High on the Mountain

Mad River Glen knows what it is ... and what it isn’t

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Jamey WimbleJamey Wimble, president and general manager of Mad River Glen, is a hometown boy who respects the Waitsfield ski area’s mission and history.

When Jamey Wimble was a student at Harwood Union High School, if somebody had suggested that he would be working in the Mad River Valley when he grew up, he would have laughed and said that he doubted that very much. Yet here he is, at age 45, living and working in Waitsfield, his home town. And he loves it.

President and general manager of Mad River Glen, a ski resort notorious for carving its own trail since it opened in January 1949, Wimble has no regrets. He knew early on, he says, that he would be in a career connected to sports. “Once I realized that athletics — soccer!” he quickly corrects — “once I realized that soccer was not going to be my life, I wanted a business involved around a sport.”

After high school, Wimble studied ski area management at Lyndon State College, graduating in 1987. He completed an internship at Mad River that winter and stayed on for the following two winters, spending his summers working construction jobs in the Valley.

In 1989, he went to work at Hunter Mountain, and the next year, he was hired by Sugarbush, where he spent five years as snowmaking supervisor.

In 1995, just after the Mad River Glen Cooperative had purchased the mountain from longtime owner Betsy Pratt, Wimble was approached to come back as assistant general manager. “You know how that title thing goes,” he says. “I came in as assistant general manager, but my function was mountain manager — in charge of everything outside.” He started January 1, 1996.

He was named general manager in 2001, when Bob Ackland, one of the people who had formed a group to buy Sugarbush from American Skiing Co., left Mad River to become president of Sugarbush.

“I think that one of my greatest professional accomplishments was turning Mad River over to Jamey when I left,” says Ackland, now retired and living in Waitsfield. “I felt very confident that the mountain was in great hands.” After a pause, he continues. “In some ways I wish he had gone with me when I took over Sugarbush.”

Wimble was eager for the challenge. “One of the biggest things that brought me here,” he says, “is that Mad River had been maintenance-neglected for about 20 years, so the opportunity was to be able to take a mountain that needed a lot of work done to it and build it up.

Sharon CrawfordSeven employees work full time, year-round; in winter, the number expands to about 185. Sharon Crawford, the office manager, is one of the full-timers.

“Revenue-wise, in the early stages, one of the main focuses was the deferred lift maintenance. That was what I focused on, because if you’re not skiing at Mad River, Mad River’s not going to fly.”

Tougher in those early days was finding a system whereby the newly minted board of the nonprofit co-op and the staff could thrive, an issue that haunts most nonprofits, he says. “Then in the early stages of the co-op, nobody knew their function. The staff knew how to run the mountain, but the communication between the staff and the board went through some growing pains. I would say for a good three to five years there, the board was really trying to identify its role and its function with the mountain.”

One operational issue stood out, too, says Wimble. “We really noticed the demographics of the mountain and realized there were no kids skiing here. Eric Friedman, the marketing director now, and I came on pretty much at the same time and, looking around, said, ‘OK, where do we start?’”

The first thing they did was start a program that allowed kids 12 and under to ski free. “The program really took off,” says Wimble, “and with that, it also made our ski school take off; we formed kids’ programs. You never forget where you learned to ski.”

They also took a long, hard look at the mountain’s well-known slogan, “Mad River Glen/Ski it if you can,” which had come into play in the early 1980s when Pratt owned the mountain. “No doubt it scared people a bit,” says Wimble. “We kicked it around pretty heavily, but that slogan is out there and known worldwide; those bumper stickers are out there; so for us to try to launch a marketing campaign and spend a lot of money and re-convince people that it’s a beginner’s mountain was not the way to go at all.”

The truth is that Mad River accommodates skiers of all stripes, including novices and beginning intermediate skiers at its time-honored Birdland area. In our 1986 feature in Business Digest on Betsy Pratt, she said the slogan came about as a reference to the fact that the mountain makes snow only below the “flurry line,” and snow wasn’t always guaranteed.

