GREENWOOD — To Sunday River General Manager Dana Bullen, Les Otten is a visionary.
Otten’s development of Sunday River into the ski resort it is today allowed Bullen to stay in Maine, work and raise a family, the New Sharon native said.
“Today I have my dream job, I owe Les a lot,” said Bullen. “Just at Sunday River there are 1,200 jobs he created. They’re still here, I manage them. And if you look at the total, there’s so many more because Les touched this place, built this place – bed-and-breakfasts, inns and restaurants.”
To Dr. Omar “Chip” Crothers, Otten is the man with whom he co-founded Maine Handicapped Skiing, a nonprofit that currently seeks to mainstream more than 350 handicapped people year round through alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, golf, canoeing, kayaking and cycling.
“He is a businessman; (but) he’s not a cold-hearted businessman,” said Crothers. “I’m happy to say Maine Handicapped Skiing was perhaps the thing that Les sunk his teeth into at first and realized it’s important to give back.”
To many others, however, he’s the man who overreached with American Skiing, saddling the company with debt that became untenable to investors when bad skiing seasons rocked the industry. Some shareholders lost their savings as American Skiing’s stock dropped, and the company’s resorts were eventually parceled off and sold in pieces. Otten is often seen as the man to blame, though he was no longer in charge toward the end.
But what he wants to be known as now is governor of Maine.
Otten is running as a Republican in a competitive, seven-way primary race that will be decided by voters on June 8. He has emerged as the best-known candidate in the race so far, with 30 percent of voters polled by Critical Insights being able to name him without any aid.
That’s in no small part due to the aggressive and expensive campaign he’s run, loaning it $1.28 million of his own money to establish a solid presence on television.
He’s also emerged as a controversial figure. Part of it is because of his background with American Skiing. Opposing candidate Bruce Poliquin released an attack ad several weeks ago, hitting Otten on American Skiing’s collapse.
And part of it is because of campaign missteps. He was blasted early on by charges that his Web site and some collateral material were suspiciously similar to President Obama’s campaign graphics.
Early this month, it was discovered that about 50 words in an Otten policy statement were taken by a staffer word for word from a Maine think tank’s position paper.
“The game changes when you’re the front-runner – you get held to the highest standard, because it’s presumed you’re the front-runner for a reason. You’re gonna be the person subjected to the highest level of scrutiny,” said Otten. “I didn’t get there by accident. I got there by running a good campaign, knowing the material, being believable.”
On the morning after the news broke about the policy statement flap, Otten considered the issue at his lakeside home, preparing to head out to the 3,100 acres of land he owns near Sunday River and look for moose antlers.
It’s a test, said Otten. If this happened while he was governor, he’d react the same way. He’d apologize, take ownership of the problem, understand the problem and then take action. The staffer who grabbed the 50 words and failed to attribute them left the campaign.
“The error that was made can’t be made in politics, can’t be made in the public world – shouldn’t be made anywhere,” said Otten.
He’s unapologetic about the amount of money he’s put into his own campaign – something opponents have criticized him for, sometimes obliquely.
“Is that an advantage? Certainly. Am I asking taxpayers for money? No. Am I willing to spend my own money to tell people what I believe in? Yup,” said Otten. “Will I have a positive effect, win or lose, in the state of Maine? Absolutely. I set the agenda for the state of Maine last fall when I said this election is all about jobs.”
Regarding Sunday River, he notes that there was a handful of employees on a second-rate ski hill when he started there. There are 1,200 employees there today, and Sunday River is a premier East Coast ski destination.
He wouldn’t have done anything differently with American Skiing, he said, and argued against disassembling the properties.
“You can do all the Monday morning quarterbacking that you want, and I get asked to do a lot of it – would I do something different in American Skiing? No. Keeping this company together was the right thing to do, taking it apart was the wrong thing. And even when it got taken apart, it sold for record numbers,” said Otten. “It would still be a valuable company to me and to the shareholders if it had been kept together. But I didn’t have a choice.”
That attitude reflects a motto of Otten’s: “Always Onward.” He came up with the motto from his father’s two initials, Albert Otten. And he got the attitude from his father, too.
The elder Otten was born in 1886 in Germany. In 1906, he asked his father and uncle, who were butchers, for a $5,000 loan, which was matched by a bank. He started his own business wholesaling steel. In 1922, he became the youngest board member of Thale, a steelworks company. Over the next decade, he became the majority owner of the company. In 1937, Adolf Hitler demanded the company start making munitions for the Nazis. Otten refused and was arrested. He was released from jail by the local magistrate and fled the country the next day, eventually arriving in the United States, where he sold off his art collection to survive before later getting into the steel business here.
“The two most important things I’ve learned from my dad – you get knocked down, you stand back up – I’ll never have another example of that,” said Otten. “And you stand up for what’s right, regardless of the personal costs.”
Otten, the candidate, grew up in New Jersey, but would often escape to the country with his family. He lived with huge, unspoken expectations from his father, a “massive man of very few words.”
That was balanced by his mother, said Otten. Her heart was so big, said Otten, that even after he broke up with girlfriends, they would still come to his house to visit her.
He graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a business degree and took a job with the company that owned both Killington Mountain in Vermont and Sunday River in Maine. He first came to Sunday River in 1972, at the age of 23. His friends drove him to the Gould Academy ski jump – with its rope tow – and, as a prank, told him that was Sunday River. He was relieved to actually get to the mountain and find a chairlift, three T-bars and six trails.
In 1980 he bought Sunday River, and used it as a base to build American Skiing. He feels comfortable in Maine, and always has, he said. People around Bethel have “Otten” stickers on their trucks. If he doesn’t have his pass with him, he gets scolded at the town dump.
e and his wife raised three children, and five of their cousins, in Greenwood. Otten paid for schooling for all eight of them. He and his wife divorced five years ago, after 35 years of marriage.
In conversation, Otten has an entrepreneur’s vision of the world. He sees where he wants things to go and how to put together the team, sets goals and makes plans to get there. All of that would be valuable as governor, Otten contends.
“I can sit down in a room with 30 people and come to agreement,” said Otten. “Sometimes that means building consensus, sometimes that means not quitting until you get people to your point of view – in a way that they feel they’re part of the solution, that you vindicate them from being part of any problem.”
He points to work he did as president of the Portland Museum of Art’s board of directors as an example. The museum was losing between $250,000 and $500,000 a year on a $1.8 million revenue stream, he said, with operating losses generally offset by Libra Foundation support.
Otten led the board in streamlining the museum’s business operations and in the search for a new executive director, picking a search committee, setting the pieces in motion to produce a leader who could effectively run the museum.
That way of seeing an end point and moving toward it is typical Otten, said Bullen.
“Les is an incredible visionary. He could look at a mountain and see people skiing on it,” said Bullen. “He was great at taking that vision and transferring that vision to other people, having us believe in what he would want to accomplish.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]