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There were only a couple of hundred people living at Alta Lake when Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. was founded in 1960 by a group of Vancouver businessmen keen on developing Whistler Mountain for skiing. Vancouver investors provided a lot of enthusiasm and some money to get the company going, but not the full $800,000 needed before orders could be placed for lifts and the real construction could start. At the 11 th hour it was Montreal’s Power Corp. that bought the last $400,000 worth of shares needed to get Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. off the ground.
In 1986, when Hugh Smythe convinced Joe Houssian to look at buying the Aspen Ski Company’s 50 per cent stake in six-year-old Blackcomb, Intrawest was an urban real estate development company. The Blackcomb investment came with the right to develop 7,500 beds on the 250-acre Blackcomb Benchlands, but importantly, Houssian and Intrawest realized the real estate only had value because of the skiing on the mountain.
After a few years running Blackcomb, and then acquiring Panorama and Mont Tremblant in the early 1990s, Intrawest looked at North American demographics – a wealthy baby boomer population approaching middle age and looking for quality leisure time with their families – and decided to jump whole hog into the mountain resort business, and abandon urban real estate.
Others had the same idea, as the ’90s were a frantic period that saw many of the major ski areas in North America acquired by a handful of companies. At the same time, a number of small ski areas couldn’t compete with the high-speed lifts and base villages that had become the norm, and required millions in investment, and went out of business.
Intrawest, along with Vail Resorts and the American Skiing Company, was one of the major players in this period of consolidation. All three are public companies, but they had different philosophies, different levels of expertise and varying abilities to finance deals – a fact perhaps overlooked by the stock market, which often saw the companies as equals, at least as far as investment risks.
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