Vail Resorts’ Rob Katz moving into new role, Kirsten Lynch to be appointed CEO
Katz, who has led the company since 2006, will move out of day-to-day operations
Vail Resorts on Tuesday announced that Rob Katz, who has led the company as its chief executive officer since 2006, will move into a new role as executive chairperson on Nov. 1. Kirsten Lynch, Vail Resorts’ current chief marketing officer, will be appointed chief executive officer and elected to the company’s board of directors.
In a news release, Vail Resorts said Katz will remain fully active and engaged in the company’s key strategic decisions and priorities while moving out of day-to-day operations. Also in the succession plan, Ryan Bennett, the current vice president of marketing and lift revenue, will be named Vail Resorts’ chief marketing officer.
Author and ski industry tracker Chris Diamond describes Katz’s new role as something between a typical board chairman and a company CEO.
The executive chairman position Katz will move into is like “a CEO with a bunch of COOs,” Diamond said. “(Katz) has never been one who is fussy about titles, but the role, clearly, is he is going to do the strategic stuff and will be making a lot of input in terms of the senior team, but all of the day-to-day will be on Kirsten’s plate.”
Diamond was president of Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation for 17 years before retiring in 2015. He is now the author of “Ski Inc” and “Ski Inc 2020” and is on the advisory board for Schweitzer Mountain in northern Idaho.
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In the new position, “I think (Katz) can keep his sanity,” Diamond said. “Last year was a god-awful challenge for everybody in the ski business.”
Nevertheless, “(Katz) has managed to pilot the company through a god-awful year, and the stock is almost back to where it was before COVID, and he is sitting on a pile of cash,” Diamond said.
“I can say without exception, from the perspective of the staff there, it was the toughest year they ever faced,” Diamond said of Schweitzer Mountain. He said he suspects the same was true at Vail Resorts, where “all of that just percolates right to the top, so (Katz) had to manage all of the fears, the frustrations and the chaos of COVID, and I’m sure it took a toll.”
Diamond added: “The way I read it, he is going to be more involved than a typical chairman of the board. Basically the board hires and fires the CEO — that’s (Katz’s) job. He might set big strategy, but doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day operations, that’s why you pay the CEO.”
Long legacy as CEO
When Vail and Beaver Creek resorts were acquired by Leon Black’s Apollo Ski Partners in 1992, Katz was a young executive in the company and was assigned to the Vail account, Diamond writes in “Ski Inc.”
Katz was “intimately involved in the company’s significant moves, including the purchases of Breckenridge, Keystone, and also Heavenly, and the RockResorts lodging outfit. (Katz) also had his hand on the wheel when Vail Resorts went public in 1997,” Diamond wrote.
Katz was named CEO on Feb. 28, 2006, on the same day the company announced it would move its headquarters from Avon to Denver.
“The naming of company insider Rob Katz to replace outgoing Vail Resorts chief executive Adam Aron wasn’t nearly as surprising as the announcement that the corporate headquarters — along with about 100 employees — will be relocated to Denver,” the Vail Daily reported in its March 1, 2006 edition.
Katz announced the move himself, saying that it would help the company expand.
“Moving our headquarters to the Denver area will facilitate lower occupancy rates, provide greater administrative efficiencies, enhance recruiting opportunities and allow more centralized access to all of the company’s properties,” Katz said. “It also better positions the company for future strategic growth.”
Strategic growth would go on to be one of the hallmarks of Katz’s tenure as CEO, as the company went from the owner of five ski areas — Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge and Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, California — to the owner/operator of 37 ski areas in the United States, Canada and Australia.
Some of Vail Resorts’ acquisition tactics under Katz were criticized as being ruthless, particularly in the Utah market after the company sought an expired lease from the family owners of Park City Mountain Resort in a scene Forbes Magazine called “a black comedy, with Katz seen as the carpetbagger villain.”
Diamond says he expects Katz will stay highly involved in strategic growth and acquisitions.
“The board operates at a very high level, approving capital decisions, or the spending or the raising of capital, but when you read that release it’s pretty clear that (Katz) is going to stay engaged at the strategic level, so he is something between a typical chairman and a CEO,” Diamond said. “So executive chairman, to me, is a great way to describe what he has sort of laid out there. He will be making the final decision on acquisitions, and any major changes to the strategic ‘Epic’ strategy, and he will be very engaged on that.”