Pete DeFreest and Nate MartinTwo years ago, Mad River did a complete historic rebuild of its original single-chair lift that retained the original towers on new foundations. Even the new drive station is housed in a duplicate of the original building. Pete DeFreest (left) does vehicle maintenance, and Nate Martin is the mountain manager.

That isn’t Wimble’s recollection, but, he adds, “It’s also part of the co-op bylaws not to expand snowmaking past 2,300 feet, which is basically the bottom half.”

The mountain has five lifts, but only two main ones, and in 1998, a major rebuild was completed on what’s called the Sunnyside double. “We were looking at a $600,000 capital expense,” says Wimble, and that was a huge ticket item for Mad River.

“Fortunately, the year after, we had a good winter and also turned to our shareholders at that time. We sold a bond; 40 shareholders financed about $150,000 of the project, and we just paid that back last summer.”

The next big maintenance challenge was the original, single-chair lift built in 1948. Two summers ago, the mountain did a complete historic rebuild of it — about a $1.7 million project. “We ran a capital campaign and raised the entire amount.” This was done through a partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, in which contributors could make tax-deductible donations for the single-chair program to the Preservation Trust.

The restoration spruced up and kept the original towers and put them on new footings. A new, electric drive station sits in a building that’s a duplicate of the old one. “We re-created the original grand opening from 1948, which included the governor (who had a conflict, but arrived later in the day) and the current and 1948 Miss Vermonts,” says Wimble.

When he’s not on the mountain, Wimble hikes and bikes. Five years ago, he reconnected with Susan O’Brien, his high school sweetheart. They married a year later. She manages Valley Dental in Waitsfield. “We really enjoy being at home,” he says. He likes working with his hands. “With my construction background, I’m always building something there,” he says.

This is true at the mountain as well. He says part of the fun of working there is that he and all the managers are hands-on people. “We’re as tight as a family. One of the main things in this business is to keep an eye on everything. It’s one of the things I enjoy about my job — I don’t feel like I have just one job. I can be as close as being involved with my mountain manager dealing with why a lift is not running, to the point where I’m doing a 20-year capital plan.”

There are seven full-time, year-round employees; in winter, the number goes up to about 185.

Unlike most of the larger ski areas, Mad River does not have an aggressive summer program, only a summer youth camp and occasional barbecues. This year for the first time, the summer camp numbers are down, causing some concern for what’s coming this winter.

“Last winter was pretty much a dismal year for us,” says Wimble. “Christmas week vacation we were completely shut down, with absolutely no snow. We had decent skiing prior to Christmas, then the temperature went up into the 60s three days straight, and we were back to zero.”

He won’t have a handle on how things might go this winter until Oct. 15, when pre-season sales are finished. “That’s the first indicator we get on how things are going,” he says. “No doubt we have a really good core group of skiers who are going to pretty much be here no matter what, but it is those other people where our concern is. We were very conservative on price increases this year, because we didn’t want to hit people too hard.”

He refers again to the summer camp numbers’ being down. “It’s certainly a concern of ours at this point, but if it snows, I don’t think it’s going to matter.” The mountain averages about 250 inches of snow a year, and “when the snow is good, you just can’t beat it out here,” Wimble says. “We can literally go from being shut down to being in full operation in a day.”

Through it all, Mad River has kept its independent reputation intact. The mountain is a mecca for Telemark skiers, hosting the North American Telemark Festival there annually. It is also one of only three ski resorts in the country that don’t permit snowboarding, and although snowboarders account for 25 percent to 30 percent of all lift tickets sold in the United States, the ban suits Mad River. When the co-op took over the mountain, the shareholders voted more than 75 percent in favor of maintaining the ban.

Wimble laughs as he recalls a story Friedman related that epitomizes the “spunky mountain” identity. “Eric went to a convention a couple of years ago, and in one of the sessions, the presenter said, ‘If you have more than five layers of management, you have too many.’ Eric asked, ‘How about one?’” •