How Sweet It Is

Win Smith’s Summit Ventures partnership brought a Vermont institution back into local hands

by Cindy Bernhardt

Win SmithIn 2001, Win Smith formed Summit Ventures with two partners to buy Sugarbush Resort in Warren from American Skiing Co. Eventually, he left his position as chairman of Merrill Lynch International to become president of resort operations and CEO of Summit Ventures.

Recognize the guy in the ski jacket and helmet helping carry a customer’s skis? Win Smith’s work attire as president and CEO of Sugarbush Resort in Warren may be far removed from his former days as chairman of Merrill Lynch International, but Wall Street’s loss is Sugarbush’s gain.

Since Smith’s Summit Ventures partnership bought the resort in 2001, skiers are rediscovering this mountain jewel in the Mad River Valley. The key, explains Smith, is managing what he terms guests’ “bookend experience.”

“Their first and last impression of the resort is in our power,” he says. “We can’t control the weather or economy, but we can control our customer relations and service.”

Unlike Sugarbush, says Smith, “Lots of ski areas are owned by big organizations. We’re only interested in being a single-mountain ski resort that’s run well.

“Our competitive advantage — and differential — is our magnificent valley, spectacular terrain and customer focus. We’re worth the extra hour’s drive to be here in heaven.”

Originally from Manhattan, Smith attended Deerfield Academy and Amherst College, and received his MBA from Wharton. He decided to focus on investment banking, and in 1974, joined Merrill Lynch, where his father, Winthrop H. Smith Sr., had been a managing partner of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith until 1961.

“It was a great culture, great people,” Smith recalls. “My last 10 years there, I was involved in non-U.S. businesses and traveled to 80 countries. I gained appreciation for different cultures, global issues, and got tons of experience.”

Smith’s briefcase-for-skis exchange began the winter of 1967-68 when he and some fellow college fraternity brothers rented a ski house in the Mad River Valley.

At that time Sugarbush was dubbed “Mascara Mountain” for its tony clientele of celebrities, designers, models and various Kennedy family members. Smith and friends opted for a Mad River Glen season pass since, he grins, “it was more in keeping with our image.”

“That was my first year on skis,” he says. “We managed class schedules to ski Thursday through Monday. I never took lessons but had a blast.”

Smith’s next return visit wasn’t until a “perfect snowy Presidents’ week” in 1984. “The area hadn’t changed much, and we decided this was a place to come back to, especially with young children.” He became a Sugarbush regular.

“I’d arrange my schedule so I could get here weekends even if I was traveling around the world.” He started skiing seriously at age 35, proving, he jokes, “You’re never too old.”

Smith planted his first Valley investment roots in 1997, when architect David Sellers, who designed Smith’s Sugarbush home, persuaded him to buy and rebuild the historic Pitcher Inn. Smith and his family also own the adjoining Alta Spa and Warren Store.

Those roots were about to deepen.

Sugarbush, started in 1958 by Jack Murphy and Damon and Sarah Gadd, had changed owners several times in the 1980s and ’90s. The most recent, prior to Summit, was conglomerate American Skiing Co.

ASC’s plans for large-scale mountain development were indefinitely postponed amid local opposition and permitting roadblocks. The company then turned its sights and capital to its other resorts. Sugarbush suffered from inattention and under-funding. Skiers flocked elsewhere.

Enter Summit Ventures. “We thought if we could purchase the resort at the right price and manage it well, it would be in our personal interests as well as the community’s,” says Smith.

Along with Smith, Summit’s partners are Bob Ackland, a former Mad River Glen general manager who was Sugarbush’s CFO under ASC, and Adam Greshin, a former money manager in Boston.

“We all loved this place and were concerned the owner wasn’t paying much attention to this wonderful asset in this picturesque valley,” says Smith. “There was a lot of deferred maintenance and we worried about further deterioration or ASC not surviving because it was so stretched.”

Some of Sugarbush's management teamVermonters and season pass holders make up the lions share of skiers at Sugarbush, but 80 percent of the resort’s revenue comes from destination visits of multiple days. Greater Boston is the predominant market. From left are Greg Farnham, director of advertising; J.J. Toland, communications manager; Win Smith, president of resort operations; and Hardy Merrill, chief administrative officer.

Summit’s first order of business was “bringing Sugarbush back to the brand it was under Damon Gadd,” Smith says. “The mountain had been in a 10-year decline. Skier visits were down; customer service wasn’t great; lodges were old. We had to develop a strategy and vision to create the right market niche for us.”

Initially Ackland was general manager, while Smith continued at Merrill Lynch. “Two years later we recognized we needed a larger bed base for Sugarbush to be viable, and wanted to be involved in our own development.

Ackland became president of the real estate division focusing on the Lincoln Peak development, and Greshin was executive vice president of guest and community relations. By then, Smith had left Merrill Lynch and stepped in as CEO.

