Steward of the mountain: Michael Solimano and Killington

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Steward of the mountain: Michael Solimano and Killington

Sun, 11/05/2017 - 12:51pm -- tim

Michael Solimano. Photos by Randy Holhut. World Cup photos at Killington, November 2016, courtesy of Killington.

by Joyce Marcel Vermont Business Magazine The Beast is Back. With deep-pocket private ownership, killer snowmaking ability, fast trails, the longest ski season in the East, a die-hard group of fans, a ever-increasing summer season — and most of all, the wild success of the Women’s Downhill World Cup last year, which has brought Killington a new, two-year World Cup contract — the mountain resort has proudly resumed its once-discarded mantel as the “Beast of the East.”

And quite a complex beast it is. 

At 4,241 feet, Killington Peak is the second-highest peak in Vermont (Mt Mansfield is the highest) and has New England’s largest vertical drop (3,050 feet). The resort is not only tall, it’s old. Killington has been in operation since December of 1956. 

It has 155 trails and 21 lifts extending across six mountain peaks. A seventh peak, by the way, Pico, was bought by Killington in 1996; its trails are not connected and it operates as a separate resort. 

Killington has long been in the avant garde of snowmaking, putting in its first snow guns in the 1960s. Because of its snowmaking ability, Killington prides itself on opening earlier — in October — and closing later than any other ski resort, sometimes as late as May or June. 

There’s no longer a battle between snowboarders and skiers. Both have won. When snowboarding stopped being an outlaw sport and young boarders were welcomed at ski resorts, there was a huge spike among young people, both male and female, taking up the sport. Now the spike has leveled off; advancing ski technology has put the thrill back in skiing and now the percentage is about 60 percent skiers to 40 percent snowboarders. 

One other thing that Killington is famous for: partying. The mountain offers its guests a large number of bars and restaurants; dancing in the streets is not unheard of.

There’s been a certain amount of upheaval lately in Vermont’s skiing industry, with Stratton Mountain being sold to Aspen Skiing Company and Capital Partners as part of a $1.5 billion arrangement, and Vail Resorts acquiring Stowe Mountain’s ski operations for $50 million. 

Killington, which was acquired in 2007 from American Skiing Company for a reported $83.5 million by Powdr Corp, a private company out of Utah, first shook up the mountain but in recent years has given it a certain amount of stability.

“Both those groups — Vail and Aspen — wanted Killington,” said Michael Solimano, 48, president and general manager of Killington/Pico Ski Resort Partners, LLC. “No surprise there. We’re the biggest resort. But Powdr didn’t want to sell. They’re comfortable with their position in the market.” 

When you’re throwing around millions of dollars, the question is: How much risk is required and how big do you want to get? Solimano asked.

“When you’re looking at trying to keep a business going for 50 years into the future, it’s different than thinking, ‘Who can become the biggest the fastest?’ “ Solimano said. “I think it’s great that we’re owned by a family that loves to ski. They’re not in real estate. They’ve been ski operators and that’s what they want to do, and when they’ve diversified it feels right. It’s a great fit.”

When Powdr — which calls itself an “adventure lifestyle company” — first took over Killington, mistakes were, as they say, made. But now the mountain appears to be on a decidedly upward swing. By all accounts, Solimano, who became CEO five years ago after spending seven years as Killington’s CFO, is the man behind this latest Killington rebirth.

“There’s no doubt that Mike is the greatest thing that happened to Killington since its founder, Pres Smith,” said Robert T Kovalesky Sr, a season pass holder who has been skiing Killington since 1965 and has seen it all. “It’s almost like when Steve Jobs came back to Apple and they got their mojo back. Mike ignited the spirit and the buzz back to Killington from that darker period where the resort seemed to have not heard the customer. Mike made the customer Number One again. He’s no armchair quarterback. He’s highly visible, loading gondolas or clearing trays from tables in the cafeteria. He’s an all-hands-on-deck boss and the employees respect that. This has led to the resort being reborn and proudly being called again the Beast of the East.” 

