Brian Heon of Peak Resorts, GM of Wildcat Mountain, NH, talks to us about working from the ground up – from lift operations to the role of GM.
“When my daughter Elsie was four years old, she went missing at the ski resort one Saturday morning. My wife Megan was freaking out looking for her, even to the point of scouting out the riverbed off of the lodge entrance. She had the intercoms calling out continuously for Elsie. Motherly instinct completely possessed her body. She was quite another person while extraordinarily upset.
Meanwhile, our daughter’s safe and warm in Wildcat’s restaurant kitchen with her little apron and name tag, helping Iva, our Food and Beverage Director make chocolate chip cookies. When she was found, Megan comes running in, scoops her up in relief, and Elsie is waving her off like, ‘Mom, mom, I’m baking cookies. Let me do my job.’
Both of my daughters, including 10-year-old Gretchen, love working with Iva. Iva’s got them their own chef’s knives and special gloves to use so they don’t hurt their fingers. She’s taught them how to handle hot foods. They even work the cash register in the cafeteria. If Gretchen sees a line, she’ll open a cash register. Back in December an employee comes to a register and gives a cashier his pass to get the food discount. The cashier had no idea how to apply the discount. So Gretchen leans over and says, ‘You just gotta hit F12 and swipe their card this way, but not the other way because the mag strip has to be towards you.’
My wife Megan is third generation from a family of ski industry Russells. Her grandfather Colby Russell ran Squaw Mountain, ME, moved to Loon Mountain as GM in the 1960’s and then ran Mittersill into the ’70s. Her dad, Maynard Russell, is the Eastern Sales Director for Skytrac, a long time lift inspector, ran Suicide Six and Mt Tom, Vermont, and recently retired as Co-Chair of the ANSI B77 Committee. Bringing the kids to the resort on weekends is how she grew up; you hang out at the resort on weekends, and when there is no school, you ski.
Megan also hired me, landing me my first job in the industry in lift operations 21 years ago. Read on..
Right out of college I worked at Walt Disney World for about a year. I had done an internship at Disney and had taken their management classes and was in water park management. I would train and schedule lifeguards and teach classes. One was called ‘Training The Trainer.’ This experience is what got my foot in the door for the ski industry.
Working with Disney was awesome, benefits were great, but I had to live in Florida. I missed skiing. I grew up skiing and skied competitively in college. I knew I wanted to work at a ski resort. I had a friend growing up that worked for Mt. Rose outside of Reno. So I packed up my car, quit my job and headed for Reno. Being all the way out West, I had never been through Utah, and I knew the Olympics was going to be in Salt Lake City. I thought that would be cool to work for the Olympics so I drove to Salt Lake and ended up checking out Park City. When I drove through, I thought this is pretty awesome. You have The Canyons, then two miles further you have Park City, a badass little ski town and then Deer Valley. I’m driving around and seeing all this, drove up to the Canyons and see a sign ‘Human Resources.’ American Ski Company had just bought The Canyons and was doing a ton of construction. I pull into the parking lot of HR trailer. I had never seen the Wasatch mountains and was in awe. A guy comes up to me and says, ‘Can I help you?’ I respond ‘I don’t know, I’m just checking out the town, this looks awesome, do you have any job postings?’ The guy says ‘What‘ve you done before?’ I said well I worked at Disney for a while and went to college. He hands me his business card, and he says to go down the road to the Hampton Inn, tell them I sent you they’ll give you a room for the night. Come back tomorrow so I can talk to you more. His name was Tim Harris, and he was the VP of Mountain Operations. It was a very random meeting in a muddy parking lot. I get to the hotel I didn’t have to pay for, and I am thinking, I am going to talk to this guy in the morning and I don’t have a resume and that I should probably dress up, so I pulled my dress shirt and necktie out of my car and ironed them. It was 1998, so I lugged my computer, monitor, my dot-matrix printer, keyboard and cables into the hotel room, and printed my resume. (You didn’t have a laptop then) I went back the next day, interviewed with Tim, then with Megan. They were trying to get new employees with any kind management experience. They were asking, ‘can we teach you how to run a lift and you can teach people how to teach people?’ Megan was in lift ops but as it was the Fall and she was doing lift maintenance work. She shows up in Carhartt overalls with grease all over them. In later years, she admitted she almost didn’t hire me because of my button-down shirt and tie. That was my start in the ski industry in lift operations.