“I’d do it the same way again,” he says. “I loved every minute of my 28 years at Merrill Lynch, but the time seemed right to do something else and I love what I’m doing now.”

The reborn Sugarbush has expanded snowmaking capacity and quality, and offers two new lifts. But the big news is the first phase of the recently completed Lincoln Peak development, which includes the Gate House base lodge, Timbers Restaurant and Clay Brook residences. Designed to resemble a Vermont barn, this 61-unit slope-side condominium hotel can accommodate 420-plus guests.

“Prior to Clay Brook, the newest condominiums were built in the 1970s,” says Smith. “Although the vast number of Sugarbush’s skier visits are day-tripping Vermonters and loyal season pass holders, 80 percent of our revenue comes from destination visitors staying multiple days, so we need convenient, quality beds to be competitive.” Sugarbush’s predominant market is the greater Boston area.

A second development phase is in the works for guest services, retail and additional dining space.

“Win’s brought vision and leadership to the organization,” says Ackland, who’s chairman of the Sugarbush Chamber of Commerce. “He’s developed an accessible management structure where we function as a team of owners participating every day in a community within a community. What Sugarbush has accomplished speaks to his commitment and passion for the resort and for skiing.”

With 850 employees during Sugarbush’s winter peak, 150 of them year-round and full time, orienting and training guest-friendly staff is a constant challenge. Smith’s answer is a walk-around management style. “You have to be riding lifts, testing product and interacting with guests to know what’s going on,” he says.

According to Jon Jamieson, a lifelong Valley resident and skier who owns Jamieson Insurance in Waitsfield, “You’ll see Win out there helping with tickets or lift lines. He’s listening, asking questions, making things better for guests and learning what the customer wants.”

Smith admits his approach has an upside. “I love skiing. It’s not drudgery out there.” Last year he notched 105 on-snow days, claiming, “I’m making up for lack of skiing in my youth.”

Smith’s hands-on involvement includes using the Internet. “The Net is full of blogs and third-party information — not always accurate — which influence the way people make decisions about where to ski.

“The ski market’s competitive. Family time is precious, and ski families have a lot of choices, so we monitor and listen to determine if there’s good information out there, then participate or contribute if we can help people decide to visit Sugarbush, or curb rumors that might hurt core sales or morale.”

Reforging community ties has strengthened support for the resort, says Ackland. “From day one, Win made an effort to listen and understand people’s prior concerns and objections to ASC and address them. He’s visible, accessible, and his focus on what he wants Sugarbush to be is unwavering. Win’s integrity is unflappable. Doing the right thing is more important to him than dollar decisions.”

Says Smith, “We needed to listen, get input, explain, be transparent, honest, predictable, and deliver on what we said we’re going to do.”

In front of the Silo at Lincoln PeakA collection of key personnel stand in front of the “silo” at the newly 61-unit slope-side condominium hotel at Lincoln Peak, designed to resemble a Vermont barn. From left: Greg Farnham, director of advertising; J.J. Toland, communications manager, Bob Ackland, president of real estate; Win Smith, president of resort operations; John Egan, chief recreation officer; Jim Robertson, director of sales; Hardy Merrill, chief administrative officer; and Dan Torsell, vice president of base operations.

Efforts have paid off. “The permitting process we’ve experienced has been very pleasant. We’ve worked with the town and, though we haven’t agreed on everything, we’ve found something that works for all of us,” he says.

The resort has also worked with state agencies and shares concerns about clean air and streams. “Part of what we’re selling here,” says Smith, “is the beauty of the Vermont environment. The balance is to be commercial enough to survive but not destroy what’s precious about this place.”

Sugarbush takes its environmental stewardship seriously. A “green team” of employees and managers identifies and implements pollution prevention and conservation methods throughout the resort. A 2003 pilot program led to converting all on-mountain diesel vehicles to biodiesel. Snowmaking machines have been retrofitted with low-energy, high-efficiency nozzles.

As Sugarbush enters its 50th season, the buzz is good. “They’re on the right track and doing a good job,” says Jamieson.

“The health and quality of Sugarbush skiing is important to the Valley’s livelihood,” he continues. “I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when Sugarbush was at the top of its game, and then watched it slide. Win, living here as an owner, understands the resort is integral to the town. The resort needed to wow people and get them excited about coming back. The new development adds physical sparkle and there’s a pride in ownership. It’s a whole different feel.”

A grandfather and father of four grown children who love to ski, Smith says skiing is “one of the only sports you can enjoy doing together across four generations. With golf Grandpa may only drive about 80 yards, but he can probably out-ski the grandkids,” he says with a chuckle. Smith has, however, been spotted on the Sugarbush golf course practicing that swing.

Those suits from the Wall Street days? Smith still owns a few, as over the years he’s served as director to various boards, including the United Nations Association of the United States, the Americas Society and the New York City Ballet.

The biggest thrill for Smith these days is “seeing tired but smiling customers at the end of a busy ski day knowing they had a great time ... ” And, of course, first tracks on a powder day. •