of the challenging weather situation.”

Otten’s frustration peaked in mid-January when he discharged the popular Ski Area President Gary Mielke, and the layoffs didn’t end there. Fifteen more veteran employees were offered severance packages.

“The company and the community went into something close to a state of shock,” Diamond writes. “The response to Otten was a prompt firestorm of animosity. The honeymoon was over.”

Otten was too eager to take on risk, in Diamond’s view. But the other reasons ASC failed have to do with overly aggressive or ineffective investment in the resorts and a flawed real estate strategy, he said.

The author has a remarkable memory for anecdotes and displays it while describing his efforts to re-build trust in the community during the challenging run-up to Intrawest years.

Diamond also turns his eye on the rest of the ski industry without bias — he generously praises the business acumen of Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz for example. And most of all, he displays a love for ski towns and how inseparable each unique community is from the brand of the ski resort that happens to operate in its midst.

“At the end of the day, a ski area reflects the community where it operates regardless of who owns it,” Diamond said this week. “What ski area has lost it brand and appeal because of ownership? Your guests are your biggest self-correcting factor. Your guests don’t allow you to move the brand much, or they abandon you. That’s not to be underestimated.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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