By Karen D. Lorentz
With the pending sale of Okemo to Vail Resorts, it’s reasonable to wonder, “Is it the end of an era at Okemo?”
Yes and no.
Certainly private family ownership will change as the public company (NYSE:MTN) assumes ownership later this summer.
But ironically it’s also a return to Okemo’s early roots, as it was first owned by shareholders who were locals, as well as out-of-state skiers. (Like many Vermont ski areas started in the 1950s, Okemo began on a shoestring — even children invested $10 in a share of stock to help get it going.) Founded in 1955-56 by Ludlow businessmen and skiers to benefit the local economy, and run by a board of directors who oversaw a general manager, Okemo’s early leaders thought big from the get-go with a goal of becoming “a major family ski center.”
For 27 years Okemo largely succeeded, surmounting tough times and setbacks in the challenging seasons and reaching 176,000 skier visits in 1977. However, the devastating “no-snow” season of 1979-80 saw attendance drop (88,800 visits) and a low-snow 1980-81 winter caused the area to use money designated for a fourth chairlift for adding snowmaking from the summit. In 1982, visits bounced back (146,000) only to see Okemo’s line of credit pulled.
Amidst great debate, shareholders voted to sell Okemo to a new owner rather than risk an uncertain future in what was becoming a highly competitive and often weather-challenging ski industry.
This decision was seen as a necessary sacrifice and was buttressed by a Sno-Engineering (a national resort planner) 1982 master plan for Okemo. The plan noted the potential to become “a major destination resort” with mountain expansion and additional on-mountain condominium complexes. It also spelled out deficiencies and the need for $8 million in improvements, including more chairlifts to replace the aging Poma lifts.
The Muellers’ entrepreneurial spirit
Tim and Diane had begun married life with a home-building business in southern Vermont and then moved to St. Thomas to manage and expand a beach resort for her parents, gaining hospitality as well as construction expertise in the process. With son Ethan approaching school age, they wanted to return to the States; the potential at Okemo appealed to their entrepreneurial spirits.
Tim Mueller spotted a “diamond in the rough” when he saw the Sno-Engineering master plan, and in August 1982 they became majority owners of Okemo (and sole owners in 1993).
Their attorney, (the late) George Nostrand, said in 1996: “It was a struggle and a monumental risk. They had limited funding and if it failed, they would have lost everything they owned. I told Tim that I personally wouldn’t have had the stomach to take this kind of risk. He said to me, “Well, George, that’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a lawyer.’”
The Muellers’ accomplishments at Okemo are now legendary. They took Okemo from a Poma lift-image ski area to a U.S. powerhouse achieving skier visits that put Okemo in tthe op 20 nationally by 1996 and the top 2 in Vermont.
With the purchase and improvement of two nearby golf courses and the development of Jackson Gore — village, adventure center, skiing — Okemo is now a successful year-round resort with an active summer program that includes mountain biking.
Winter now features 667 acres of terrain, 46 miles of trails, 98 percent snowmaking, 121 trails and glades, a 2,200 foot vertical, and 20 lifts, including highspeed, heated six-seat bubble chairlift, a highspeed bubble quad, eight other quads, three triples and seven surface lifts for a capacity of 35,500 rides per hour.
Asked if they ever envisioned such growth and success, Diane Mueller expressed amazement at what they were able to do. “We assumed we would be successful because that is part of being an entrepreneur, but never in our wildest dreams did we foresee Okemo becoming what it is today.
“Tim thought going from 90,000 skier visits to 200,000 annually would be doable and that was our idea of being successful. We never thought we would reach 600,000 or operate three resorts — that was not a goal then.”
Tim Mueller added, “We were willing to take the risk because the potential was so great here. We had a lot of energy and experience, and the thought that we couldn’t make a go of it really didn’t occur to us. We also knew that there were good employees here with experience and that we could depend on them, so it wasn’t as if we were wildly entering some field blindly.”
In a foreword to the book “Okemo, All Come Home,” former Governor Thomas P. Salmon, a partner in the law firm Salmon and Nostrand, wrote that what sold the Muellers’ bid to purchase Okemo “more than anything else was their laid back, direct and forthright personal style, and the ability to look people in the eye and state in clear and candid terms their hopes and aspirations for the mountain under their leadership.”
He further credited the Muellers’ work ethic, the area’s “splendid communications with its customers,” and being “a ski resort that proudly caters to the American family” for its “inordinate success” by 1996.
The Muellers’ hard work and ability to instill in employees an understanding of the importance of providing good customer-service — something gained from their beach-resort experience — quickly distinguished the Muellers and the Okemo experience.
They also engendered an understanding of team work which furthered the resort’s family focus. They may have lacked ski experience, but they worked alongside their employees and earned the respect of staff as they exemplified a “together each accomplishes more” team approach.
This led to workers taking pride in their own accomplishments.
