He’s the Forrest Gump of the ski business. And like the fictional movie character, he’s never forgotten his roots. Although Kiwi Roger McCarthy is now considered one of the most influential executives in the global mountain tourism business, he still exhibits the same easy-going, irreverent behaviour that made him such an endearing figure when he was working as a handyman at Whistler’s Cheakamus Inn back in he early 1970s. “I wouldn’t trade those years and the friends I made then for anything,” says the 57 year old with a laugh. “They made me who I am today…”
And what he is today is eminently powerful. Having completed stints with Intrawest (where he rose through the ranks to become Senior VP of Operations for Eastern North America), and Vail Resorts (where he ran Breckenridge and Keystone and was, essentially, co-president with Adam Aaron), McCarthy shocked the ski world this spring when he walked away from nearly a million dollars worth of stock options to take over the reins of an emerging new ski area in southern Russia. The place is called Rosa Khutor, it boasts 5,300 feet of vertical, and it’s being developed by two Russian oligarchs worth an estimated $14.5 billion… each. And no, I’m not making this up.
“What’s happening,” explains Roger, “is that president Putin is telling the oligarchs: ‘you guys made a lot of money out of the privatization of Russia. Now it’s time for you to invest money back into the economy to help your fellow Russians.’ And because Russia is a winter country — and the ski business here hasn’t really evolved since the 1950s — it makes good business sense to invest in that sector.”
The fact that Sochi is one of the frontrunning candidates as host city for the 2014 Winter Games probably added even more incentive to the economic argument. (The IOC will announce the winning candidate in July.)
But why get involved with such a risky project? Why walk away from a very secure — and prestigious — job in North America for the uncertainty of launching a new resort in the wilds of the Caucasus Mountains? “This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Roger. “They were offering me the chance to get involved in building a ski resort from the ground up. And that hasn’t happened to any degree anywhere else in the world for decades!”
Think about it, he tells me. “It’s the appeal of working through issues and challenges and getting things right from the very beginning. Paul Mathews (of Whistler-based Ecosign) is responsible for the master plan here, and he and I have a ton of experience working together. We have a level of communication that’s really good — there’s a lot of trust and respect between us.” He stops speaking for a moment. “Which means I won’t have to fight with anybody to get the mountain layout right…”