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he Revolution Continues: New Intrawest Boss Reveals Fortress Strategy

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Chalk one up for the Snoweaters. Last week’s announcement from Intrawest that the company had a new boss kind of floated through the valley like it didn’t have much to do with everyday life here. But it does. And I’ll tell you why. For the first time in three decades, the CEO of Intrawest is a real mountain guy. And a total mountain operations geek to boot. Worked his way up from being a liftie at Mammoth to the most powerful position in Ski Country USA – president of Vail Resorts Inc.’s (VRI) Mountain Division. And that’s saying something for sure.

“My heart has always been in the mountains,” Bill Jensen was quoted in a story for MSNBC.com. “I’ve never lived in a city,” he added.

Okay, so he’s exaggerating a little. Jensen wasn’t born a mountain man. In fact, Intrawest’s new CEO grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. But, by all accounts, he is a true Snoweater. As he says himself, the moment he first tasted the sublime joys of sliding over the snow on skis, he was instantly seduced.

“We have a glamorous sport, but it connects with some people, and doesn’t with others,” he told Ski Area Management (SAM) magazine recently. “I still remember the very first day I went skiing, and I just knew that this is who I was and this is what I wanted to do…”

And everybody I’ve asked about him – from Roger McCarthy to Dave Brownlie, from David Perry to SAM editor Rick Kahl – all agree that this guy is the real thing.

“Bill Likes people,” says Kahl. “He likes being in charge of people. He’s very relaxed in his job. That said, he’s not afraid of getting in there and getting his hands dirty. What’s most important to him is the guest experience. And he’ll do everything he can to make sure that experience is positive.”

McCarthy, who worked alongside Jensen as co-president of VRI (and probably knows where a few skeletons might be hiding), had nothing but good things to say about him. “Bill is an innovator, he has a very strong marketing mind,” he told me last week. “And he’s a total service junkie. One thing that hit me (about the appointment) is that Bill is a ski guy, not a real estate guy. And that’s good news for all the communities where Intrawest operates.” But we’ll get back to that later…

Even Aspen’s Senior VP David Perry, who competed directly with Jensen, was highly complimentary in his assessment of the man. “I know Bill quite well,” says Whistler-Blackcomb’s former vice president of marketing, “and he is one of the smartest, most ambitious and capable ski resort business people I know. He did an excellent job at Northstar before coming to Vail.” More importantly, adds Perry, “Bill has on-the-snow experience that is deep and pragmatic. He understands that at its core Intrawest needs to be a strong operating company…”

What’s most interesting (to me at least) was the reaction to the announcement from the Vail business community.

“It’s almost inconceivable to get worse news in the town of Vail,” said Kaye Ferry, executive director of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. “Bill’s hallmark is customer service, understanding who our guest is and what our role is in regard to that guest.”

What a sea change. The last boss on the mother ship, Alex Wasilov, was a no-nonsense corporate fixer who was brought in by Intrawest to clean out the stables and streamline the operation. He didn’t know about skiing, snow or mountains. His job wasn’t about guest satisfaction or creating memorable experiences, it was about bringing order to a collapsed house of cards.

Just listen to what Fortress principal, Wes Eden had to say about him during the Jensen announcement. “We’ve come a long way in 15 months and we are extremely grateful for the effort and leadership of Alex.”

A long way indeed. The last time we checked in with the company’s progress, Wasilov had just turned the whole operation on its head. “For the first time in its history,” I wrote last summer, “Intrawest is giving full authority to one person at each resort. No more endless layers of senior managers sitting in Vancouver (or Whistler or Colorado) second-guessing a resort leader’s every move. No more edicts from above that result in sterile, cookie-cutter resort experiences (but save money). Whether success or failure – whether boom or bust – the buck now stops at the feet of the newly minted Resort Chiefs.”

I ended that column with a couple of questions. “Will the new Intrawest structure work? Or is this simply a fiendishly clever Darwinian design that will help the folk at Fortress get rid of the loser resorts and hang on to the top performers? Sadly, I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. Only time will tell…”

Yet the big questions for me were: Who was going to take over from Wasilov? And where was the ‘new’ Intrawest heading?

Well, time is telling us. And Fortress is showing its hand quite clearly. For make no mistake — Bill Jensen is Wes Eden’s man. And by choosing such a committed mountain operations guy as the new boss of their subsidiary, Eden and his Fortress brain trust are sending a very clear message to the marketplace.

“From my perspective, Jensen’s appointment is a really positive move,” says Whistler-Blackcomb (WB) resort chief Dave Brownlie.

Showing a level of confidence commensurate with his new ‘resort chief’ position, Brownlie seems to be blossoming as headman at WB. And he was uncharacteristically candid with me on the subject of his new boss. “It only confirms for me that the mountain resort business is back in the forefront where it belongs,” he told me. And then he laughed. “At least I don’t have to worry that we’re going to be transformed into a high-end spa or anything like that.”

So what does Jensen’s appointment mean in the bigger picture? I have my own ideas – and my ‘panel’ of experts mostly confirmed them. Here’s my scenario:

Fortress always had a plan for Intrawest. They bought the public company, took it private, and will run it that way for a few years while repositioning its core business for taking it public once again – at a much-inflated price of course. “After all,” said one of my experts, “that’s what those private equity guy do.”

But why appoint Jensen if all Fortress wants to do is re-package an old product? Explains McCarthy: “They needed a front man for this process and he needed to be new and he needed to be from a publicly traded company and Bill was there from Vail. Now Vail is a name that the whole of Wall Street knows. And that’s crucial for getting the money people to pay attention. So it totally makes sense.”

Indeed. Yet from my perspective, it leaves one of the industry’s most respected professionals, Hugh Smythe, out in the cold. Looking at both careers – on paper at least – it would seem that Smythe is easily as qualified as Jensen. But as McCarthy explains in light of the Fortress strategy: “Hugh could have been wearing a tutu, he still wasn’t going to be the guy.”

And he goes on to explain: “I love Hugh. He’s brilliant. I have worked for him, with him and competed against him and the guy is unbelievable. He is shy, not into public speaking, almost a recluse in some ways.” Because of those traits, he says: “The people who have worked with him know (just how special a person he is), but very few people in the industry know of his horsepower…”

Besides, adds Brownlie, it’s not a job that Hugh wanted. “His strength isn’t the corporate side of things. Hugh is motivated by creating – taking things to the next level.”

But there is more to it than that. And in this, both Brownlie and McCarthy agree. “If you believe that the Fortress plan is to eventually take Intrawest public again, then the Jensen appointment is a great move,” says Brownlie. “Over the last five to 10 years, Vail has grown tremendously in the public market. And Jensen (who is known as a very strategic thinker) played an important role there. So it adds a lot to the perceived value to have a guy like that running the company.”

So why doesn’t Smythe just retire? I mean, it can’t feel all that great to be sitting on the sidelines while all the big decisions are being made by younger men…

Not so, says Brownlie. “Hugh still has a heck of a lot to teach us,” he says. “Our job is to suck as much information out of him while he’s still on the mountain. Sure, he’s not the ‘boss’ anymore, but his new role as mentor is just as important. I hope he decides to stick around for a while yet.”

Stay tuned. Things are bound to get very interesting in the next few months…

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