September 1976 – Seibert has to "git-along’
Repair of the Lionshead gondola and replacement of the Vail Village gondola cost more than $3 million. And we were on the brink of starting to develop our new sister resort, Beaver Creek.
There also was concern we might face a hostile takeover since we had been so successful in the past 15 years. It was a daunting situation.
I was still chairman of the board, but maintaining control was not easy. I agreed with the consensus of the board members that we should search for a buyer at the right price. But the board was more afraid of the immense liability we might incur as a result of the accident than of any other costs.
In September 1976, less than six months after the gondola cars fell, the Vail Associates board fell, too. We sold the company to board member Harry Bass, a Texas millionaire. His money came mostly from his family’s ownership of Goliad Oil and Gas. H
Bass and his brother Dick had owned Vail stock from the moment we issued it in 1966. Dick Bass offered to sell Harry Bass his place on the board, and the latter later explained to the press, “I had already started buying Vail shares, so I had a pretty good block. I think I topped out at around 8 or 9 percent, something like that. So I took Dick’s seat on the board. Vail didn’t have an ownership leader.”
Harry Bass wound up with 52 percent of the shares and offered to buy Vail Associates. And we couldn’t deny that we needed capital.
I personally didn’t favor Harry Bass. And, in fact, Twentieth Century Fox also was very interested in buying Vail. But the studio hadn’t yet released its blockbuster movie “ET” and lacked the cash to match Bass’s bid. So Vail went to the big guy from Texas.
Harry and I had a difficult relationship – a humungous personality clash, I guess you’d call it. A couple of days after he took over, he asked me to lunch at an outdoor restaurant in Lionshead. There was an odd, stiff air about our meeting and I decided to tell him a joke that would either loosen him up or make him mad as hell.
“Harry,” I said. “There was this old New England farmer who was visiting a big old rancher in west Texas. The farmer saw a strange-looking bird scurrying along a fence line, and he said to the Texan, “What’s that?’
“”That’s the bird of paradise,’ said the rancher.
“The New Englander stared at the bird for a moment, then burst out, “Gawddamn! He sure is a helluva long way from home.'”
Harry not only didn’t laugh, but he sort of growled.
“You oughta have learned by now, Pete,” he said. “New England humor doesn’t travel well.”
It turned out Harry had asked me to lunch to fire me, so he then asked me, “You know what “git-along’ means, Pete?”
I shrugged and said nothing.
“”Git-along’ means you got to get along, Pete,” he told me. “You got to get a long, long way from here. Goodbye.”
As he got up from the table, I wished him well and said I hoped he’d take good care of Vail.
I went back to my office and picked up a few personal items: pictures of my kids, a golf trophy, a ski trophy and an album of pictures illustrating my history at Vail. Then I went home to see what else might happen. Early the next morning a Vail Associates truck rolled into my driveway full of everything I had left in my office, including the desk, rolling chair, filing cabinets, and wastebasket.
A couple of former employees unloaded it all into my garage. One had tears in his eyes; I did, too. When I started Vail, I didn’t necessarily plan on making a lifetime commitment. But when I had to leave, I suddenly discovered that I’d made a much deeper commitment than I had realized. It really hurt to go.
It hurt all the more a year or so later when the final legal results of the Vail’s gondola disaster were announced: The anticipated massive deluge of damage payments had not come to pass.
The total payout was only a fraction of the $50 million we had been sued for, slightly more than $12 million in all. And most of the costs were covered by insurance. Now it really galled me to realize that we had let the place go to Harry Bass for a song because of our misjudgment on what the damage suits would cost.
However, Bass and the executives he hired had stumbled into some misjudgments of their own. The most serious had to do with Beaver Creek, a place that had come to be very close to my heart. Indeed, the blueprints for Beaver Creek were the most precious items I left behind as a legacy for Harry Bass.
Editor’s note: This is the 59th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 12, entitled “Beaver Creek.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.
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