Win­ter Park is los­ing its leader

Gary DeFrange is re­tir­ing af­ter two decades run­ning Den­ver-owned ski area.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

win­ter park» Gary DeFrange has spent at least 20 years of his life:

A) Run­ning a ma­jor ski re­sort. B) Run­ning a na­tional bank. C) Play­ing ac­cor­dion in a swing band. D) Col­lect­ing Corvettes. E) All of the above.

“I’m re­ally go­ing to start writ­ing some stuff down. The things I’ve learned and all the things I wished I knew when I started in busi­ness 47 years ago,” said DeFrange, 69, who at the end of March will re­tire af­ter two decades run­ning the Win­ter Park ski area.

The quick list: Hire the right peo­ple; ad­mit mis­takes and move on; don’t fix what isn’t bro­ken; and build re­la­tion­ships when you don’t need them.

“The time will come when you will need peo­ple,” he said, “and if you’ve al­ready got the re­la­tion­ships built, you are where you need to be.”

From a quar­ter cen­tury run­ning banks in Den­ver to guid­ing Den­ver-owned Win­ter Park through its most tu­mul­tuous times, DeFrange’s list of friends and sup­port­ers runs deep.

A day with DeFrange on his hill is more about per­sonal con­nec­tions than ski­ing. He goes be­yond a hello for his guests, lift op­er­a­tors, ski pa­trollers and the no­ble guides with the famed Na­tional Sports Cen­ter for the Dis­abled, where he has served for 38 years.

He asks lifties if they are get­ting up ski­ing enough. He lauds his chef, Chris “Chick” Cic­carelli, at the ex­pan­sive Lunch Rock restau­rant on Mary Jane, ask­ing for de­tails of the gad­getry in the am­ply equipped kitchen be­fore vis­it­ing the base­ment to see how the hardto-build eatery’s mil­lion-dol­lar wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion sys­tem is work­ing.

He meets Michael Mur­phy, a Par­a­lympic-cal­iber monoski racer, and asks about his fa­vorite race venue. Mur­phy’s guide for the day, Scott Ol­son, head race coach for the Na­tional Sports Cen­ter for the Dis­abled, says DeFrange spends a lot of time vis­it­ing when he’s on the hill.

“He’s al­ways ask­ing ques­tions,” Ol­son said. “We are re­ally go­ing to miss him.”

It’s those con­nec­tions — with the work­ers on his team to the busi­ness lead­ers, may­ors and gov­er­nors who have played over­sized roles in Win­ter Park’s evo­lu­tion — that are DeFrange’s legacy.

“He’s been re­ally good at what he does be­cause he takes time to de­velop re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple. He works at those friend­ships,” said Me­lanie Mills, the head of Colorado Ski Coun­try, the trade group that has counted DeFrange as a board mem­ber dur­ing the ski in­dus­try’s most trans­for­ma­tive decades. “He’s a con­sen­sus builder. He’s a great lis­tener. He’s a hands-on leader.”

Most ski-re­sort chiefs sparked their ca­reer at an early age — of­ten be­gin­ning as a ski pa­troller, in­struc­tor or lift op­er­a­tor and work­ing their way up to the corner of­fice — but DeFrange first skied in his late 20s at the long-lost Geneva Basin, on Guanella Pass.

He grew up in north Den­ver and still uses the old-guard pro­nun­ci­a­tions of street names: such as “PEAK-us” for Pe­cos, “showSHOWN” for Shoshone and “TEA-hone” for Te­jon. He was the son of mu­si­cians and worked on his ex­tended fam­ily’s north-side and East­ern Plains farms through­out high school and col­lege, play­ing an ac­cor­dion in a swing band ev­ery week­end, just like his dad.

He had climbed to the po­si­tion of pres­i­dent, chair­man and CEO of First In­ter­state Bank of Den­ver’s three-state re­gion when he started guid­ing blind skiers for the Na­tional Sports Cen­ter for the Dis­abled. He quickly joined the cen­ter’s board.

Giv­ing up bank­ing

When the late Jerry Gros­wold re­tired from run­ning the Win­ter Park ski area and Den­ver’s vol­un­teer Win­ter Park Recre­ational As­so­ci­a­tion be­gan its search for a new leader, they homed in on DeFrange, who had by then moved on to run First Na­tional Bank of Gree­ley.

The Grand County ski hill was not healthy in the late 1990s. But be­cause DeFrange had di­rected the big bank that kept Win­ter Park funded, he un­der­stood the re­sort’s trou­bled fi­nan­cial con­di­tion.

“I had to think about it,” DeFrange said. “I knew there were se­ri­ous is­sues and I was giv­ing up a 27-year ca­reer in bank­ing.”

As soon as he took the job in 1997, the bank­ing group that kept Win­ter Park vi­able an­nounced it could not ex­tend the debt-laden ski area any more credit.

