Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART III] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”

Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART III] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”

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Making a Mountain Out of a Soul Hill [PART III] Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it? “BY A REAL JOURNALIST!”

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Part III of The Four Part Series “Will KSL’s Plans to Optimize Squaw Destroy it?  

Click on links to read PART I and Part II 

By Mike Wilson (the journalist, not the stunt man)

A five-foot-tall black-and-white photograph hangs behind Andy Wirth’s desk in his upstairs office at the Olympic Village Lodge. The photo shows the late Shane McConkey, a Squaw local, perched on the side of a snow-dusted rock wall like Spider-Man on K2s. 

Wirth says he feels a kinship with extreme skiers and values them as customers. But they’re not the people he’s most concerned about these days. If he were to hang a photo of those skiers, it might show a middle-aged dad carving wide turns on a blue-square trail with his grade-school-age kids.

“We are in the vacation business, period,” Wirth says. “We sell vacation experiences which put us on the clock 24 hours a day for whatever that customer is seeking.”

Andy Wirth | Squaw Valley's CEO

Wirth, 48, is a marketing guy, and it shows. He tends to hold forth when answering questions, and at times during our conversation he lapsed into hipster lingo that felt a little forced. At one point, his assistant called out to let him know he had a 2 p.m. meeting. Wirth asked where it was, and when she told him, instead of saying “Okay, great” or “Thanks,” he said “Score.”

He was also extremely knowledgeable and, at times, refreshingly candid. When I asked him about the decision to close Silverado last spring, he said, “We made a mistake. Absolutely that’s on us. Period. Lesson learned.”

Hosni Mubarak apologizes!

Wirth, a former VP at Steamboat, became Squaw Valley USA’s chief executive officer on Aug. 2, 2010, while Nancy Cushing was still in charge. His first act as CEO was to prepare the resort for sale to KSL. Within four months the deal was done. Nancy Cushing left and Wirth stayed. And he said he’s not going anywhere. It’s unfair, Wirth said, to assume that every private equity firm has a “five-year fuse.” 

  “We have involved, motivated, well capitalized ownership,” he said. 

Then again, everybody who has a Squaw season pass thinks he owns the place. It’s the best thing and the worst thing about Wirth’s job. Those guys who line up in the dark to get the first ride up the KT-22 chair on powder days? They’re Wirth’s most loyal customers. They can also be the most demanding.

Wirth gets that, but he’s not about to run Squaw on their wishes alone.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want anything to change. But there’s a lot of people who want it to change dramatically, and want it now,” he said, adding that his job is “to optimize all aspects of the performance of this operating company.” 

It’s safe to say the word “optimize” has not been uttered very often in the 62-year history of Squaw Valley. The question, for his hardcore customers, is whether optimizing Squaw will also spoil it.

STAY TUNED FOR PART IV, 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 mike@sptimes.com.

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