The resort has about 300 year-round employees, a number which swells to about 1,800 in the winter. Because the mountain is now privately owned, revenue figures are closely guarded, but last year the resort had about 800,000 skier visits and a few hundred thousand summer visits, putting its revenue somewhere between $50 million and $100 million a year. 

On the slopes or off, Solimano is a hard man to miss. He’s young, tall and lanky. He talks with his hands. He’s boyishly enthusiastic and remarkably frank. He has fine-boned features, close-cut prematurely grey hair and a baseball player’s body. 

Unlike the generation of ski racers who once ran such resorts, Solimano is an accountant by trade who took up skiing later in life.

Solimano has certainly won over Killington’s business community. 

Christopher Karr, the principal of the Karr Group, which owns four restaurants on the mountain, including the infamous Pickle Barrel, plus other commercial real estate, says the area is “lucky to have him.”

“Interestingly, when Powdr came in, they kept Mike,” Karr said. “In some of these big business deals the new owners put in people who are on their team, but they kept Mike. At first, it wasn’t his resort to run. But when they announced the change and made him president, it was the most welcome news at Killington in decades. Until then, a business owner was just a pawn in this thing. Bringing in Mike, a guy who’s rooted here, to mine the knowledge he has to offer from the standpoint of his financial knowledge and his ability to see what right and wrong thing to do, this made us very happy.”

Solimano announced to the Killington community, “We’re going to bring back fun,” Karr said. He revived hope in a community that had been so despairing of economic development that it had instituted an option tax, as Karr put it, “to develop more things in the town.” 

“We had no faith the resort could do it prior to Mike,” Karr said. “Now they’re going after summer business. They’ve grown mountain biking exponentially. Even though the tax was in place, we repealed the sales portion in March of this year because the resort has done its job, and it’s all under Mike’s leadership. It speaks volumes about how the community feels about the leadership of the resort — their ability to rescind a tax. By far, this is a growth in revenue we haven’t seen in a decade. A lot of it is based on growing our summer business. We have more businesses open now in the summer because of what Mike’s done out there. And he’s successfully worked to bring in the World Cup. After the first year’s success, we were hoping to get it back and now we have a two year contact. He delivered everything the Cup wanted.”

In terms of real estate, sales are even, Karr said. But in April of this year Killington announced plans for a $60 million to $70 million two-year renovation project, expected to begin next year, that will add residential units, make improvements to the mountain and remodel the Bear Mountain base lodge. Karr credits Solimano with revitalizing the whole area.

“Mike doesn’t sweep things under the rug,” Karr said. “He deals with them head on, and it’s pleasurable working things through with him. He puts the time and effort in and the business community at Killington thoroughly enjoys the results.”

Solimano brushes off that kind of praise. 

“I never laid out a path to wanting to  run a ski resort,” he said. “It’s always been work hard, do a good job, and things happen. When I was in the CFO role, I wasn’t saying I want the job I have now. I liked the job I was in. My boss left to go work for Powdr and he said, ‘You’re going to take this job!’ We didn’t interview or even have a big discussion. He just said, ‘You’re going to take this president’s job!’ and I said, ‘OK. Sounds like fun.’” 

The World Cup

The bombshell news out of Killington has been that the Women’s Ski World Cup has agreed to come back for the next two years. Tickets to this year’s Thanksgiving weekend races sold out 10 minutes after they went on sale, and everyone is excited.

Conventional wisdom says Killington got the Women's Ski World Cup last year because there wasn’t enough snow in the West. Not true, Solimano said. It was a scheduling thing.

“Aspen had this weekend, Thanksgiving, for this Women’s World Cup race,” he said. “But they also had an early season world championship race. The organization that has the World Cup — Federation International de Ski, or FIS in English — only allows one stop at a place one time a year. And Aspen had the world championships. So FIS was looking for a place for one year. We had been talking to them, and we ended up getting Aspen’s weekend.”

Just for the record, the last World Cup alpine skiing event in New England happened in New Hampshire in 1991. (The last one in Vermont was at Stratton in 1978.) It was definitely time for New England to get another shot, and Killington took it and did it beautifully. 

Over 30,000 people came to watch the races and the contest was broadcast to an audience of 2.1 million people in 60 countries.