In his first few months on the job, DeFrange re­al­ized there was a strong chance Win­ter Park could not stay open through the fol­low­ing sum­mer.

Luck­ily, his mar­ket­ing team had an idea. They of­fered a friend­sand-fam­ily four-pack ski pass for $800 and sold it in the spring — likely the first sea­son pass of­fered half a year be­fore the sea­son even be­gan. It also slashed nearly $500 off the price of a sea­son pass. It was a re­sound­ing suc­cess, fun­nel­ing sum­mer cash into the ski area and spark­ing what would be­come an in­dus­try-shift­ing sea­son pass war that to­day has moved the re­sort in­dus­try away from a re­liance on real es­tate de­vel­op­ment.

But those four-pack passes alone weren’t enough to save Win­ter Park, which sent $2 mil­lion in rent per year to Den­ver but got lit­tle back in rein­vest­ment in the ski area.

Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly lean snow year in the 1999-2000 sea­son, when vis­i­ta­tion fell by more than 80,000, DeFrange and Win­ter Park’s 25-per­son ad­vi­sory board pre­sented a sce­nario to then-Den­ver Mayor Wellington Webb: Quit tak­ing the $2 mil­lion a year, or sell the ski area the city opened in 1939 as a crown jewel of its grow­ing moun­tain park sys­tem.

Webb didn’t want to be known as the mayor who sold Win­ter Park, so he found an­other op­tion.

Af­ter a bid­ding war, Webb se­cured a long-term lease with In­trawest. The then-go­liath re­sort com­pany promised to pay rent and im­me­di­ately in­vest $50 mil­lion in the ski area in ex­change for de­vel­op­ing and sell­ing base-area real es­tate.

The com­pany has in­vested nearly $60 mil­lion, re­plac­ing ag­ing lifts, ex­pand­ing into new ski ter­rain and de­vel­op­ing 40 miles of trails to be­come the na­tion’s largest down­hill bike park and build­ing the Lunch Rock restau­rant atop Mary Jane. When it came time to re­coup that in­vest­ment, In­trawest’s first slope-side condos and a new re­sort vil­lage hit the mar­ket in the fall of 2008, just as the moun­tain real es­tate mar­ket col­lapsed into the na­tional hous­ing cri­sis that trig­gered the Great Re­ces­sion.

Res­i­den­tial projects

“That was a tough time for us,” DeFrange said.

The eco­nomic down­turn hurt In­trawest, which to­day is a shadow of the com­pany that se­cured the 76-year lease agree­ment with Den­ver 15 years ago. The hedge fund-owned com­pany nearly dis­ap­peared in 2009, un­able to ser­vice a mas­sive debt. It jet­ti­soned prop­er­ties but, since 2002, In­trawest has kept up the rent and in­cen­tive pay­ments to the city of Den­ver, which to­tal about $3.5 mil­lion per year.

Af­ter strug­gling buy­ers flooded the mar­ket with their In­trawest condos dur­ing the eco­nomic down­turn, the re­sort op­er­a­tor held off build­ing any­thing new. Only now is the com­pany close to an­nounc­ing new res­i­den­tial projects that could help buoy its in­vest­ment.

DeFrange has spent 20 years as Win­ter Park’s point man for the city of Den­ver, the com­mu­nity of the Fraser Val­ley and In­trawest. He is only the third re­sort boss at Win­ter Park since 1939, fol­low­ing Steve Bradley and Gros­wold.

“He has built and pre­served a cul­ture that ben­e­fits the guest, it ben­e­fits his em­ploy­ees, it ben­e­fits the city and the Win­ter Park, Grand County com­mu­ni­ties in a very pos­i­tive way,” said Bill Jensen, the ski in­dus­try vet­eran who once served as DeFrange’s boss as pres­i­dent of In­trawest and now co-owns and runs the Tel­luride ski area. “Gary is very even­keeled and an ex­cep­tional lis­tener. I found him thought­ful in ev­ery de­ci­sion he ever made and al­ways kept his eye on the big pic­ture.”

DeFrange’s con­nec­tions with the Den­ver and Fraser Val­ley com­mu­ni­ties eased not only the tran­si­tion to In­trawest, but the re­sort in­dus­try’s more re­cent ad­just­ment back to the ski ex­pe­ri­ence. “I think Win­ter Park — both the town and re­sort — were re­ally lucky hav­ing Gary come in as CEO when he did. He’s done a re­ally good job of op­er­at­ing the ski area but he also had the com­mu­nity at heart,” said Nick Te­ver­baugh, who spent 26 years as Win­ter Park’s mayor be­fore re­tir­ing in 2008. “There have been a lot of changes in the dy­nam­ics of the ski area and the com­mu­nity and it’s re­ally helped to have some­one like Gary in that po­si­tion be­cause he re­ally cared about the com­mu­nity.”