Another difference, which made Okemo increasingly successful, was the continuing development of trailside homes and condos with profits poured back into mountain improvements and expansion (Solitude, South Face, and Jackson Gore).
One of the major reasons for Okemo’s earliest success had been the development of trailside homes. While leasing the upper mountain from the state for skiing, in 1963 Okemo’s founders had purchased surrounding private land and sold lots for vacation homes. It was part of a vision to increase skier visits and thereby create a year-round family resort. Combined with the activities and programs offered, they began the family loyalty that continues to this day.
“It’s common to encounter second-, third- and even fourth-generation Okemo vacation-home owners,” said local realestate agent Kathy Burns.
Mueller family decision
Speaking last week with the Mountain Times, Tim Mueller noted that selling “was absolutely not a planned event. The call from Vail Resorts asking if we were interested in selling came completely out of the blue,” he said.
His initial reaction was to be “at a loss for words,” and he requested time to think about it.
Family discussions ensued with their son and daughter, Ethan and Erica, who are partners in Triple Peaks, LLC, the company that operates Mount Sunapee and Crested Butte resorts in addition to Okemo.
Asked about key considerations in agreeing to sell, Tim said, “We think they have the financial ability to put money into the mountains. This lends stability and creates a good future for our employees. It also offers more opportunities for those who might want to move on to other opportunities that the company may offer in the future.”
He sees the sale as good for the resorts’ local communities and as a good exit that enables them to retire.
Erica Mueller, vice president of Crested Butte, cited their retiring as one of her personal reasons for favoring the sale, saying she was excited and happy for her parents.
Additionally, she said that while they are all “passionate about the ski industry and their resorts and hadn’t given thought to any other future, Vail Resort’s ability to invest in the areas was important.” Referencing Triple Peaks’ plans for resort improvements, she said Vail Resorts’ greater ability to invest would make that happen “more quickly. Looking 10, 20 or 30 years out, that brings more projects for employees and benefits them, skiers, and surrounding communities,” she said.
Ethan Mueller, president of Crested Butte and vice president of Triple Peaks, observed that consumers “are driving the trend for consolidation in the ski industry. Much like other industries, people are looking for better deals and more customization,” he said, noting areas make upgrades that are consumer driven.
“The Epic passes will benefit skiers in those respects. The new owner will consistently be making capital investments more quickly than most of their competitors; this will be good for skiers, employees, and surrounding communities,” he echoed.
Diane said that she is also optimistic that “guests and employees will benefit from Vail Resorts’ outstanding track record of resort and community investment, environmental stewardship, and employee development.”
Praise, reactions, impacts
Kathy Burns noted that while the sale of Okemo is “a great opportunity for the Muellers personally” and that they are “leaving Okemo in good hands, it will also be sad to see them go.”
She has worked closely with Diane Mueller on the Okemo Community Challenge for many years. Burns said the annual benefit saw “millions given to the community to support all ages and a wide variety of groups.
“Tim and Diane are great mountain developers and very community oriented,” she added.
Asked if she was surprised by the announcement, Burns replied, “Yes and no,” explaining that the ski industry as a whole seems to be moving in the direction of multiple ownership. “Vail Resorts does a great job. The company purchases successful resorts and is a very interesting company. I’m excited about Okemo’s future,” she added.
In 2013 Okemo and Killington announced joint initiatives to bolster the winter market for snow sports through new efforts like the 4.0 College Pass.
Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington Resort, said, “In the past five years we have developed a good working relationship with the Okemo team. They have done a great job growing Okemo into a big player in Eastern skiing. The Muellers family’s approach to running a business has been very positive for the Vermont ski industry and has been an integral part in bringing the Vermont ski areas together to help grow skiing and outdoor recreation.
“The College 4.0 Season Pass will be available for the 2018-19 season, and we look forward to the competition Vail Resorts will bring to central Vermont,” Solimano said.
Frank Heald, a 24-year ski industry veteran at Pico before becoming Ludlow’s (former) town manager, commented that, “Okemo expanded to its full potential under the Muellers.”
Praising them as the “most community responsible ski area operator I’ve known,” he added that the resort’s “relationship with the town during my 15 years was outstanding.”
Heald said Okemo was especially significant for creating job opportunities, and noted the Muellers helped their workers by supporting The Bus service that brought employees within a 25-mile radius to the area and by having Okemo operate the local bus service to Okemo. He also mentioned Diane’s personal welcoming of employees each year at orientation meetings.
“Each ski area in Vermont has its own unique personality,” Heald said. Vail may create another new personality to Okemo, he said, adding there is “still potential there for Vail Resorts to work with.”
While the era of family ownership may be ending, the Muellers’ commitment to guest service, the overall quality of the recreational experience for families, and employee opportunities form the basis of a legacy that will enable Okemo to continue as a very successful family resort.