“Because it was so successful last year, FIS took it away from Aspen and gave it to us for the next two years,” Solimano said. “Aspen was supposed to get it back, but we had one of the best crowds FIS has ever seen. The group from Europe just couldn’t believe it. It was pretty remarkable.”

In financial terms, the World Cup is an expensive loss leader. Powdr took a loss of something like $1.2 million. But the publicity and good will were worth their weight in gold. 

“In Europe these races are very popular, but they’re all paid for by the government,” Solimano said. “The government puts them on because they bring a ton of people and everyone agrees it’s something they should do. Here the cost falls on the resort. You’re not doing it because you’re going to make a lot of money on the event. It’s great for the brand of Killington and there’s a lot of marketing opportunities. We lost over a million dollars, even with all the people and the beer they bought. The grandstands alone cost $200,000. The power truck over there cost $100,000. I’m a bean counter, but it’s always hard to figure the true costs.”

The race is held during Thanksgiving weekend, and these days you can’t count on a deep snow cover. Oddly enough, it doesn’t matter. 

“What you don’t realize in ski racing is that natural snow is the enemy,” Solimano said. “You have to work hard to get the snow off the trail. They want hard, hard packed snow. So in most places they actually inject the trail with water to make it freeze up and get hard. So if you have soft snow, or the powder people love to ski in, it’s not good for ski racing. It’s counterintuitive.”

Early Life

So who is this guy who seems to have brought a whole mountain back to life?

Solimano grew up in Chester, New Jersey, the youngest of six sons of a Bell Laboratories manager and a stay-at-home mother.

“My dad was in middle-to-upper management,” Solimano said. “He was part of Bell Labs and then, when they split it up, he was with AT&T. My mom took care of us, which was a lot with six boys.”

The Solimanos raised their rambunctious family in an old farm house. 

“The farm had been split up and our part was a big old Colonial farmhouse that had nine bedrooms, seven baths and a greenhouse,” Solimano said. “You have a lot of little rooms. Every Saturday it was expected that you’d work almost the whole day around the house: cleaning, painting, carpentry, scraping the house, cutting firewood, whatever. It was kind of like the way people grow up in Vermont. We didn’t have cows but we had a lot of projects. You learned how to sheetrock and do this and that. We had five acres of lawns, so cutting the lawn was a pretty big project. Our parents were pretty demanding. They wanted us to carry our own weight around the house. So my dad didn’t have any workmen come in. He didn’t have to. He had his kids.”

Although Solimano skied some in high school, his family didn’t take many ski trips together.

“With eight people, if your parents weren’t skiers, then it was pretty tough,” he said. “But I went on bus trips. I also played baseball, basketball and football in high school. My parents said, ‘He can do any sport if he can wear sneakers.’ They weren’t into buying all the stuff for all the different sports.”

Solimano’s first job outside the house was collecting shopping carts from a supermarket parking lot. He collected and traded baseball cards. He was a dishwasher.

“I had a lot of jobs in food service,” he said.

One of his first jobs outside the home helped him hone his future management style.

“In college I came back for summer breaks,” he said. “One of my brothers was in the tile-and-marble industry, putting in kitchens and tile floors, so I worked one summer in construction. His boss was one of the most miserable people I’d ever met. He basically screamed at you all day long. I’m a big believer that you learn a lot about who you want to be as a manager and leader from the people you work with. So he was one of my first bosses and he was terrible.”

Then, halfway through the summer, Solimano was offered a different job.

“My friend’s father had a gutter business — he put gutters on houses,” he said. “They needed somebody so I left the tile business because I hated it and went to work with my friend’s dad. And he was the greatest guy! We worked hard but he made it fun. He joked around. The difference between those two management styles has always stuck with me. I’m an easy-going person and my style is different from a lot of people. But I still say that this style can work if you have the right people working with you. I don’t think you have to be tough or demanding, because if you get the right people they want to do right on their own. They don’t need you yelling at them all day long. That piece — going from one job to the other — was a class in management, even if it was blue-collar construction stuff.”

And speaking of blue collar work, both jobs taught Solimano that he didn’t want to spend his life doing it. 

