Part II of The Four Part Series “Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it?“ PART I can be read HERE
By Mike Wilson (the journalist, not the stunt man)
Alexander Cochrane Cushing, born into wealth in New York in 1913, bought into Squaw Valley in the late 1940s at the urging of Wayne Poulsen, a Pan Am pilot, outdoorsman and real estate speculator who had the drive to open a ski area but not the cash. The two were poorly matched: Poulsen, who was raising his family in the valley, wanted to develop the land slowly and lovingly, while Cushing, who was not so emotionally attached, just wanted to put up lifts and sell tickets. In 1949, Cushing ousted his partner, keeping the mountain and giving the valley real estate to Poulsen. Next, partly as a publicity stunt, he made a bid for the 1960 Olympics, even though Squaw at the time had only a single chair lift. He won the games by schmoozing the International Olympic Committee in Paris and showing members a large model of everything he would build if they went along with his quixotic plan.
The 1960 winter games turned Cushing into a legend, but they did not turn him into a great resort operator. He was never much interested in greeting customers or securing building and environmental permits. He was tremendously loyal to his top people, but those farther down the organizational chart sometimes remained strangers to him even after years on the job.
“He could be super charming, the guy. He could also be a real asshole,” said Hans Burkhart, the German-born lift engineer who worked with Cushing for decades and supervised the construction of almost everything you see at Squaw today.
Cushing practiced what Andy Wirth refers to as “mountain planning by arm-waving.” One day in the mid-1960s, Cushing gazed up the hill and told Burkhart he wanted a tram. You’d think this sort of project would require months of careful study and consideration. You’d be wrong.
“I want to go right up over the top of that cliff,” he said, pointing.
“Where do I go after that?” Burkhart asked.
“I don’t know. You figure that out.”
Burkhart did, and the tram opened in 1968. In the early years, riders were entertained by an accordionist. The main lodge, meanwhile, was “designed for a small, high-class crowd,” Sports Illustrated wrote, but “is overrun each weekend by hot-dog-munching herds.”
“It is Cushing, more than anyone else, who is responsible for the resort’s genteel, shabby-snobbish charm,” the magazine said.
Squaw turned a neat profit in those days, according to Cushing’s 1971 report to the board. In the 1969-70 ski season, it earned $815,000 on $2.18 million in revenue, and the next year it cleared $793,000 on $2.14 million.
But the money probably wasn’t as good as it could have been. Ski rentals and ski lessons are usually big profit centers, but for years Squaw contracted them out as concessions. When Burkhart suggested Squaw could do more with the food service, he remembers Cushing huffing, “We don’t know shit about food.” And during the first few decades of his ownership, Cushing never tried to develop Squaw into anything more than a regional attraction – never ventured into real estate, never added any significant retail to the base area.
“Alex only wanted to build ski lifts and sell lift tickets,” Burkhart says. Cushing liked to say he was in “the uphill transportation business.”
Cushing’s widow Nancy, who helped him run Squaw for 20 years, said those who criticize his customer service are missing the bigger picture. Cushing cared deeply about his patrons, she said. That’s why he built the Funitel and the tram and all those chair lifts. He was so dedicated to making Squaw more fun that for decades he plowed all of his profits back into it, never taking a dividend for himself or his family.
“His greatest pleasure was lifting people up the mountain and watching them ski down,” she said.
Still, it’s hard to read Cushing’s annual letters to his season pass customers without thinking he was a little cavalier about service. In them, he sounds like he is addressing chums he sees every week at the golf club, not customers whose business he values. His 1972 missive noted that he had tried to get his lift attendants to be a little friendlier.
“The attendants really did seem to take an interest in you (now and then),” he wrote.
Four years later, he tried a new way to make customers feel welcome: “Snow hostesses.”
“Seven beautiful girls … will greet each and every one of you. … These girls will be available for a chit-chat, know where the best skiing is, pass out lift maps, and generally be at the ready to be of service in any way they can (up to a point).” The snow hostesses didn’t last long.
Cushing, who died in 2006 at age 92, once wrote that Squaw “is not for sale and never will be. But in a letter to pass-holders after his death, Cushing’s third wife, Nancy, acknowledged the area was on the block.
“Although we welcome investors who have a long range view,” she wrote, “we don’t want to get mixed up with private equity firms who have a five-year fuse with an in-and-out real estate development mentality.”
Two years later, Squaw was sold to a private equity firm.
STAY TUNED FOR PART III, COMING NEXT WEEK
About the Author: Mike Wilson, a managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, is the author of “Right on the Edge of Crazy,” about the U.S. men’s downhill ski team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.