Vail’s George Gillett tells Young Professionals Association how good Vail was, and how much better it can be
VAIL — George Gillett has looked across a room full of bright young faces and told them that if they want to accomplish something, then they should consider being “disruptive.”
Gillett held court recently for the Vail Valley Young Professionals Association, spending an hour fielding questions and explaining how and why he did what he did in his seven decades.
Mostly, he said, he did it to impress his wife, Rose.
You should do good business, but you should also have fun, he said.
Gillett was a kid from Wisconsin when he first skied Vail in February 1963, two months after it opened. He started bringing his family in 1972, and reminded the crowd that the resort started on 110 acres that used to be the Hanson family ranch.
“The history of the people in this valley is so special,” Gillett said. “It’s no wonder it turned out as well as it did.”
Gillett exudes so much positive energy, he makes The Little Engine that Could seem like a slacker.
Triumph and tragedy
Gillett held forth with story after story, both triumphant and tragic.
He was massively successful in the food industry, packaging and selling healthy meat products at time when consumers were getting serious about what they were eating.
He bought what was then Vail Associates from Henry Bass, a Texas businessman. His wife took him aside one morning when the bidding was about to begin and told him that she and the boys wanted him to buy Vail.
“Well, for you and the boys. OK,” Gillett said. So he did.
He owned the business and had to figure out a way to get more customers on Vail and Beaver Creek. Harry Frampton was in Europe and spotted a detachable quad lift chair. Frampton called Gillett, who plunked down something like $50 million to upgrade his ski mountains with North America’s first high-speed detachable quad chairs.
He had the customers, and needed to spread them out a little, so the ski company opened China Bowl, which is so big you could have fit the rest of Vail into it at the time.
Gillett’s son Foster was in the crowd, and asked his dad to tell about how Gillett became one of the first resort owners to allow snowboarding.
It goes something such as this. Foster and Gillett’s other sons were hiking up Vail Mountain after school to ride these newfangled snowboards. One day, Gillett wandered up there to see what they were up to.
His sons began to badger him with things such as, “What is the point of owning a ski resort if all you can do is ski on it?”
Gillett relented and opened Beaver Creek to snowboarding.
The deal was, Foster said, that his sons had to keep their grades up. They did, and that’s how snowboarding came to Vail.
Dr. Richard Steadman moved his world-renowned orthopedic practice from Lake Tahoe to Vail after Steadman had operated on Gillett’s knee, using revolutionary surgical and recovery techniques. Cindy Nelson, Vail’s director of skiing at the time, had nine successful operations with Steadman, who she credits with keeping her World Cup racing career alive. In fact, Steadman stood over Gillett on the plane all the way from the Reno, Nevada airport to New York City, constantly moving Gillett’s knee through the five-and-a-half hour flight.
It took Gillett three years to convince Steadman to move to Vail.
Gillett has owned or co-owned an English Premier League soccer team, the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, the Harlem Globtrotters and a NASCAR racing team.
Not all spotlights and success
It wasn’t all success and spotlights.
He was in Europe with Pete Dawkins, retired general, First Captain of West Point’s Corps of Cadets and Heisman Trophy winner, when they tried to convince a widow who owned a small but growing shoe company to relocate to Vail. Her son, Adi Dassler, stepped in and kept Adidas in Europe.
The Gore family opted against relocating their enterprise to the Vail Valley, and Gore-Tex stayed where it was.
The toughest, Gillett said, was when he had to declare bankruptcy and lost his beloved Vail Associates. He blamed no one, said it was entirely his own fault — something he also said when it happened two decades ago.
“I made a mistake. It was my fault,”
His family, his attorney and his friends helped him get through it. His sons were in college at the time, and postponed college to help their mother and father through it.
“We had to vacate our home on Christmas Eve,” Gillett said.
The Vail Valley remains a welcoming place with an incredible quality of life, Gillett said to the Young Professionals Association.
“We need your energy, your input, your intellect and enthusiasm,” he told the large crowd. “We do not need to criticize each other. I was born and raised on a farm, and if I got stuck in the mud I had to pull myself out. If we all get on the same side, pushing and pulling, there’s no problem we cannot solve.”
“This is a magnificent place with wonderful people,” Gillett said. “We have inherited a whole spectrum of challenges. We’re all trying to figure out a way to fix what we have. I don’t have the answers, but I do know the problems. If we can define the problems then we can figure out a way to fix them.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.