“When I went back to school I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll never work in construction,’” he said. “There were a lot of guys who had lives I didn’t want to have. It taught me that I surely didn’t want to be on my knees laying tile floors my whole life.”

But he didn’t have to worry. Early on, Solimano found his calling as an accountant.

“In college I started as a business major because I enjoyed business stuff,” he said. “I took some accounting classes. A lot of my friends started as accounting majors and had trouble and switched out. I did pretty well in accounting. The next summer I got an internship in an accounting office. So you could say I kind of fell into it. I was good at math and did well in accounting. I liked business. It wasn’t that I wanted to try and be an accountant. It just ended up happening.”

First Jobs

Fresh out of school, Solimano took a job with Deloitte & Touche as an external auditor. 

“I really liked it because you’d go for three weeks or a month to different businesses,” he said. “You’d be at different business, auditing and learning about the business and making sure their books were right. The advantage is that you get to know all sorts of businesses.”

He started in Buffalo, NY, but soon asked for a transfer to Boston.

“I wanted a bigger city,” he said. “And upstate New York has weather like Vermont but no mountains. It’s really cold and not really pretty. Vermont, on the other hand, is cold but really pretty. In Buffalo you got the worst parts of winter — you just don’t want to go outside. Here you can really enjoy winter.”

Solimano was impressed with the variety of businesses he worked with in Boston.

“You’d get a lot of clients: retail, high tech, schools, cities, nonprofits,” he said. “I saw all the things I liked and didn’t like. I realized I didn’t want to do nonprofit or government or hospitals. I wanted to be in some sort of for-profit business. But I wasn’t sure what that was. I was there seven years and started moving up. I was specializing in retail and consumer type businesses and software.”

From Boston it was easy to reach the best Eastern ski resorts, so Solimano began to ski seriously.

“As I got older, I started taking ski trips,” he said. “But there’s a down side when you work at Deloitte, winter is the busy season for audits. Most companies are December 31 to year-end. It’s also tax season. Our busiest season was January to April, so it’s tough to go skiing because you work a ton of hours.”

One of his clients was the ski manufacturer Skis Rossignol, which had its North American offices in Burlington, Vermont. Rossignol has two competitive divisions, Rossignol and Dynastar. Foreshadowing the way the rest of his career would develop, Solimano got an unexpected offer to go work at Dynastar. He had already been at Deloitte for seven years, and he found it difficult to pass up.

“I knew the person who was the CFO before, and when he got promoted to president, he called,” Solimano said. “He said, ‘You should come up and take this job.’”

Three weeks before he got this offer to move to Vermont, Solimano went on his very first blind date.

“My name is Italian but I don’t look Italian,” he said. “I am 75 percent Irish and 25 percent Italian. My wife always jokes that she thought I’d be wearing all these gold chains when she met me.”

Yes, the matchmaking worked. The couple dated long-distance for six months before Cara moved up to Vermont and, eventually, to marriage. She now teaches spinning and runs. The couple have three children. Their son, Conor, 16, serves as the student representative on the Vermont Board of Education.

“He’s an overachiever making me look bad,” Solimano joked. “He’s a senior and is at the top of his class. Then I have a daughter, Hannah, who’s a freshman, and my youngest, Lauren, goes to Rutland Town school.”

The whole family skis and the children race.

“We love being in the mountains,” Solimano said.

Solimano stayed with Dynastar for six years before he got another unexpected call — this one about coming down to Killington. 

“They were looking for a CFO,” Solimano said. “I really liked it in Burlington and I wasn’t looking to move, but I came down and did an interview. I met with the then-president and it seemed like a really cool opportunity. Dynastar was interesting, but this was a huge resort. Six base areas, so many food and beverage outlets, retail. I ended up moving down here.”

Killington’s “Dark Days”

In those days, the American Skiing Company was running Killington.

“They were the dark days,” Solimano said. “It was really bad. I started during Christmas week of 2001. I got in at the worst time. The first week we weren’t sure ASC could make payroll. We weren’t even talking about paying our vendors. Killington was doing well but the parent company was struggling. We knew Killington wasn’t going anywhere. There was a chance the parent company would go bankrupt and someone else would buy it.”

