Andy Wirth’s Brave New World
[In case you missed this the first time around, here is a chat Robert Frohlich had witht he new CEO of Ski Corp, Amdy Wirth]
By Robert Frohlich
Like many ski resort operators, each fall morning Andy Wirth emerges into the open air of the resort to stick his ski pole into what amounts of moisture, if any, lay about, prodding the ground like a baker sticking a toothpick into a cake to see if it’s ready.
Sierra Nevada weather, if only early fall, is always cause for concern, but ski-resort operators are eternal optimists. Andy Wirth, newly appointed president of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., is no different.
This is Kong-sized news for Squaw Valley’s Homeric history. It’s the first time the resort’s 61-year history that it has not been under the direct leadership of the Cushing family. Wirth, a well-regarded, 46-year-old ski industry executive from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, follows Nancy Cushing, who retires after 16 years as president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Corp. Her husband, founder Alex Cushing, died in 2006 at age 92.
Long-time Tahoe journalist Robert Frohlich recently sat down with Wirth to discuss Squaw’s shortcomings and the changes that might be on tap for Tahoe’s most famous of ski resorts.
FROHLICH: Squaw Valley has the most loyal season pass holders, customers and employees in the country. They are each asking the same question – Who is driving this buggy? Who is in charge?
WIRTH: (Laughing) It’s safe to say it’s me. I wouldn’t have taken this position without complete and 100% unanimous support of the Squaw Valley Board of Directors. Nancy Cushing remains as chairman of the Board, but I’m running the show. I want to add that Nancy has been very generous and professional in handing over the reins. I answer to the Board, which is our Executive Team. Squaw Valley’s success will be determined on the success of our team to maintain a professional, accountable, responsible and dedicated effort to Squaw Valley’s future.
FRO: But Squaw Valley has always been run by an oligarchy, an authoritative, all powerful, supreme administration that micro managed its departments and dictated all final decisions.
WIRTH: Once again, a nine-person board will run Squaw Valley that I lead. I certainly respect the 60-year legacy and ownership of Squaw Valley that had the ability to safely move millions of people uphill. I’m looking and listening to the current state of operation. I welcome feedback from the staff. I want to be credible to our employees and pass holders. The door to my office is always open.
FRO: Squaw Valley has historically built a reputation for a five-star mountain and, well, a controversial and difficult ski corporation. The mountain operations are great, but below things constantly appear disorganized and mired in a lack of regard for its employees, guests and local community. A perfect example was last season when the resort couldn’t even throw a welcome home celebration for Olympic medalist Julia Mancusco who had just been an international walking billboard for Squaw Valley. They allowed, Northstar, its main financial competitor, to throw a party instead. What a public relations fiasco, but more so, what an insult.
WIRTH: One of the first things I’m doing is building a marketing, sales and public relations team that is going to build guest services and most importantly the customer experience. We are going to devote, develop and deploy new methods and be accountable and responsible to the guest. We are already in the midst of installing a new family terrain park as an example.
FRO: Historically, Squaw Valley has been a very guarded, reclusive administration. Alex and Nancy, as well as most upper management just were not visible. Employees didn’t even know what their bosses looked like. Are you going to be visible? Do you intend on getting involved in the community?
WIRTH: My title and position does not dictate who I am. You can expect me to be out on the mountain meeting customers and getting to know employees. I like loading lifts. I love instructing. I can park cars and even been known to bus cafeteria trays. I want to be involved. I was a volunteer fireman in Steamboat, a Rotarian and an executive director of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. I want to participate in the Squaw Valley community, exclusive of my day job.
FRO: Squaw Valley has typically maintained a penchant of placing more emphasis on improvements on the mountain over improvements off-slope. It sometimes seemed easier to order a D-9 Loader than employee hats. Coming from a primary marketing background will guests discover a much larger infusion of public relations, sales and marketing, and base additions?
WIRTH: Well, you always have to see what available capital is around, but there will certainly be a balance of capital dollars directed more evenly to an array of projects. On one hand, at present, Siberia Chair needs to be replaced. We’re already in the process of a pretty big renovation of the Olympic House. Many systems need to be updated, especially our Central Reservation System. Squaw Valley Ski Corp is not just about uphill lift transportation.
FRO: You’re obviously a pretty good skier. You’ve visited your fair share of legendary resorts around the country and worked at Steamboat, a great mountain. How do you rate Squaw Valley’s mountain and skiable terrain in the big picture?
WIRTH: The only other resort better than Squaw Valley is Whister/Blackcomb hands down. Squaw is an amazing place.
FRO: Your arrival, your hiring is a momentous, historic moment in Squaw’s history. There are a lot of expectations, a huge urging for change. Like any change there are challenges and growing pains. And it takes time. Are you here for the long haul? What are your goals?
WIRTH: My hiring represents a huge career opportunity for my family and me. And yes, I am here for the long haul. I’ve done my homework, and I’m prepared for the challenges ahead. Squaw Valley has soul and character. It’s a wonderful, beautiful mountain and it’s my new home. The resort has immense untapped potential for more greatness. I want to be a part of its future.