Mountain Man

Managing director turned owner Bill Stritzler found his niche at the Notch

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Photos: Jeff Clarke

It won’t be long before Bill Stritzler and his wife, Vi, head south to Puerto Rico for some R&R. Then, April will find him on some trout stream wielding his fly rod. Stritzler is in that most Vermont of enterprises: the ski industry. And after a summer, fall and winter of long hours on the job — of six- and seven-day work weeks — it’s time for him to play. He readily confesses that, when springtime comes, about 50 percent of his time is spent goofing off.

Smugglers' Notch

Bill Stritzler

Bill Stritzler spent a decade as managing director at Smugglers’ Notch Resort before purchasing it in 1996. The former AT&T executive places an emphasis on family activities that go beyond just skiing.

Stritzler has earned every minute of relaxation time he spends. As owner of Smugglers’ Notch Resort since November 1996 (and managing director for 10 years before that), he has dedicated his work life to making play possible for others. Under his leadership, Smugglers’ has become one of the top family resorts in the United States — actually, in the top 10 nationally and No. 1 in the East, according to the September ’98 issue of Mountain Sports & Living. The magazine credited the resort’s “service, ski school, daycare, programs for children and teens and other qualitative, rather than quantitative, values” for its high position. In an environment where mega-corporations are gobbling up ski areas all over the country, Stritzler has proved that it’s possible for a privately held destination resort to succeed.

Stritzler wasn’t a stranger when he bought the property. He and Vi encountered Smugglers’ Notch in 1977, when they came to Vermont on vacation and ended up buying a vacation home there. He was a rising executive with AT&T, which had recruited him in 1974 from Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. A Jamaica, N.Y., native, Stritzler had worked for Wells Fargo since graduating from Middlebury College in 1960 and heading west “with a bunch of fraternity brothers to earn our fortunes.” During his 14 years in California, he met and married Vi, and their two children, Mark and Lisa, were born.

Going to work for AT&T brought them back east to Morristown, N.J., where Stritzler would rise, in the next 13 years, from national market manager for financial institutions to corporate vice president for new ventures.

His active participation at Smugglers’ dates to the early 1980s, when he joined the board of directors of the association of homeowners there. It wasn’t until 1985, as a member of a sub- committee negotiating a new contract with Smugglers’ Notch management, that he got to know Stanley Snider, the resort’s owner. The two clicked, and it wasn’t long before Snider approached him about leaving corporate America and taking on the management of the ski area.

From the first, ownership of the property has been steeped in relationships. The facility was opened as Smugglers’ Notch Ski Ways in 1956, when a group of Cambridge business people got together to start a ski area for residents. Tom Watson Jr., IBM visionary and an avid skier, was an early director of the corporation. In 1964, he and his brother, Arthur, bought it, renamed it Madonna Mountain and began to aggressively expand the terrain, put chairlifts on Madonna, Morse and Sterling mountains and create a ski-from-your-doorstep village as the base. They advertised it as “the backside of Stowe.”

Wanting to focus his energy and attention on mountain development, Watson asked Snider, a successful developer of resort property from Massachusetts, to plan and build the village complex. In 1967, Snider began the first condominiums, and by 1973, he had bought the entire resort from Watson and changed the name to the Village at Smugglers’ Notch.

When Snider offered the managing directorship to Stritzler, he was intrigued. Still, “It took two years from the time he raised the issue until the first time I came up here to work,” he says. Basically, Stritzler loved his job at AT&T. “I was reporting to the president, and it had a lot of fun in it. But I knew Smugglers’ had great potential, because we’d been owners here. It was a chance to run something myself, and I knew the people who had been here a long time and had extraordinary confidence in that team to take the business forward.” Snider continued to bring the subject up periodically at homeowners’ meetings, and when Stritzler’s kids went off to college — “kind of getting off the payroll,” he quips — he decided it was time to give serious thought to making the move.

Rental crew

The staff roster at Smugglers’ is 130. In the summer that number rises to approximately 450 and as high as 900 in the winter. From left: Steve Ansama, Jim Slack and Sarah Eddy at the rental shop.

What Stritzler calls a “home cooking accident” delayed his departure by several months. “It was a man’s accident,” he says. “I covered oil in a pot, and when I lifted the lid, it exploded.” Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, he was burned over 50 percent of his body, much of it third-degree burns. It meant a month in the hospital and another month out of work, followed by a period of therapy. Finally, in January 1987, he officially became the new managing director.

Smugglers’ already had a nice base of family customers by the time Stritzler came on board, and there had been a fair amount of success in attracting group business and conferences. After some discussion, he and the management team decided to take a chance on a new marketing direction: to “be the best at one thing.” That one thing was family-centered. “It was a fairly major commitment,” he says, “because it meant we had to, not stop, but slow down the other portions of our business, going to multi-seasonal operations and investing in summertime business. There were some tough decisions.”