And the nearly decade-long break in build­ing might be a good thing. The vil­lage model — with re­tail on the ground floor and sev­eral lay­ers of condos up top, all com­ing on­line in sud­den bursts — is not as pop­u­lar as it once was, when In­trawest was the world’s top vil­lage-build­ing ski area de­vel­oper.

“The model has clearly changed. Not just for us but for the en­tire in­dus­try, and it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to watch that play out,” said DeFrange, who imag­ines new vil­lage de­vel­op­ment will in­clude small clus­ters of ski area condos and homes, not the hun­dreds-at-a-time model of the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I’ve been in­volved in a lot of busi­ness when I was at the bank and I know busi­ness mod­els change over time. The ski in­dus­try is in the process of go­ing through that. We are lucky. We can rewrite the book.”

DeFrange is quick to praise In­trawest. With­out that ini­tial in­vest­ment, the re­sort would not be vi­able, es­pe­cially not in an age when Vail Re­sorts fun­nels hun­dreds of mil­lions into the ski ex­pe­ri­ence to bol­ster the sale of its Epic Pass.

“Had In­trawest not stepped in, this re­sort would not be what it is to­day. It was on the down­hill slide and not be­cause any­one did any­thing wrong,” he said. “But the model for writ­ing a check for $2 mil­lion and not putting any­thing back into the re­sort just didn’t work.”

DeFrange counts cor­ralling Am­trak, Union Pa­cific, the city of Den­ver and In­trawest into re­viv­ing ski train ser­vice be­tween the re­sort and Den­ver’s Union Sta­tion among his vic­to­ries. Launch­ing in Jan­uary, nearly ev­ery seat on the week­end trains is filled. De­mand is well be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions, he said.

He can’t help but go greet vis­i­tors on the new sta­tion In­trawest built at the base of the ski area.

“I’ve had peo­ple stop me in the plat­form and say, ‘Man, this is great. We came in from Min­neapo­lis and we didn’t have to rent a car or get in a van,’ ” he said. “Peo­ple love tak­ing the train.”

In­trawest chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Sky Foulkes, a Colorado State Univer­sity grad­u­ate and for­mer ski pa­troller who ran Ver­mont’s Strat­ton Moun­tain ski area for seven years, will re­place DeFrange.

The shift comes as In­trawest is re­ported to be pur­su­ing a po­ten­tial sale with its hedge-fund owner Fortress In­vest­ment Group work­ing with in­vest­ment banks. DeFrange, not sur­pris­ingly, has lit­tle to say about that. He said he hasn’t been en­ter­tain­ing any po­ten­tial buy­ers and the city of Den­ver hasn’t re­ported any in­di­ca­tion of a change in the city’s con­tract with In­trawest.

DeFrange ex­pects Foulkes will over­see a re­vi­tal­ized ef­fort by In­trawest to fin­ish the base vil­lage, pos­si­bly start­ing by re­plac­ing the ag­ing Bal­cony House with a flag­ship ho­tel.

The re­sort has more than 900 acres of ski­able ter­rain in its per­mit boundary in the un­der­uti­lized Vasquez Basin, an area ripe for new chair­lifts and ex­panded ski­ing. And In­trawest has many parcels avail­able for de­vel­op­ment at the base.

But that’s an­other leader’s job now.

DeFrange plans to travel with his wife, Michelle, and do more than wax his col­lec­tion of five Corvettes, a sta­ble that in­cludes a clas­sic 1965 Nas­sau Blue con­vert­ible Stingray. He is go­ing to work on his golf game. Maybe do some writ­ing. If he skis, it will be for fun. It’s sur­pris­ing how many ex­ec­u­tives in the re­sort in­dus­try ad­mit they of­ten are too busy to ski.

“I’m not go­ing to miss this,” he said, slid­ing a ra­dio into his ski jacket be­fore leav­ing his of­fice for a few turns.

His de­par­ture fol­lows Chris Di­a­mond, who re­cently left the helm of the Steam­boat ski area af­ter more than 40 years in the in­dus­try, and is em­blem­atic of a chang­ing guard in the in­dus­try.

“It’s a loss of ex­pe­ri­ence that our in­dus­try is deal­ing with right now, as we see years and years, decades if not cen­turies of ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing in this in­dus­try lost as peo­ple like Gary re­tire,” Mills said.

Win­ter Park pres­i­dent and CEO Gary DeFrange puts on ski boots in his of­fice be­fore hit­ting the slopes at the Den­ver-owned ski area. DeFrange, 69, will be re­tir­ing at the end of March af­ter two decades run­ning the ski area. Pho­tos by Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

DeFrange chats with com­pe­ti­tion skier Michael Mur­phy and Scott Ol­son, race coach for the Na­tional Sports Cen­ter for the Dis­abled.

DeFrange, mak­ing a pow­der run at Win­ter Park, “has done a re­ally good job of op­er­at­ing the ski area,” says an ex-Win­ter Park mayor.

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