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About Utah: Ski Utah director Nathan Rafferty living the dream

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 10:03 p.m. MST

Nathan Rafferty has written it into the employee bylaws that if more than a foot of snow falls, the staff can ski.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years ago, back in his college days, Nathan Rafferty's idea of a dream job was one that would pay for his ski pass.

Man, did he get what he wished for.

As president and CEO of Ski Utah, the marketing and promotions arm of Utah's ski and snowboard industry, Rafferty's job IS skiing.

He's been in charge of the organization for the past six years, and he isn't your conventional CEO. Take his "powder clause," for instance. He has written it into the employee bylaws that if more than a foot of snow has fallen overnight, the staff (including him) can go skiing or boarding, on the provision that when they get to the office they have to work half again as many hours as they took off.

His basic philosophy is if you don't love it, you can't sell it.

"We've got a whole bunch of people who go out in the morning and climb mountains and ski down them and then come to work," says Rafferty. "It's not the kind of office where you have to be here at 8 sharp. If you run that kind of place, guess when everyone's leaving? 5:01."

He tosses the latest Ski Utah annual publicity report on the table like a parent showing off his kid's straight-A report card.

"It's fun to look at because it's compiled by people having a good time," he says.

Drudgery mystifies Rafferty. It is to be avoided at all costs.

As he says, "You've just got to have your priorities right, right?"

Rafferty is as homespun as Utah skiers come. He was born in Florida, but moved to Salt Lake City before he turned 1 when his dad left the Air Force and enrolled at the University of Utah. He didn't take up skiing until he was 13. He started at ParkWest (now Canyons resort), where he took lessons alongside the little sisters of his buddies who had been skiing since they were 5. It was the ideal motivation. "I got better really fast, or I couldn't ski with friends," remembers Nathan.

By the time he was at Highland High School he had a season pass and locker at Solitude and caught the UTA bus from the Foothill Village stop near his house.

Thinking college in a warm climate sounded appealing, he enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, but skiing was never far away. He got a job with a company organizing U. of A.'s annual college ski trip to the Purgatory resort in Durango, Colo. The previous winter, 120 students signed up. Nathan registered 750, and got a commission of $1 for every signup. Maybe he couldn't sell everything, but he could sell skiing.

From there, a career path was launched. After an internship with Ski Utah in the summer of 1994, he hired on as a ski host at Park City Mountain Resort. He skied 115 days that winter and got paid $3.35 an hour for doing it. The next two winters he was office manager at Ski Utah — the guy who answered phones and manned the fax machine — and after two winters back at Park City working in the sales department, he returned to Ski Utah as public relations director, a position he held until he took over as president and CEO in 2005, when he was 34 years old.

Five of the six seasons he's been in charge have seen Utah's first-ever 4 million-plus skier days.

"He brings an extreme level of enthusiasm to everything he does," says Dave Fields, vice president of resort operations at Snowbird resort. "He makes it all look so easy because he moves between groups so well. You're talking about somebody who can talk to (Utah Gov.) Gary Herbert and a lifty at a resort and make them both feel good and that what they're doing is important."

What Fields and others say is most contagious about Rafferty's enthusiasm is his underlying energy to get out of the tie and onto the hill.

A couple of years ago, Snowbird held a "tram-off "with Jackson Hole in Wyoming to see which resort's team could ski the most vertical feet off their respective trams in a day. Snowbird assembled an all-woman team, but Rafferty and an editor of a skiing magazine shadowed the women every run the entire day.

"He just wanted to be a part of it even if he wasn't a part of it," says Fields.

The crazier the stunt, the better. Rafferty twice has skied all the resorts in northern Utah in a single day. He's skied more than 100,000 vertical feet in a day on multiple occasions. He's competed in the extreme ski competition at Squaw Valley in California. And in summers, he's liable to take off on his road bike or motorcycle and wind up in another state, or continent. This past May, he celebrated turning 40 with a six-day off-road motorcycle trip in Morocco that traversed the Atlas Mountains and ended in the Sahara Desert.

"As cool as it gets," he says.

Until the next thing.

"I don't think of it as crazy, I think of it as fun," Rafferty says. "I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world, doing what I love."

His only worry?

"I just hope I never get complacent," he says.

You've just got to keep your priorities right, right?

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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