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The New Intrawest Order: W-B gets its very own resort chief

It’s been a long time coming. And some resort critics might argue it’s already too late.
The Old Intrawest Model

It’s been a long time coming. And some resort critics might argue it’s already too late. But a recent memo from the desk of new Intrawest COO, Alex Wasilov, has made it amply clear that a brand new vision is animating the corridors of this Vancouver-based Fortress subsidiary.

In a bold move that has industry watchers still shaking their heads in wonder, Wasilov has swept the old Intrawest corporate structure — with its multi-layered, Byzantine leadership arrangement and dog-eat-dog mentality — right into the waste bin. In its place he’s introduced a new, much simplified business model that suggests the company is finally realizing that its many resort holdings are not simply loss leaders for real estate sales but are indeed, important assets that can actually deliver value to their investors (and to their customers!).

Talk about changing the direction of the corporate battleship in one fell swoop…

Still, what fascinates me most are the rumours that this change in focus didn’t originate with Wasilov, but was actually dictated by his bosses at Fortress. Who would have thunk it? “Look — it’s simple,” says a veteran Intrawest watcher from the U.S. “Intrawest has made some pretty big mistakes in recent years. Where once they were the uncontested leader in the resort real estate development game, they now have to convince the market that they are in this for the long term. So it’s a good move to re-focus the company’s priorities. It should have happened years ago…”

But until now that was simply not part of the company’s operational DNA.

From the very beginning of Intrawest’s incursion into the ski resort market, it was obvious that Joe Houssian’s vision was deeply entrenched in the real estate development world from which he came. After all, he wasn’t a skier. Wasn’t much of a cold-weather guy by most accounts. Houssian was a hardcore developer/deal-maker who had only discovered that there was money to be made from skiing through his Young Presidents Association pal, Hugh Smythe. And the big money, Houssian was convinced, would come not from mountain operations but from mountain real estate development.

Consequently, the whole ethos of the company revolved around the real estate game. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. All you have to do is compare the sumptuous décor of Intrawest’s downtown offices in Vancouver to the overcrowded gerbil cages that serve as an excuse for offices at Whistler-Blackcomb to understand where the company’s priorities lay.

“That’s business,” some of you will counter. “It’s just the way things are.” And I don’t disagree. I’m just not sure that this approach served their mountain communities very well.

But all that’s water under the bridge anyway. For Wasilov’s memo clearly outlines just how much things have changed in the new Intrawest order. Consider the following excerpt from that memo:

“This new business model will be our formula for success and it will create a single point of decision-making authority at each resort. In doing so, we will empower a new generation of resort leaders (or ‘Resort Chiefs’) with a clear mandate for the development of a resort master plan and to oversee every aspect of the resort’s business. These individuals will be the President and Chief Operating Officer at each resort and they will be accountable for their overall financial results and for adding value to the resort as a whole.”

* For those few eccentrics like me who’ve made it their business to follow the ongoing soap opera at Intrawest, this paragraph is nothing short of revolutionary. Why? Because, for the first time in its history, Intrawest is giving full authority to one person at each resort. No more endless layers of senior managers sitting in Vancouver (or Whistler or Colorado) second-guessing a resort leader’s every move. No more edicts from above that result in sterile, cookie-cutter resort experiences (but save money). Whether success or failure — whether boom or bust — the buck now stops at the feet of the newly minted Resort Chiefs.

And with the new corporate focus on resort operations, it’s a liberating move that has energized a whole wave of young (and not so young) Intrawest veterans. But for Whistler-Blackcomb, it gets even better. For Wasilov clearly identifies this B.C. resort as the company’s ace-in-the-hole. Read on:

“Whistler Blackcomb represents a significant part of our overall corporate value. With the Winter Olympics coming in 2010 and the additional growth that we have the capability to drive we have asked Dave Brownlie, as one of our most senior leaders, to take on the responsibility as the Resort Chief at Whistler Blackcomb.”

So what does Brownlie think? “I’m really excited about the changes,” says the new W-B president. Lest you dismiss this appointment as just more marketing doublespeak, let me remind you that Brownlie is only the second president in Blackcomb’s 26-year history (until the memo, Hugh Smythe had a virtual chokehold on that title).

Continues Brownlie: “As you know, Intrawest (under the old regime) was expanding in all sorts of directions. We were aiming for the stars. And for whatever reason, those of us on the resort operations side found ourselves at the back of the bus,” He pauses. Smiles. “But with this new ownership we’re now back where we belong — at the front of the bus. It’s been confirmed to us: we are now core to the business.”

Another long pause. “But being at the front of the bus also means being way more in the spotlight. Are your shoes dirty? We’ve got to be even sharper than we were in the past. We have to be looking, and searching, and challenging ourselves on all levels Still, I see this as a huge opportunity for Whistler-Blackcomb and a huge opportunity for the community.”

Must be a little scary too — particularly in light of the uncertain economic climate looming on the horizon. “I won’t lie to you — it’s a big responsibility and it does keep me awake at night,” says Brownlie. “But it really is an exciting time. I mean, I’ve been living here for 18 years now. And I know just how truly special a place this is. I’m surrounded by great workers — passionate, hardworking folk like Doug Mac, Art DeJong and Dave Hennessey. We’ve got the Olympics coming up and construction for the Peak-to-Peak gondola is in full swing.” He takes a breath, chuckles, if just a little nervously. “And for the first time in many years, I get to focus all my energies on one place! Frankly, there is nowhere else I’d rather be right now than right here doing what I’m doing…”

For years I’ve argued that that to be truly successful, Whistler-Blackcomb needed an independent president/COO who could make decisions and effect change independently of the “suits” downtown. And now, it seems, our new Resort Chief has been given that mandate.

But what about Hugh Smythe? The only holdover from the old Intrawest regime — everyone else took the money and ran — it seems from Wasilov’s edict that the old resort warrior has been put on the shelf. But don’t take my word for it — interpret it for yourself. Here’s what the memo says about Hugh:

“I have asked Hugh Smythe to lead our efforts to create a centralized Resort Services division to focus on developing common platforms, processes and practices for Mountain Operations, Rental/Retail, Food & Beverage and Lodging.

“Hugh has been with Intrawest since the beginning and he is one of the most experienced and respected individuals in the industry. Hugh will leverage all of his expertise to align all of our resorts on common business platforms to support our vision and optimize overall financial performance. Reporting directly to Hugh in this role will be the leaders of each of the individual areas of our Resort Services division.”

Doesn’t sound to me like a particularly exciting job for the man who once ran the whole Operations Division for Houssian. No surprise then that according to some of his friends, he’s not particularly keen on the changes. “I haven’t spoken to him directly about it,” says Peter Alder. “But I hear Hugh is not happy at all. Things are definitely not right over there.”

Clearly this is a bit of a slap in the face for a man many consider to be one of the great resort visionaries of his time. And no one would blame him if he walked away from the whole mess. But don’t count him out too soon, warns his former protégé.

“Personally, I’m really happy Hugh is staying with the company,” says David Brownlie. “I mean, this is a guy with more resort experience than just about anybody else in the business. And we need to learn from him if we’re to move forward and thrive. Besides, Hugh is all about the mountains. And he’s an exceptionally inspirational leader. I’ve worked for him forever. And I can tell you — he still has a lot to teach us.”

Will the new Intrawest structure work? Will having a Resort Chief at Whistler-Blackcomb create stronger ties between the community and the mountain? Or is this simply a fiendishly clever Darwinian design that will help the folks at Fortress get rid of the loser resorts and hang on to the top performers? Sadly I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. Only time will tell…