Hugh Smythe’s vision continues to shape Whistler

Try to imagine how different a place Whistler would be if Ralph Latham hadn't taken a skinny teenager under his wing, turning him from a rink rat into a ski patroller.

Latham was a volunteer patroller at Mt. Baker in the early 1960s when he convinced New Westminster's Hugh Smythe the ski slopes were more interesting than ice rinks. It was Latham who brought Smythe to Whistler Mountain in 1966, where he became a pro patroller at age 19, head of ski patrol at 21 and mountain manager a few of years later.

Those are impressive credentials for someone so young, and even though they are now relatively minor mileposts on Smythe's resume the opportunities he had at a young age resonate in Whistler today, where people like Dave Brownlie and Barrett Fisher have been promoted from within to top positions.

Smythe announced his retirement this week. Next Thursday he will step down as Senior Vice President of Intrawest Mountain Resorts. Personal reasons - maintaining good health and spending more time with family and friends - are the official reasons for the decision. One can only speculate on the timing.

A close friend has said of Hugh Smythe, "he's never been afraid to hire someone smarter than himself." Which may be true, but there aren't many people with more knowledge of the ski and mountain resort business than Hugh Smythe. The list of people who grew up under Smythe at Blackcomb and went on to run ski areas in other parts of the world speaks for itself: Roger McCarthy, David Perry, David Barry and Paul Skelton are just a few.

But it is Smythe's vision of Blackcomb, and to a significant degree Whistler as an international resort, that set the template that is still being followed today. This would be a different place if the Aspen Ski Company, Smythe's employer at the time, hadn't been awarded the rights to develop Blackcomb in October 1978.

The development of Blackcomb, and the way Smythe led the development, was critical to Whistler's evolution from a weekend place for Vancouverites to an international resort. He wasn't alone in forcing Whistler to take this step - Al Raine, Garry Watson, Pat Carleton and others working on the development of Whistler Village had a similar vision. But they also had to overcome some pretty ingrained skepticism, including that of Whistler Mountain founder Franz Wilhelmsen.

Franz was convinced that Whistler would never have any international appeal. How could a place in the Coast Mountains, with the weather we get, compete with places like Sun Valley? And why go to the expense of building lifts on the north side of Whistler Mountain when all the infrastructure was already in place at Creekside?

That played into Smythe's hands as he melded his experience working under Franz and a "we try harder" philosophy at Blackcomb.

"We were going to be a customer service organization from day one and that's what we felt our point of differentiation was: good food, good service, good experience," Smythe said in an interview in 2000. And how many people through the '80s loved Blackcomb simply because it wasn't Whistler Mountain? The contrast between the two operations was startling.

That focus on customer experience and a true understanding of what the mountain had to offer led to audacious moves like the pilfering of a T-bar from Smythe's previous employer Fortress Mountain. The installation of that lift opened up 7th Heaven on Blackcomb, broadened the ski experience and created the Mile High Mountain.

The story of Smythe meeting Intrawest CEO Joe Houssian at a Young Presidents' dinner is another legend. Intrawest's current state of limbo within the Fortress Investment Group is regrettable, but in 1986 Intrawest was Blackcomb's saviour, providing capital to update and expand the lift system and showing interest in Blackcomb's long-term operation, something the Aspen Ski Co. no longer had. It was Smythe who made contact with Houssian in January 1986. By July the deal was done.

It was also Smythe's vision that led Intrawest to acquire other mountain resorts. The criticism today - not entirely fair - is that Intrawest developed cookie-cutter villages based on the Whistler model, and that Whistler Blackcomb has often subsidized other Intrawest resorts. But Smythe's interests have always been in mountain operations and people. "I had some fairly simple philosophies," he said. "One was to hire good people." And Whistler has benefited from that philosophy.

Hugh Smythe has had opportunities throughout his career to work elsewhere, and turned them down to remain in Whistler. He will continue to live here, and to advise Intrawest. And Whistler will be better for that.


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