January 6, 2013

Snowed under at Saddleback

Ex-owner John Christie had mixed success during the 1970s but hopes the new investors share his vision.

By JOHN CHRISTIE Special to the Telegram

"If Maine has a chance, it will probably be through the best efforts of not only the environmentalists but a new breed of businessmen as well -- men who want primarily to see their state develop rather than be developed. There are strong indications that John Christie fits that pattern. He's coming home to Maine from the big-time national ski world in order to develop Saddleback Mountain. One thing is certain, we'll know a bit more about John Christie and Saddleback Mountain 10 years and 30 million dollars from now."

click image to enlarge

The base lodge is among the amenities that John Christie enhanced as owner of Saddleback after having learned the complexities of the ski industry in Vermont. The lodge was renovated again by the Berry family during their 10-year ownership of Saddleback.

The Associated Press

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A young John Christie grooms Saddleback’s slopes while employee Dick Frost looks on during the mid-1970s.

Courtesy Photo

So began an extensive article entitled "If Maine Has a Chance," written by I. William Berry in Yankee magazine in the summer of 1973. I've kept this edition of the magazine locked away, but to this day it can remind me of the wild-eyed optimism of youth, of the price you can pay for hubris, of the problems one can encounter relying on influences beyond one's control, of the importance of understanding the marketplace and the competition, of the absolute necessity to couple big plans with big resources, and of a period in my life that was both the best and the worst I would ever experience.

My ride on the Saddleback rollercoaster began on a beautiful spring day in 1972 as I sat in my cushy chair in my glass-walled office on the third floor of the base lodge at what we -- meaning me and Walt Schoenknecht, the area's fascinating visionary and owner -- were then promoting as "The World's Largest Ski Area" (10,000 skiers on a weekend day) at Mount Snow in Vermont.

My phone rang on that spring day, and I was receptive to a question posed by a banker on the other end of the line: "John, would you have any interest in buying an unnamed ski area in Rangeley, Maine?"

I knew, of course, that he was talking about Saddleback, and after a lengthy conversation during which he disclosed that it was the Gannett family, and its publishing company (Guy Gannett Publishing, former owner of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram), that owned the ski area and had suggested he contact me to test my interest, I agreed to fly to Maine to discuss the possibility in detail after having made it clear that I had neither won the lottery, inherited a family fortune, nor amassed one myself.

Since that didn't sound to the caller like an impediment, we proceeded.

PEAKS AND VALLEYS

One of the greatest lessons I had learned in my short years in the ski business, and especially during my years at Mount Snow as we built a golf course and dramatically grew our non-skiing revenues, was that you really had to figure out a way to even out the seasonal peaks and valleys inherent in the tourism business.

So Saddleback was especially appealing to me, given its long summer tourism tradition, and the potential to link the ski area to the surrounding lakes in some way. And the proximity of the ski area to Saddleback Lake was obviously tantalizing. Not to mention that my years in Vermont hadn't diminished my love for Maine and the fact that I knew I would someday go home again.

Through the spring and summer, after a series of fits and starts including, tragically, the death of George Marshall, Gannett Publishing's general manager with whom I was negotiating, I found myself in the early fall owning Saddleback. I formed a very small board of directors, to whom I knew I would have to turn for advice, which included three good friends.

Since the place was in need of quite a lot of work in the fall to get it ready, and given a lesson I had learned from Walt Schoenknecht about the foolhardiness of putting one's own money at risk in an industry that already was showing a few cracks in its hull, I actually bought not only the lifts, trails, a relatively new and very nice base lodge, and a lease from Hudson Pulp and Paper Company -- and convinced the seller to throw in some working capital to get me going.

(Continued on page 2)

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