Fresh off his induction to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in March, and then a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Ski Areas Association this week, longtime Mammoth Mountain (and then Alterra Resorts) CEO Rusty Gregory continues his post-retirement victory tour this weekend with a retirement dinner on Saturday night at Canyon Lodge.
It is billed as a black tie/black tee affair, and is a keystone of this weekend’s Mammoth Invitational.
I texted the following to Gregory on Thursday: “Another award? This is one prolonged victory lap!”
His reply, in typical self-deprecating fashion: “No kidding! I’m humbled and honored but feeling over-celebrated. Must be because people are so happy to see me leave ;-)”
What’s interesting about Gregory’s homecoming is, as is the case with many prominent leaders, his relationship with his home resort is more … complicated than it may be with his colleagues on the broader stage.
Because on a local level, we tend to gloss over the successes and innovations (think about the Mammoth Value Pass, which debuted in the year 2000 at $379. MMSA sold 36,000 of ’em that first year) and remember (all too well) the missteps and moments of doubt and pain.
On the National Ski Areas Association (nsaa.org) website, author Heather Fried put together a nice career retrospective on Gregory this week, which includes interviews with Gregory’s successors at MMSA, Mark Brownlie and Ron Cohen.
What struck me were some of the comments Gregory made, particularly regarding management and leadership.
It’s almost as if, over the past few years, he got to do some things which were never possible here (think of the Hart-Howerton dead-end planning process for Main Street), because Mammoth is so … stubborn and willful and defiant. It’s that character which drew so many of us here. It’s that character we cherish, even if we often drive ourselves and our neighbors up the damn wall.
In the Fried story, Gregory is quoted as saying, “If you’ve got a static culture, you’ve got the wrong culture,” adding that all too often, the ski industry is guilty of holding onto a ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mindset. “We need to be open to change. What the marketplace wants isn’t what we gave them yesterday. They want something new, something better, something less expensive for the same experience, and so we need to evolve as rapidly as they do.”
And then, “All strengths, if overplayed, become weaknesses over time,” he said. “The resorts that are maniacally focused on the guest experience, have cultures that love and embrace change, and are able to adjust rapidly to the opportunities and threats ahead are the resorts that will win in the future.”
I relate these statements to the current debate the Town is having regarding TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) renewal.
The TBID, when it was first conceived back in 2012, was a fairly brilliant response to the quandary the Town found itself facing after its epic defeat in the airport litigation lawsuit.
One could argue Gregory had a hand (or at least a persuasive voice) in running us into that legal ditch, but he also had a pretty smart response – that we needed to grow our way out of the mess.
And now that we’ve grown our way out of the mess, we find ourselves battling our own fearful, static natures. Many local leaders want to simply continue doing things exactly as we’ve done them for the past decade. But “all strengths become weaknesses over time.” And that includes a myopic approach to full-throttle marketing which ignores a rapidly declining local and guest experience.
On a personal level, the debt I owe to Rusty is a simple one – that he didn’t just try to quash The Sheet right out of the gate, even if the paper could be acerbic and critical.
Certainly, former Hospital CEO Gary Myers and former Mayor Rick Wood tried the quash tactic. Myers at one point sought to approach every one of my advertisers and ask them to pull their ads.
He gave up when Robbie Tani (who had formerly employed Myers and his wife Karilyn) told him he was even more committed to advertising if Myers was intent on playing the bully.
Meanwhile, Wood threatened to bankrupt me one night after a Council meeting. He gave up when he figured out there wasn’t much to bankrupt. As Dylan might say, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
*I will say that the relationships with Myers and Wood did improve with time.
But Rusty? The paper was less than a year old and I was skiing one morning and boarded the gondola at mid-chalet. Rusty and a few others were already sitting in the car when I got in.
That’s testament one to the man. He didn’t insist on a private car on a busy powder day. He enjoyed engaging with his customers.
We’re riding up making small talk and he looks out the window at my skis and pretty much starts laughing. I was skiing 203s which I’d picked up for free, end-of-season at a ski patrol shack in Sun Valley a few years before that.
Perhaps a week later, I get a note in the mail which includes a voucher for a pair of “modern skis” from any mountain shop. As Rusty can attest, I didn’t cash in the voucher for three years. As I told him, I didn’t want to cash the voucher until I’d reached a point where I could afford to buy my own pair of skis.
But then he replied, you better act now because that voucher expires the day I’m no longer here.
Rusty … he wasn’t threatened by a pesky writer of some dubious start-up. He actually welcomed the newcomer, even if the newcomer might prove potentially adversarial.