Instead, with a strong management team and a good plan, ASC stayed around for a few more years.

“But the first year was the toughest because of the cash flow problems they had,” Solimano said. “You learn a lot from adversity. When it’s really tough, you learn how to do things to save money and shrink the business.”

Things changed dramatically when Powdr bought Killington in 2007. Solimano was still CFO back then.

“We had some rough times when Powdr first bought us, to be totally honest,” Solimano said. “They came from the West. They didn’t understand a lot of things about Killington that were unique. They didn’t understand why you would open a month before anybody else when you don’t make a ton of money. And why stay open a month or two later? Out West they close resorts even when there’s tons of snow, just because people stop coming. They all pick a date and close. We closed a certain part of the mountain mid-week. So we shrunk the season. There was the season pass fiasco, where they rescinded people’s long-term passes. We did a bunch of things to right-size the business, to save money. We did things that on paper make sense, to be fiscally responsible, but it generated a big backlash amongst our season pass-holders and core guests. We raised prices to maybe get a better yield while not having a whole bunch of people up there. I was part of that, so I can’t blame them, but there was a lot of pressure to reconfigure how this place worked.”

Many people lost their jobs in this restructuring— the number is estimated at between 30 and 90 and most were long-time employees. This didn’t play well in the surrounding towns.

“Those people who lost their jobs live in the towns,” Solimano pointed out. 

The mountain might have been more financially stronger, but it wasn’t generating much good will. A culture clash was brewing. 

“As we shrunk our volume, down the road there were fewer people eating at the restaurants,” Solimano said. “What we did on the mountain had a ripple effect because the town is dependent on the resort. We had some growing pains under Powdr. But it started to level out. Powdr started investing money in the resort and people started feeling better about it.”

The Top Job

When the CEO of Killington was tapped to move to Utah and work for Powdr, Solimano became president. That was five years ago. 

“We had a whole bunch of negatives going on,” Solimano said. “We had people buying a pass, skiing a hundred days and complaining about how much the resort’s management team didn’t know what they were doing. We had this really negative vibe going. So we sat down with our management team and said, ‘This is crazy. People are coming all the time, buying season passes, and instead of being a promoter of the resort, they’re telling all these bad stories. They still love the resort, come because the place is great, but they think we’re a bunch of bozos.’”

Powdr gave Solimano and his team the order to turn the place around. 

“We sat down and said, ‘What do we need to do to get this place back to where it was?’” He said. “And a lot of what we did was go back to some of the things Powdr changed in the beginning. What makes Killington great is the hard-core people who absolutely love skiing. This is where they want to be. They’re the ones who come in mid-October and ski on one trail. They’re the ones who want to ski on Memorial Day weekend, on a trail where you may have to take your skis off halfway down the trail and walk for a while, and then put them back on. People out West don’t do that.”

The decision was made to go back to the long season, focus on snowmaking, recreate the party atmosphere and make Killington fun again.

“We started focusing on the guests and guest feedback,” Solimano said. “Before, we were so big it didn’t matter what people thought. We always had more people coming. My team really changed that. My big push is that it’s all about the customer. It’s not, ‘Who cares because they paid you $1,000 and you got their $1,000. If next week they complain because we shut that trail, who cares?’ That was the mentality: The guests don’t know any better and we run the resort. I’ve tried to change the culture. We don’t have a business unless we have these people loving this place.”

That doesn’t mean giving patrons everything they ask for, Solimano pointed out.

“But listening to people and being open?” He said. “We did care. We were doing good things on the mountain even if we didn’t communicate it very well. I joke that in this business, take one trail and one half of the people want it groomed and the other half never want it to be groomed. Trying to make everyone happy is hard. But we should explain our strategy. My management style is to try to communicate, to try to be open and transparent.”

Solimano makes his email public. 

