Intrawest’s new era and Whistler

When Joe Houssian retired last fall, shortly after Intrawest shareholders agreed to sell their interests in the company to Fortress Investment Group, it was seen as the end of an era. Not only was the publicly traded company going private in the hands of one of the world’s largest investment and hedge fund firms, the people who built Intrawest and guided it from the time the decision was made in the early 1990s to concentrate on resorts were leaving.

Prior to Houssian’s retirement, Gary Raymond, who led the real estate division of Intrawest for years, had left. Other personnel changes further down the corporate ladder had also taken place.

All of this is quite normal; changes occur as companies mature, as new directions are taken and as individuals seek new challenges. What’s interesting from Whistler’s perspective is that the town’s largest employer, the company that was first to recognize the viability of the Whistler model, absorbed the lessons learned here and then exported that model to resorts across North America, is going through a change in culture. That change comes not just from the new parent company, Fortress, but from the gradual reduction of Whistler people on the Intrawest executive team.

The changes continued this week with the announcement that Andy Wirth has been appointed to the position of executive vice president sales marketing and chief marketing officer. Wirth is from Steamboat Ski Resort Corporation, the Colorado resort Intrawest acquired in March, and he will continue to work out of Steamboat. Like Michael Forsayeth, who joined Intrawest in May as chief financial officer, Wirth will report directly to Intrawest president and COO Alex Wasilov.

Wasilov joined Intrawest’s board of directors in 2005 and was appointed to the top job in April 2006.

All of these people are eminently qualified for their positions and presumably have been chosen to lead Intrawest in new directions as the company enters a new era. But Whistler, where the company’s roots are, may not retain its most-favoured-resort status within this new era.

And what is Intrawest’s new direction? In a January interview with Business in Vancouver Wasilov said the exposure of Whistler-Blackcomb during the 2010 Olympics will “fuel a significant amount of growth for us.” That growth, he added, included warm weather resorts.

A Globe and Mail story on Wasilov in February reported that with Fortress onside, Intrawest will be able to pursue a “robust” acquisition strategy that will strengthen returns in all three areas of its business: resort operations, management services and real estate.

“With our partner, we are always interested in new opportunities. If they become available, and are accretive and look like a good sound business investment, we have a partner that will move forward with us in a pretty rapid way,” Wasilov told the Globe and Mail.

Wasilov also told Business in Vancouver that there are no plans to move Intrawest’s head office from Vancouver.

But how does a company that is now owned by private investors in New York, that has ambitions of more resort acquisitions, and that has fewer and fewer Whistler people in key executive positions, fit within the Whistler community’s small-is-beautiful ideas, including the expressed goals of limited physical growth, local ownership and social sustainability? While much of Whistler has expressed its opposition to chain stores and big box retailers, the owner/operator of the asset that draws most people to Whistler is hardly a mom and pop outfit.

After the merger of Whistler and Blackcomb, and many times since then, the opinion has been put forward in this space that Whistler is fortunate that key people at the top of the Intrawest hierarchy live in Whistler or have their roots in Whistler. And that is still the case — Hugh Smythe, David Brownlie and Drew Stotesbury all have strong ties to the community and are members of the Intrawest executive team. But the Whistler influence within Intrawest is waning as the company grows and the parent company seeks greater returns. Brownlie’s responsibilities were recently increased to include all Intrawest mountain resorts in Canada. And the reshaping of the Intrawest executive team is expected to continue.

Whistler, the community, has identified its priorities and the strategies to achieve its goals. Whistler-Blackcomb is a key partner in many of those strategies.

The people who work for Whistler-Blackcomb are very much a part of the community and supportive of the community. But more and more the people they have to answer to are in other towns and have other priorities.

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