Valley Deep, Mountain High

Ned Hamilton's 40 years of business experience and life-long love of skiing ushers in a new beginning for Bolton Valley

by Mark Pendergrast

Photos: Jeff Clarke

On one warm, summer evening in 1998, Ned Hamilton attended a fund-raiser at Lyndon State College, where he ran into Charlie Bucknam, the president of Lyndonville Savings Bank. A Montpelier native, Hamilton lived part-time in Vermont at his beloved Joe's Pond cottage. He was the owner of Peter Glenn Ski Shops, a chain that started in Vermont and migrated to Florida and elsewhere.

As they sipped cocktails, Hamilton naturally asked Bucknam how things were going with Bolton Valley. "I had followed the story," Hamilton recalls, "but I had no interest in getting involved." The troubled ski area ran into financial difficulties under original owner Ralph Deslauriers, who was forced to declare bankruptcy in late 1996. Then Mason Dwinell had taken an option on the property and tried to run it over the winter of 1997/1998. It had been an utter disaster, in large part because Dwinell didn't own the base lodge, and people had nowhere to change their ski boots. As the major lienholder, Lyndonville Savings then had to figure out what to do with the mountain property.

The Hamiltons

Bucknam told Hamilton it looked bleak. No one had come forward to buy the ski area, so it looked like the bank would have to sell off the property piecemeal. That upset Hamilton, who had run a Peter Glenn shop at Bolton in the late '60s and had fond memories of the area. "Before you really do that," he told Bucknam, "call me. "That was my mistake," Hamilton, 66, jokes now. "Charlie did get in touch later and told me what it would take." He contacted friends and business associates, who, on Dec. 31, 1998, closed on Bolton Valley for $2.3 million.

During the first three-quarters of 1999, the new Bolton owners poured another $2.5 million into renovations. The biggest initial obstacle Hamilton and his team faced was that they didn't own the sports center and base lodge, which Deslauriers had sold off in desperation to the Rolling Hills Association, whose principal owner was a tough bargainer named Paul Gale.

To clean up the mess, Hamilton lured John Biondolillo away from the Northfield Savings Bank, making him president of the newly renamed Bolton Valley Holiday Resort. Biondolillo, 37, regards it as just one more turn-around challenge. A decade ago, he ran the troubled Midland Bank in Kansas City. He turned the bank around in 18 months, and is confident he can do the same at Bolton Valley. He and Hamilton negotiated a 50-year lease of the lodge and sports center.

"This year is about taking care of 30 years of deferred maintenance," Biondolillo says. "We are establishing our credibility." To supervise the work, Hamilton rehired Dan Izor, who began working at Bolton in 1979. "Dan knew where every blade of grass and tree branch was," Hamilton says. "I knew I had to have him on board as the leader on the mountain."

Izor is thrilled and relieved. "I didn't know what was going to happen. Now I'm tremendously excited. It's a dream come true for me." Thanks to the work Izor has supervised, the condos and lodge now sparkle with a face lift, along with new furniture and decor. Infrastructure invisible to the casual observer has also been put in place, such as underground power and fiber optics communications, along with trail maintenance.

"I thought Dad was out of his mind when he said he was buying Bolton," son Peter Glenn Hamilton, president of the namesake ski shops, admits, "but I think his odds of succeeding are quite good, actually. At an age when most men are retiring, my father is just starting a major new enterprise. He has a certain Midas touch, and he has the enthusiasm to make it work."

"He's a visionary," says Jim Parnell, a manufacturers' rep who has known Ned for 25 years. "He's very personable, friendly, quick to laugh, but he's also a workaholic. He and his wife, Carolyn, are a real team, always working together." Carolyn has planned much of the format and style of Bolton Valley Holiday Resort.

"Ned and I work in side-by-side offices in Florida," Carolyn says, "but we don't get in each other's way. We might not talk to each other all day. He does the marketing, banking relationships, and strategic planning, and I do merchandising, store design and layouts."

John Savage, who works for Head Ski Co., is another long-time admirer. "Ned has his finger on the pulse of the industry, and he just gets better with age. He has a keen business sense, deep knowledge, and a willingness to listen."

Fred Bertrand, former CEO of National Life of Vermont, grew up admiring Hamilton, who is a few years older. "He was always a daredevil, competitive skier." When Bertrand was a high school senior, he broke his ankle on the Stowe slopes the day Hamilton broke his leg there. "Ned has always been at the edge and he has always survived. He has a tremendous appetite for taking on challenges that would be daunting to most people, but he hires good people and keeps his hands on." The men are summer neighbors at Joe's Pond, and Bertrand is so confident in Hamilton's ability that he has invested in the new Bolton Valley.

John Biondolillo

John Biondolillo turned around the troubled Midland Bank in Kansas in less than two years. The new president of Bolton Valley thinks he can do the same for the resort.

Hamilton learned courage in the face of adversity as a child. In 1938, when he was 5, his mother couldn't come home from the hospital after giving birth to her second child. At first undiagnosed, her mysterious paralysis was due to multiple sclerosis. "She had a real positive attitude and always had optimism that there would be a cure," Hamilton recalls, "but of course there wasn't." His father, an investment accountant for National Life Insurance, also showed stamina, doing a lot of the cooking and household chores.

Early on, Ned showed indications that he would literally rise above his situation. When he was a page in the Legislature during World War II, he won a model airplane contest and a two-hour flying lesson as a prize. He was hooked. He worked for two weeks haying on a local farm to earn another lesson, and he developed a life-long love of flying. He still gets into the air nearly every day.