“Family” became not only a key marketing focus, but also a philosophy. “We think we have to run everything at Smugglers’ that way. We train, recruit, motivate, plan and invest, all based on our commitment to families.” What that means, he says, is there’s a generous concentration on providing family guests with experiences that go beyond the enjoyment of the physical facilities. “So when you come to Smugglers’, if you don’t want to ski today, you can go to a very special arts and crafts day as an activity. Those things are part of our programming. Kids today will be exposed to the science of snowmaking, not just through signage, but also through a well-prepared science program, where they will experience and be taught the science of snowmaking in different levels depending on their age groups.”

The team developed programs to bring families together every night, whether it’s putting on shows for them or having family karaoke nights, bingo nights or fireworks nights. Stritzler calls this the resort’s software. “When you do that,” he adds, “you have to hire the kind of people who are entertainers, then reward them based on what the families say about what they’re doing. So the lady who runs our childcare center will be rewarded on what families say about the quality of the program: What did the kids do? What did they learn? Do they want to go back? So if you think of childcare that goes beyond baby-sitting, you hire the person differently, you train the person and you reward them differently.”

By 1996, Snider had reached his retirement age and wished to sell. Stritzler decided to take the plunge. “I was too young to retire,” he says, “I didn’t want to work for someone else, and the owner was going to sell the place.” Again, his confidence in the team he had built and worked with bolstered him. With the help of Key Bank and Textron Corp., a Connecticut financial firm, plus a substantial investment of his own funds, Stritzler bought the business.

The deal closed the day before Election Day in November ’96. Following a week’s vacation in St. Croix, he returned as the new owner. “When I came back, of course, it wasn’t as if I was walking into a business the first time. The first thing I wanted to do was bring the team together and say, ‘Okay, this is ours now; we’re no longer owned by a business in Massachusetts. Let’s take advantage of that to do things the way we want to do them.’”

Since then a lot of thought has gone into structuring the business to take advantage of the future. “We’ve pulled together a nice plan we’ve begun to implement, done some personnel things I thought were important, put in some new systems, and I hope we’re treating people better. Because success has nothing to do with how many lifts you have or how much snowmaking you have. It’s based on whether the people who work for you feel respected or not, and if they do, you can compete.”

Marclay Davis

Smugglers’ Notch Resort owns 1,000 acres of land, as well as recreational rights to 3,000 acres from the state. “We are not a rapid developer,” says Bill Stritzler. “We grow at 3 to 5 percent a year.” Pictured: Marclay Davis in the sports shop.

Programs include skiing, snowboarding and top-notch instruction, plus a whole menu of non-skiing activities like art classes, high-tech tubing, horseback riding, massages, night snowmobile tours and a teen center called The Outer Limits at The Yurt. There’s even a study hall program for children 7 to 17 who need to keep up with class work while on vacation. Mogul Mouse, the mountain mascot, is everywhere.

To staff this, the resort employs 130 people year-round, and numbers swell in summer to about 450 and as high as 900 in the winter. In addition to the 1,000 acres of owned land, there are recreational rights to 3,000 acres of land from the state. “We are not a rapid developer,” Stritzler says, “but a kind of steady-as-she-goes developer. We grow at 3 to 5 percent a year.” All the growth plans center on family business. In the works is development of a 20-year vision toward the creation of an educational and working farm for families. There’s also a plan for a family North Woods educational and experiential center, which would be supported by vacation homes for people. The idea is to offer something for children from 6 months to 80, Stritzler says.

When he’s not at work, Stritzler enjoys watching football on television. He and Vi are wine hobbyists — amateur collectors and tasters. He is active in community affairs, serving as chairman of Copley Health Systems, a member of the Vermont Public Television board of directors, a trustee on the Johnson State College Foundation board and a board member of the Vermont Economic Progress Council, which Gov. Howard Dean appointed to allocate tax credits and develop a plan for the state’s economic future. Smugglers’ also encourages employees to participate in the community and pays hourly workers for time spent at community board meetings during the business day. “Anything we can do to encourage people — policy, practices and, I hope, example — makes that happen.”

One policy recently rewarded is Smugglers’ commitment to the environment, which was recognized by the Governor’s Awards for Environmental Excellence in Pollution Prevention. Ongoing programs include a construction scrap reuse program, recycling of freon and paint thinners and the use of low- VOC (volatile organic compounds) based paints and coatings. Future development plans are based on leaving large amounts of open space and clustering.

“We have a lot of respect for our land,” says Stritzler, “because we think, yes, you can do it because you like the environment. But also, people from New York don’t want to come to Vermont and find New York!”

Virginia Lindauer Simmon is a free-lance writer and editor who lives with her cat, Moneypenney, in Colchester, Vt. Her work has appeared in national, regional and local publications.