Removing the cover plate from a planetary gearbox during corrective maintenance.
That first year I worked in lift ops, there were about 120 operators. I set up training and a lot of the administrative stuff organized and worked on how to make the instruction better. I was seasonal, so that summer, I did trail work for a month, then poured concrete for a month then helped build the chairs for a month, all grunt labor. I learned how to fell big trees, build water bars, mitigate water, work in and around heavy machinery and tie rebar together in a hole and pour concrete in it and then fly towers. I did work like this for two years. Later, I became full time year-round when the guy vacated the spot for the lift ops manager. I was pretty committed to the resort and worked for six or seven years in this position. Then ASC was on its the way out. They sold a bunch of Eastern areas, then Mt. Snow, Steamboat, Heavenly, and Attitash. The plans were to move everybody to Park City and the Canyons and focus there. The dynamic at the resort changed. It didn’t get better or worse; it just got different.
Me and Megan
Here with Gretchen and Elsie
About then, my future wife Megan and I were pretty serious. We had some friends move out to Boulder City, which is just south of Vegas on Lake Mead and buy a boat dealership and ask if we wanted to help them run it. We accepted and were there for a year and a half. We got engaged and married in that time but living there is like living on the surface of the sun at 110 degrees every day.
It just wasn’t who we are, living in Southern Nevada. We decided to move back to Utah while I continued working for the dealership. Living in Park City and not working at a resort was weird. Megan became pregnant with Gretchen when I saw a job for a lift ops director’s job back East at Mt Snow. It caught my eye for a lot of reasons. I grew up skiing at Mt Snow—I had ASC friends there—and it would bring us back to New England where the family was. I interviewed with Dave Moulton and then met Kelly Pawlak. The interview process took three or four months. Phones interviews, Skype interviews, then fly over and then they ask for references and finally offered me the position. It took months! Then they wanted to hire on Megan. It’s a signature move for Peak Resorts, as they think of the whole family unit hands down, and make sure the position is a fit for everyone. I was there for three years. I managed lift operations, worked in lift maintenance, ski patrol and ran the ambassador program.. a lot of different experiences.
And then Jesse Boyd called me to his office after I had returned from a vacation. I called Megan and said this is either going to be really good, or really bad. Jesse offered me the General Manager’s position at Wildcat.
Josh Boyd, whose heart is in it, and understands ski area operations, had taken over the GM position at Wildcat before my start. He had already instilled the Peak Resort culture of a hard work ethic, passion, so didn’t pussyfoot around with me. He’s like, ‘Brian – This is what it’s going to take to succeed here. You need to hold everyone accountable, you need to show them that you care, work side-by-side with everybody, and that is how this place is going to be successful.’
With Stan Judge after he received the Jan Leonard Award 2017. Stan was the Wildcat GM from 1959 -1996. Then came Josh Boyd (now GM of both Alpine Valley and Boston Mills/Brandywine Resorts) until 2013 when I was promoted within Peak Resorts, Inc.
We had dinner with friends recently, and I showed up with my snow pants on, and they were like – Whoa! You smell like a campfire! What have you been doing? I had to tell them that we have 300 feet of frozen snowmaking pipe, so we brought in three hundred hay bales and lit them all on fire around the pipe, and we’re just kind of burning things to defrost it. Think about that if you’re outside this business and you hear this guy has hundreds of hay bales on fire underneath water pipes, at three degrees out in the middle of the forest, with a bunch of crew at night. Then during dinner, the crew calls and says the hay is all burned up and I tell them to go over to the Grand Summit and grab all their firewood, put it in the basket of the snowcat and get it over to the guys to keep the fire going.
I’m sure there are anomalies out there, but I can’t imagine walking into any of the upper management roles without having first worked in the trenches. Without that experience, I don’t know how I’d be effective. Some of the tasks we do in this business are crazy.
At Wildcat with Stan Judge and my father-in-law, Maynard Russell.