“It’s in every blog, in every document,” he said. “We never used to do that because we didn’t want guest feedback. You couldn’t find a way to communicate with us. Then, if your email is public you’ve got to answer a million emails. For example, today our World Cup tickets went on sale. Our VIP tickets sold out in 10 minutes. And all the people who didn’t get tickets? They emailed me! I’ve already answered a whole bunch back, talking about, ‘Hey, here’s what happened. It was on demand. What do you want me to do? We’ve got a list. If we figure out a way to accommodate more people, we’ll get in touch with you.’ That’s a cultural thing. Our guests should be asking us questions or giving us feedback about what didn’t work, if maybe the servers didn’t work and they got kicked out while trying to buy a ticket on-line. We should be able to listen to them and try to improve things. We’re working on it.”

Earning the trust of the guests meant retraining the staff.

“That to me is the biggest thing I focus on, the culture of our staff,” Solimano said. “If a staff member complains about a guest, I say, ‘You know what? It’s not an annoying person bothering you. That’s the person who’s paying your paycheck.’ We should treat everybody like they’re your brother or cousin or sister coming to the resort. And are we treating every person coming here the same way? It sounds easy and logical, but we didn’t always do it that way.”

So, this is the old Killington but with better manners. 

Bringing Back The Beast 

From a brand standpoint you can’t beat “The Beast of the East.”

“They used to call it that because it was big and aggressive, with a lot of ski trails and a big party life,” Solimano said. “We never called ourselves that, but the customers did.”

For a while, “Beast of the East” didn’t sound very family-friendly. 

“As you try to be a little bit of everything to everybody, we tried to soften our message,” Solimano said. “Then we had a branding group come in. They told us, ‘You are what you are and you should talk about your attributes. When you get rid of the Beast of the East, you’ve lost your biggest asset.’”

Solimano and his team realized that softening the image too much diluted the Killington experience and tampered with its identity. Now they sell bumper stickers that say “Beast of the East.”

“We have embraced it,” Solimano said. “We say, ‘Yeah! We are the beast!’ But we try to soften it for kids. It’s worked pretty well from a branding standpoint because it’s an apparitional brand — people want to come here and experience it. Yes, it’s aggressive. For the aggressive group, that’s the challenge that makes it appealing. It’s our job to make it the same way for all the people who aren’t that. The reality is that although we’re the biggest mountain with some of the steepest trails, we also have the most — and best — learning terrain of any resort on the East Coast. Most resorts would kill to have all the green terrain we have. So we have a ton of really aggressive and a ton of really easy. We always struggle to have a little of the in-between.”

Upgrading the Real Estate

Much of Killington’s rental real estate dates from the 1970s and hasn’t been updated for today’s ski enthusiasts. Because Killington manages and rents out a lot of lodging properties, this troubles Solimano.

“People’s expectations and the competition is so much stronger now,” he said. “I tell people that everyone needs to reinvest in their property. They say, ‘I don’t want to put more money in it.’ I say, ‘The Hampton Inn in Rutland has granite countertops, a flat screen TV and a stainless steel refrigerator. In your unit, even if your refrigerator works, if it’s from 1970 you’re not meeting expectations. The big tube TV doesn’t work any more because people expect it to be on the wall. They don’t want to come to a place they’re paying a lot of money for and it isn’t at that level.’ People’s homes are nicer now. They have granite countertops in their kitchen.”

Solimano points to the new Peak Lodge as an example of architectural upgrading. Powdr tore down the old lodge at the top of the mountain and put in a new, almost completely glassed-in building inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright; it offers almost 360 degree views of the mountains and valleys. 

“When it’s clear, you can see five states and all the mountains,” Solimano said. “And we’re trying to make the rest of our locations model after that. We don’t aspire to be ultra high-end like Stowe or Aspen. Our business model is middle-upper end but never ultra high-end. We put in glass all the way around because of the beautiful views. We changed the food options and made it almost all farm-to-table. All the soups are homemade. In most of our lodges its good soup, but it comes in a bag. Every big facility buys a lot of pre-made stuff. But up there they don’t even have a fryolator. It’s difficult to do up there, so the price point up there is 20 percent more than at our base lodges.” 

Solimano said this taught him that people will pay more for good value.

“People don’t like paying a lot for something of poor value,” he said. “Some people will say it’s expensive, but they’ll say it’s really good. We know it’s working because it’s oversubscribed. People are fighting to get in, even though it’s the most expensive food on the mountains. We’re not going for ultra high-end, but we’re going to go more upscale, because people’s expectations are so much higher. Even the middle of the market has granite countertops.” 