Katz also helped usher in the era of the megapass with Vail Resorts’ introduction of the Epic Pass in the 2008-09 season, an era which is the subject of Diamond’s second book, “Ski Inc. 2020.” Diamond says the Epic Pass has helped combat the sticker shock associated with the high cost of a lift ticket.
“Now, any complaint about the high window price leads to a discussion about the deeply discounted passes,” Diamond writes.
The unrestricted Epic Pass, coupled with an aggressive growth strategy, led to enormous success for the company under Katz.
“In terms of establishing a successful, high-margin business model, Vail Resorts has been the Harvard Business School case study for the ski industry,” Diamond writes.
Katz has exercised stock options to see payouts in the tens of millions in recent years, establishing the Katz Amsterdam Foundation with the proceeds he received from exercising Vail Resorts share appreciation rights. The fund started in 2017 with $58 million in assets; in 2019, Katz donated another $15.7 million to the foundation; in 2020, Katz donated another $11.7 million to the foundation; and in 2021, Katz donated another $29.3 million, again from shares of Vail Resorts stock sold. The foundation makes grants based on the recommendations of Katz and his wife, Elana Amsterdam.
The new face of Vail Resorts
Lynch joined Vail Resorts in 2011 as chief marketing officer and previously held senior leadership positions at PepsiCo and Kraft Foods. Lynch is a member of the board of directors of Stitch Fix, Inc., and in 2019, she was named to Forbes’ CMO Next list, recognized as one of the top 50 marketing leaders. She grew up in Chicago, first skiing at the age of 6 at Wilmot Mountain, which Vail Resorts acquired in 2016. She currently lives in Boulder with her husband and two children.
“Over her 10 years with the company, Kirsten has been responsible for the transformation and success of Vail Resorts’ data-driven marketing efforts and a primary driver of the company’s growth, stability and value creation,” Katz said in a statement. “In addition to having an incredible business acumen, Kirsten is one of the most passionate, driven leaders I have ever worked with. Her tremendous enthusiasm for the long-term vitality of our sport and a very high commitment to leadership development within our company will make her an outstanding leader of Vail Resorts.“
Lynch, in the same company release, said it “is an honor to lead Vail Resorts as CEO and build upon Rob’s legacy of reimagining the mountain experience.”
“I am passionate about this company, the leadership culture we have built and our 55,000 employees who make Vail Resorts the industry leader,” she said. “Looking forward, I am excited about the incredible growth opportunities for Vail Resorts and committed to making our sport and our company more diverse, inclusive and accessible. Together, we will grow our business, innovate and continue to work toward our mission of creating an Experience of a Lifetime for our guests and employees.”
As executive chairperson, Katz will remain a Vail Resorts employee and director, advising both Lynch and the board on long-term strategy and critical priorities. He will also remain involved in Vail Resorts’ activities around leadership development as well as its efforts to broaden diversity, equity and inclusion at both the company and throughout the industry.
“After more than 15 years in my role, one of my top priorities has been to identify and prepare a CEO for the next chapter in the company’s growth and success, and I am fully confident that Kirsten is that person,” Katz said in the company’s release. “And with our company having just navigated the most challenging period in its history and coming out stronger than when it began, this is the right time for me to take a step back and play a different role at Vail Resorts.“
Bennett joined Vail Resorts in 2018 as vice president of marketing analytics before he was promoted to his current role as vice president of marketing, lift revenue. In addition to leading the company’s season pass and lift ticket businesses, Bennett has driven numerous strategic revenue and guest experience projects. A Florida native, Bennett now lives in Boulder with his wife and three children.
“In his two and half years at Vail Resorts, Ryan has had a tremendous impact on so many aspects of the Company’s marketing organization,” Lynch said. “He has transformed the way we leverage data and driven material growth for our advance commitment strategy — all while building and leading strong teams to achieve ambitious goals. Ryan will bring his outstanding marketing, analytic and leadership experience to his role as CMO to help drive the future revenue growth of Vail Resorts.”
—This report contains material from a Vail Resorts press release