A look back at Leon Black and Apollo Ski Company’s acquisition of Vail Mountain
Private equity chief executive’s exit from Apollo comes after months of criticism for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein
Leon Black, known locally as the founder of the company that would become the modern Vail Resorts, has been the subject of much national news in recent months.
Here’s the first sentences of a few stories from national news outlets on March 22:
CNN: “Leon Black will step down as CEO of Apollo Global Management, the investment firm said, as it also announced that an internal investigation into Black’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein found no wrongdoing.”
Fox Business: “Apollo Global Management co-founder Leon Black has stepped down from his role as CEO of the private equity giant earlier than anticipated, in the wake of months of criticism over ties to convicted financier Jeffrey Epstein.”
New York Times: “Leon Black has relinquished all control of Apollo Global Management, the private equity firm he led for more than three decades, just two months after he said he would remain chairman following the revelation that he paid more than $150 million to the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.”
New York Post: “Billionaire Leon Black is leaving Apollo Global Management in a surprise announcement as controversy continues to swirl around his ties to pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein.”
Black became involved with Vail through former Vail Mountain owner George Gillett; a Time Magazine piece on Gillett described Vail Associates in the early ’90s as being part of “a billion-dollar empire based on the odd combination of meatpacking and television stations, much of it financed by the junk bonds of Drexel Burnham Lambert, led by the now infamous Michael Milken.”
Forbes magazine describes Black’s ties to Milken in a piece titled, “Who Is Leon Black, The Billionaire Who Helped Bankroll Jeffrey Epstein’s Second Act?”
While working at Drexel Burnham Lambert, Black “rose through the ranks to become head of mergers and acquisitions,” according to Forbes. “The bank’s fortunes floundered in 1989, when senior advisor Michael Milken was convicted of securities fraud, forcing the firm into bankruptcy. (Milken, nicknamed the “junk bond king,” was pardoned by President Trump, a former Epstein friend, in February.) Black struck out on his own the following year, cofounding Apollo Advisors…”
Black also founded a spin-off company, Apollo Ski Partners, which took over Vail when Gillett couldn’t pay off the debt on the notes from Milken. Gillett Holdings filed for Chapter 11 in 1991, and Apollo Ski Partners became the majority shareholder of the company in 1992.
Vail founder Pete Seibert wrote about it in his book “Vail, Triumph of a Dream,” published in 2000.
“Apollo recapitalized the bankrupt Gillett Holdings by putting in equity,” Seibert wrote. “The company then sold the TV stations, the meat-packing operations and the excess land holdings, leaving the firm with just Vail Associates.”
Gillett, in 1998, told the Associated Press that he refuses to blame Milken for crashing his business by selling him the junk bonds.
“I was the one who put on the debt,” Gillett told the Associated Press. “I should have been smart enough to know that interest rates can climb as well as fall.”
Gillett didn’t own Vail for long – from 1985 to 1991 – but after his tenure, he was remembered by many as Vail’s best ski operator. In those years the resort won the Ski Magazine rankings five years in a row (from 1987-88 season to the 1991-92 season,) completed the China Bowl and Mongolia Bowls expansion and brought the World Championships to Vail for the first time.
“As far as I was concerned, and I think most people here, he was the best ski operator we ever had,” Dr. Tom Steinberg, in 1998, told the Associated Press. Steinberg was Vail’s first doctor and was on the Town Council for two decades.
Seibert also felt Gillett to be a wonderful resort operator.
“Personally, I was uneasy about the new ownership, and I was very sorry to see Gillett go,” Seibert said of Black’s acquisition of Vail.
But later, Pete Seibert describes meeting Black in “Triumph of a Dream,” and feeling somewhat relieved.
“I was impressed with his questions and with his general air of confidence about operating Vail,” Seibert wrote of Black.
In 1993, Black was quoted in a Vail Trail story saying Apollo supported the Vail Valley Foundation’s efforts to bring the World Championships back to town.
“If we intend to maintain our position as one of the world’s best ski resorts, we need to host events like the World Championships,” Black said.
Seibert, in his book, said he was pleased with Black’s efforts.
“My fears that the new proprietors might become impatient and cancel costly plans to develop major projects such as Bachelor Gulch, Blue Sky Basin, or the purchase of Arrowhead proved to be absolutely groundless,” Seibert wrote. “Apollo executives charged ahead with something like the same verve George Gillett – or I – would have shown.”
Among those executives was Vail Resorts’ current CEO, Rob Katz.
“Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management had assigned a young executive, Rob Katz, to the Vail account in 1992, and he had been intimately involved in the company’s significant moves, including the purchases of Breckenridge, Keystone, and also Heavenly, and the RockResorts lodging outfit,” former Steamboat President and COO Chris Diamond wrote in “Ski Inc.,“ his first of two books about the ski industry. “(Katz) also had his hand on the wheel when Vail Resorts went public in 1997.”
Diamond joined Seibert in praising Apollo and Katz’s ability to grow the company.
But not everyone was happy with what Leon Black and Apollo had brought to Vail.
“Apollo will make millions over the years on its new ‘product,’ but the citizens of Eagle County will live with the repercussions,” wrote Joy Overbeck, for the High Country News, in 1998. “Not Leon Black, who puts on a cowboy hat once a year and comes out to ice skate on the rink he named after himself.”
Currently, little evidence remains of the Beaver Creek Ice Rink’s namesake, the Leon Black Family Ice Rink. A Vail Resorts spokesperson said he doesn’t believe the ice rink uses a formal name.
In 2019 onthesnow.com, a website run by Vail Resorts-owned Mountain News Corporation, included the Leon Black Family Ice Rink in a story about ski resorts which have ice rinks.
“Set against a fairy-tale backdrop, Leon Black Family Ice Rink is a magical ice rink with plenty of character,” writes Monica Adorno with onthesnow.com.
This story was edited to correct an incorrectly identified website, the proper website is onthesnow.com