Winter Park is losing its leader
Gary DeFrange is retiring after two decades running Denver-owned ski area.
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.
“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.