The Business And The Weather 

It’s hard to imagine a more weather-related business than running a ski resort. There’s rain, of course, to dampen a weekend. And unexpectedly spring-like weather. Even if you think bountiful snowfall is a blessing, think about the World Cup and you may sometimes be wrong.

At Killington, the winter of 2015-16 was terrible; there was very little natural snow.

“That was the worst year ever,” Solimano said. “It’s like farming. It’s a tough business. In the last three years, we’ve had the two best years and the absolute worst year we’ve had in 20 years. So our trend is we’re doing really well. We had one year that was so bad it was hard to recover from, but if you take out that year our trajectory is doing really well. The year we just finished was an average year for weather in the East Coast but we had the second best year we’ve ever had. We’re growing in a market even when it was an OK weather year.”

A ski resort is a capital-intensive business. 

“You have to be prepared for bad years,” Solimano said. “It’s a tough model. For us it’s nice that our parent company is private. With American Skiing, you always worried about banks and stockholders. This is a family business and they’re in for the long term. You don’t get huge spikes of capital investment, because they’re much more conservative, but it’s a good model to offset that weather challenge. Even that tough year we had, most of their resorts are out West and as a company they had a really good year. That made up for us.”

Besides diversifying the location of its properties, another way Powdr plans for the long haul is by becoming an “adventure lifestyle company.” 

For example, it owns Camp Woodward, the ultimate summer camp for skaters, cheerleaders and gymnasts, among other young-people’s sports. It also owns Outside TV. 

“They’re not trying to become some huge company, but they’re diversifying,” Solimano said. “The advantage to owning the Woodward is that their whole demographic is 8 to 18. That feeds well into the other businesses. That’s definitely feeding into the mission of how we get people into the store.”

Climate Change

Because of its sensitivity to weather, Killington is not a climate-change denier. It takes the challenges of climate change very seriously and has been actively trying to mitigate its effects.

“Powdr is very committed to the environment,” Solimano said. “They take 1 percent of all revenue and put it back into environmental projects.”

Investing in summer activity is one way of protecting revenue from bad snow years. 

“In the last four years we have added zip lines and ropes courses and an Alpine coaster,” Solimano said. “We’re getting serious about summer. A mountain coaster is a personal roller coaster. We’re adding a whole bunch of different summer assets. We’ve been spending a couple of million dollars building new mountain bike trails lower on the mountain. We’ve had mountain biking for a long time, but it’s really evolved in the past few years. So we’ve been building these new types of trails. We’re really growing our summer business. We’ve finally got summer done right. For the last four years, we’re seeing 50 to 100 percent growth. The numbers are pretty small compared to winter, but it’s really become a substantial amount of our business.”

Snowmaking is another way of mitigating the effects of a low-snow year. But snowmaking takes energy. 

“We’re always investing in new technology for snowmaking,” Solimano said. “In the last couple of years, we’ve reduced our power usage in snowmaking by 30 percent. Of the new snowmaking technology we’re buying, some use 80 percent less energy. The challenge, of course, is they don’t work in all conditions. In a perfect temperature, 10 degrees with low humidity, the new low-energy stuff is unbelievable. But as you change temperatures, you have to use a little bit of everything. This year we’re spending another million dollars on new, really high-efficiency energy guns, and this is above the $2 million we spent a few years ago. We’ve been pretty much retrofitting the whole mountain and trying to reduce our energy use — as much for financial as environmental reasons.”

Ski resorts are accused of depleting the water table, lakes and rivers with their incessant need for water to make artificial snow. Killington is respectful in the way it handles water, Solimano said.

“Locally, we’ve been recycling water and those things for a long time,” Solimano said.

“We have recycling within some of our waste water systems. We use recycled water in the urinals, for example. In terms of snowmaking, we have a pipeline from Woodward Reservoir. We pipe the water into some of our ponds. We also have streams, and there are regulations that allow us to actually take water out of the streams. You can never take below the overflow, but if the water goes over, it fills our ponds. If it fills them, that’s good. If it doesn’t, we take it from somewhere else. We pump it up on the hill and make snow. Unfortunately on the East Coast, it warms up, it rains normal cycles, the snow runs down the mountains, fills those streams and goes into the ponds. So it’s effectively recycling. We’d prefer it not to recycle early in the season, but it’s a cycle.”

