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

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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

We broke ground in the summer of 1973.


The winter of 1973-74 combined the best and the worst of my life in the ski business. The best part, despite a pretty bleak season with below-average snowfall, was our hosting the first-ever Winter Special Olympics.

That came about as a result of a chance meeting and friendship with Sargent Shriver, his wife Eunice's vision and determination, and Maine Special Olympics Director Mickey Boutilier's conviction that we could pull it off.

The biggest potential problem was housing the competitors, officials and volunteers -- not to mention my old Bowdoin fraternity brother, Bill Cohen, in his first term in Congress, and his family, and Ken Curtis, Maine's governor, and his family as well.

Fortunately, kids were willing to sleep on the floors of nearly-finished but unfurnished condominiums, and the whole event was a smashing success. For me, it was one of the most inspiring weeks of my life as I watched the Special Olympians enjoy the fun of frolicking and competing in the snow. It may be the proudest memory of all my years in the business.

The worst part, without a doubt, was feeling the effects of the first Arab oil embargo and the hesitancy of skiers to risk driving all the way to the mountains of western Maine and face the prospect of not being able to buy enough gas to get home. We even advertised that if anyone found themselves short of gas when it came time to leave, we'd top 'em off from our fuel tank at the maintenance building. But the embargo was also the first sign of some tough financial times to come, as people tightened their belts and cut back on discretionary spending.

Equally devastating for me was the fact that the Mazur brothers -- owners of Hudson Pulp and Paper Company, my landlord -- got an offer they couldn't refuse from a large paper company for their lands in Maine, so they disappeared as an equity partner and my best -- and last -- hope for about a million bucks to build a new lift.

Our second season owning Saddleback, despite the embargo, showed increased traffic, thanks to aggressive promotion and a deal I did with Hannaford Brothers that allowed their customers to swap their cash register receipts for a midweek lift ticket. So we had lots more people, but at a price. I was willing to virtually give away our product just to get people to experience Saddleback, as I was convinced that if they came once they might be tempted to come back. A good long-term strategy, but it doesn't pay the light bill.

Cash flow was insufficient to cover operations and debt service, let alone fund the continuation of our aggressive development program, and our balance and profit-and-loss sheets weren't attractive to new equity partners. I had learned at Mount Snow and was relearning at Saddleback that increasing debt can be a death spiral. So I refused to take on any more, despite more than one opportunity to do so.

I was able to hang on for another ski season in 1974-75, but it was clear my business model was unsustainable. The only small consolation was that my experience was more the norm than the exception at the time, as under-financed operations fell like dominoes through the latter part of the 1970s and even accelerated in the 1980s.

I'm consoled that Saddleback, despite its vicissitudes, survives and that it is now in the hands of owners who share, I like to think, my much earlier vision. The Berry family has done great things and I'm sure will find a way to assure the continuing operation of a very special recreational and economic resource for western Maine.

Bill Berry -- no relation to Saddleback's current owner -- said in the Yankee magazine article: "John Christie is a ski bum who made good. In ten years he's gone from a bartender at the base of Sugarloaf to the owner of Saddleback; at the age of 35, he is head of his own ski area and mastermind of a creative program to build a whole new New England village right at the base of the lifts."

I wish it had worked. But it was a good run, and I take great comfort knowing that Saddleback is now, finally, in good hands.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son Josh write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:



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