By high school, he was a bright student, but he didn't apply himself to academics as much as football and the ski team. He grew to 6' 2". "Everyone on the team had to ski all four events -- downhill, slalom, jumping, and cross-country. I was never much for cross-country, but I loved jumping."

After graduation from high school in 1950, Hamilton joined the Marines, serving two years at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Although he had planned to attend the University of Vermont, Hamilton ended up going to Boston University in 1952, at the urging of one of his best friends. He graduated in 1956 with a degree in business administration, then took a job with New England Mutual Life Insurance as a group life and pension consultant based in Atlanta.

After a year and a half in the South, however, Hamilton missed winter and skiing, and jumped at the chance to transfer with N.E. Life to Vermont's old Gould Agency. Though it was based in Burlington, Hamilton moved back to Montpelier, where he serviced Washington County and began heading the instructional ski program at Vermont College. In 1957, he also bought the A.D. Farwell Co., a venerable men's clothing store built in 1900.

Discouraged with the caliber of the women's ski equipment available in local stores, he tried to persuade a Montpelier sporting goods store to replace its stock. "I told him that if he didn't do something, I would put in a shop in the basement of my men's shop." The owner shrugged him off.

In 1958 Hamilton started a ski shop in the basement of Farwell, naming it the Peter Glenn Ski Shop, after his 1-year-old son. Two years later he quit his insurance job, before opening a ski shop at Mad River Glen, where he often skied, in 1964. The next year he bought the first of many company airplanes.

Peter Glenn outgrew the Farwell basement, moved across the street, and then to the Barre-Montpelier Road. By 1970, in addition to the Berlin location, there were Peter Glenn shops in Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, Glen Ellen (now Sugarbush North), and in Stowe.

Lodging

Ned Hamilton and other investors have pumped $2.5 million into improvements and rennovations at Bolton Valley Holiday Resort.

That year, at the age of 37, Hamilton nearly died. He had tremendous chest pains and got to the hospital just in time to save his life. He had had a pulmonary embolism. The blood clot in his lung probably resulted from his two broken legs, both from skiing accidents. His doctor put Hamilton on the blood-thinner coumadin and told him not to ski or fly airplanes any more. He stopped both -- for a while -- and decided he needed a change of life. "I already owned a small condo in Florida and decided to see if there was potential there for the ski business."

In 1975, Hamilton opened his first store in Boca Raton. Everyone thought he was out of his mind, but Hamilton knew there were a lot of transplants in Florida who missed skiing. "We had to sell the concept of the sport before the equipment," he recalls. He helped form local ski clubs, worked with travel agencies to get special package deals, and started the South Florida Ski Show, renting booths to major ski areas. It worked. In 1977, when a fire destroyed the underinsured Peter Glenn shop in Berlin, Hamilton sold his Vermont outlets and concentrated on Florida, returning to Vermont with a store seven years ago.

He has grown the Peter Glenn franchise to 23 stores in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, California, Alaska, and Vermont. At a time when the rest of the ski industry has been flat or declining, his business has been booming. Biondolillo observes, "Ned is an icon in the ski industry. He's larger than life, and people want to be around him and follow him. He exudes confidence even when things look dark sometimes."

Hamilton admits he's not looking for a profit for the first three years at the new Bolton Valley, yet no one can come away from talking with him with any doubt that he will turn Bolton into "the best little resort in the world," as he puts it. Aiming to take the intimidation and hassle out of skiing, Hamilton's pet project is to build a village of rustic homes, along the lines of log cabins. "I want people to get picked up by a warm van at the Burlington airport, whisked the 16 miles to Bolton Valley, and walk into a real Vermont experience in their little mountain home."

Peter Glenn Ski Shops

"We had to sell the concept of the sport before the equipment," Ned Hamilton says of his first Florida Peter Glenn in 1975. Today there are 23 shops in six states. Clockwise from top left: Mesa, Ariz.; Tampa, Fla.; Anchorage, Alaska; and Tucson, Ariz. (Photos courtesy Peter Glenn)

There'll be club racing and children's programs, but no big-time races, no superfast skiers intimidating the casual weekend warrior. Bolton aims to be a true four-season, family resort where you can "leave your car and find your family." The key is to make it affordable, with reasonably priced food. Weekend lift tickets will be $39 -- season's passes, $449.

Bolton will offer 51 downhill trails covering 168 acres, an extensive cross-country system, snowshoeing, tubing, and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Hamilton even plans to offer a trail system to the much-maligned snowmobilers. "The biggest source of litigation for ski resorts is when skiers run into the area's snowmobile taking a toboggan up the trail for an emergency. So how do we get the snow machines up there safely? I want to offer the VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) people a deal: If they build the trail to the top of the mountain, they can use it, but so can we." It's the sort of good business sense and neighborliness that have made Hamilton a success. "I'll spend as much time as necessary in Vermont to make it happen," Hamilton says, clearly redirecting much of his energy back to his home state. He will also promote Bolton Valley from his ski shops and through Peter Glenn Ski Tours. The brochure lists Bolton Valley alongside Steamboat, Telluride, and Vail. "We have a quarter-million people on our mailing lists," Hamilton says, and they will all hear about Bolton Valley Holiday Resort.

Mark Pendergrast is a free-lance writer living in Essex Junction. His latest book is "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World" (Basic Books, 1999).