Killington has built four large 500KWh solar farms on flat land near the mountain to lower its energy costs. 

“We use a lot of power, but we looked around here and the problem we have is our mountains are too big,” Solimano said. “They leave too much shade. So instead of starting the solar on the mountain, we invested off-site. We’re starting to see those credits on our power bill. Now we’re starting to do solar trackers on the mountain. We want them all across the ridge between Killington and Pico. You’re going to start to see solar trackers everywhere. At the Pico base lodge we’re putting solar on the whole building. We’ve got a lot of things like that. We have green charging stations and we’re putting more in. We’re adding two Tesla charging stations; the one at Sky Base is going in this week.”

The mountain is also a good customer for Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power, made from the methane gas generated from the rear end of a cow. 

“We run the gondola and the Peak off cow power, and we get billed separately for that,” Solimano said. “We also do tons of trash recycling. We’re making a huge effort. Do I believe climate change is real? We’re not deniers. We believe it’s happening and we’re doing the best we can. We want to do commerce on the mountain, so we don’t want it to be totally pristine. But we want to be good stewards to the mountain.”

The Accidental CEO

For Mike Solimano, the future looks a lot like the past: more snow, faster trails, granite countertops.

And more people. He’s working with the Rutland Economic Development Corp and others in a regional marketing effort to increase the population of the area. After all, it’s hard to find 3,000 employees in a state with such a low unemployment rate. According to REDC executive director Lyle Jepson, the project wouldn’t have legs without Killington’s support.

“For a year and a half now we have been collaborating on how we can leverage the outdoor adventure opportunities we have in our region, specifically around the topic of population growth,” Jepson said. “We are very interested in having people come here to live, work and play. The mountain would like more visitors, but it also needs skilled employees. And a common thread through any conversation we have with businesses is that they cannot find skilled employees for the jobs that are available.”

Together, REDC and Killington formed a regional marketing initiative — a collaboration of businesses, nonprofits and municipalities. 

“We hired a marketing firm specifically charged with getting the word out about our quality of life and the availability of jobs and the great outdoor recreational activities we have,” Jepson said. “We’re calling it the Killington Valley Committee. We’re leveraging the strong brand which is Killington in support of our entire county. And Mike is one of the visionaries and leaders within our region. He is positioned perfectly in terms of his character and his understanding of how we all need to collaborate in order to be successful. He has the long game in mind. And for the first time in a long time, people are telling me that towns like Killington and Rutland are talking together and working on a common project. That hasn’t happened in recent memory. Mike is a big player. He knows the future is about the entire region.”

It’s not surprising that there have been other phone calls, other job offers. But Solimano claims he’s not interested.

“I’m proof that if you work hard and you’re always trying to do the right thing. good things will happen,” he said. “You don’t have to be. ‘Oh my god, I want this job someday and I’ll steamroll people to get there.’ My style is more like. ‘Hey! How do we make this place better? How do we work as a team? How do we keep feeling proud of the place we work?’ When I look at this political stuff going on, the real world doesn’t have to work like that. People think all business people are bad and all corporations are evil. But corporations are just a bunch of people. So if we’re good people, I think we can do good things.”

Solimano’s goal is to provide a good entertainment experience for every one of Killington’s guests.

“We provide places people want to come,” he said. “And people love coming to this place. If we can treat our employees right, and create a culture that people want to work in, in a fun industry, we’ll be fine. I love what I’m doing and I’ll keep going as long as I enjoy the job. I love it here. My family loves it here. I’ve had a lot of opportunities, a lot of people calling about other jobs, bigger resorts, out West, other things like that. But we’re pretty rooted here.”

Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She is currently writing a memoir covering six generations of her family caught in the sweep of history across the 20th Century. She is writing another book about Vermont businesses. More of her work appears at her Web site, joycemarcel.com.

This article originally ran in the October 2017 issue of Vermont Business Magazine.