High times and heavy thinking 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - On Top of the world Kirby Brown, general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola leads by example when it comes to operating a business with a social conscience.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • On Top of the world Kirby Brown, general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola leads by example when it comes to operating a business with a social conscience.

Full disclosure on this one: I'm a Kirby Brown fan. I like the companies he's worked for, I like what he's done for each, but most of all I like the ethics he brings to every endeavour, large or small. I see it often as a fellow board member at Playgroundbuilders.org, where his passion for delivering play in war-torn areas and empowering young women in patriarchal societies is always motivating, but the planks he stands steadfastly on in other ventures are equally impressive. Kirby is the most socially conscious business guy I know, something business in general could use more of, and which inspires me to act likewise when and where I can. Nevertheless, when you're hanging with Kirby, there always comes a point where you realize you could be doing more.

Take the morning I spent with him a couple weeks back. There he was, two months into his new gig as general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola, on our two-and-a-half hour hike up a heinously steep "unofficial" trail (as is typical in the corridor, Squamptonian hikers and erstwhile Grouse Grinders know all about this unmarked route), bending occasionally to snatch up litter and stuff it into his backpack. And not just errant bits of granola wrapper accidentally loosed from hungry, fumbling hands... no, Kirby also stooped for those little white blots that otherwise conscientious people see fit to leave on the landscape when they do their business adjacent to a trail. Like I said, impressive. As was his reaction when I jokingly suggested the ubiquitous poop-and-scoop satchels available around the trails be re-labelled dog-and-people bags. "That's actually a good idea," he said, clearly pondering the possibilities.

Collecting trash on a relaxing weekly hike with his two dogs wasn't just caretaking or knee-jerk environmental stewardship for Kirby, but true yeomen's work that may date to his early career in the tourism sector. Beginning as a cleaner at Whistler Blackcomb, he'd worked his way up to director of Experience Development and Delivery; next came President and Chief Operating Officer at Panorama resort; a range of other projects; and finally, two years as CEO of the Whistler-based activity company, The Adventure Group. A pretty solid CV for a guy with a bag full of soiled TP, a résumé built around abundant listening skills manifest not only in his taking my humourous asides seriously, but in stopping, as we intersected various other trails, to note — without the slightest disdain — magic-marker modifications made by hikers clearly unsatisfied with the Sea to Summit Trail's direction and distance signage. "Some people might see this as vandalism," allowed Kirby, making notes in his head. "But it's actually valuable stuff — crowd-sourced information we can learn from."

Like Kirby's optimism, the first hour of the climb had been relentless, the vertical sections spiced up by rock-and-root scrambles, some with fixed ropes. Like the rest of the trail network here, it's "good product," one reason for the gondola's runaway success in its first year. Not only has the place proved immensely popular as a walkabout-on-high draw for sightseers, but medium-impact adventurers are descending in droves: a big day now sees 600 hikers. This led me to wonder, as we'd intersected the preexisting Shannon Falls trail to embark on a several-kilometre side-trip south, why Kirby finally acquiesced to the Gondola's not-so-secret headhunting mission for him. Knowing his penchant for engaging a challenge, a business running at near-capacity, that can't build parking areas fast enough, seems a different animal. His explanation, however, how it might pose an even weightier challenge than a struggling business, repositioning, or rebranding project.

"It's about managing success properly," he'd related, "not being starry-eyed and making decisions that aren't well thought out. We have an incredible team here, and everyone is on board with making the right moves at the right time."

And that, he'd noted, as we made our way through patches of salal and the occasional fern garden, included inculcating "Seventh-generation Thinking" with all employees. The idea is generally accredited to the Great Law of the Iroquois, which holds that decisions today must be based on what will benefit the children seven generations into the future. For a tourism attraction that means anything from engaging community at every turn, to not allowing it to get stale, to moving toward full sustainability, to embedding it in a bigger local and regional economic picture. It seemed to me, however, that such noble notions were in direct conflict with forces acting around him.

We'd crossed several rock benches that overlooked the rejuvenated but now re-threatened Howe Sound, pausing longest on a final spacious one but a few hundred metres from the upper station. From there, it was clear that while the gondola gets top marks for a new attraction, economic driver, ecotourism flagship, and vehicle for hoisting people to the mind-expanding alpine world, the province of British Columbia — and some Squamish-based interests — get a huge fail for sullying those views and undermining the multi-year, multi-generation efforts to recover this natural treasure of the South Coast. That can't sit well, I'd opined, and the look Kirby offered in return said it all: diplomacy may be his forté, but suffering the fools of industry and politics is never easy to swallow.

We'd finished our hike with a beer on the observation deck — with me ecstatic to find a decent, eponymous microbrew instead of the swill on offer at most tourist attractions — and Kirby happily dished on what was on the horizon. Like a new Sea-to-Sky Guides-operated Via Ferrata (it opened on June 19), that would be unlike anything else in the region. Like considering partnerships with Quest University that might trade access and potential ecotourism research "questions" (the linchpin around which Quest's graduating student projects are built) for employee continuing-education opportunities. As we headed for our gondola download, Kirby emptied his pack of trash into the appropriate bins before getting in line with other folks who'd hiked up with their dogs and, like us, were now returning them to sea level on a download-only "Buster the Dog" pass, a commitment to hikers that makes the Sea to Sky Gondola the only amenity of its kind on the South Coast to allow dogs anywhere near lift, and one bound to keep dogs dragging their masters back — proof that Seventh-generation Thinking might not only be for people.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.


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