The cheap champagne is chilling in the brisk Vermont air as the new $5 million enclosed-cab gondola lift at Killington - the largest ski area in New England - gets prepped for its first run with a load of skiers.
The guy who owns the place is waiting on the lift deck, but he's not holding court.No, Les Otten, skiing's most audacious deal maker, is smack in the middle of an impromptu bucket brigade, grunting and grinning as he lifts sandbags - stand-ins for live bodies during the lift's final safety check - in front of a crowd of 200 anxious skiers chanting the lift's name, "K-1, K-1, K-1!"
Twelve weeks earlier, this mile-long, high-speed lift was nothing more than a concept in search of capital. But Otten, a graying 48-year-old entrepreneur who has built a skiing empire through a combination of innovation, risk taking and aggressive marketing, is never comfortable without something new to sell.
Killington's big unveiling for the 1997-1998 season was supposed to be a connecting trail linking it with Pico, a neighboring resort also owned by Otten. When that was delayed midsummer by a snag in a land-swap deal with the state of Vermont, Otten simply shifted gears, making the new gondola his project du jour.
It's also a source of amazement to Wayne (Mother) Smith, a lift mechanic who has worked at Killington for 35 years. Watching the final preparations, Smith spits and shakes his head as a car painted to look like a hot tub swings around on the lift's bull wheel.
"Not too many years ago, if you said you were going to put a gondola up in this amount of time," he says, "people would say you're nuts."
In a way, the lift embodies Otten's entire American Skiing Company operation: It's high-tech, it moves fast and, arguably, it's a study in excess. Killington, after all, already had one high-speed gondola, and skiers there were doing just fine without a second. But that's the Otten technique: a never-sit-still approach to selling a sport whose basics - pointing skis or a snowboard downhill and sliding away - really don't change that much.
Less than four years ago, Otten's only holding was Sunday River, a Maine resort that he turned around at a time when the ski industry as a whole was struggling to jump-start growth.
A decade earlier, Otten had taken a tiny area on shaky financial ground, put in new lifts, new trails and snow guns and hyped it all as though he had personally invented winter. Then he really cleaned up by building condominiums and hotels for a middle-class clientele, who bought into the idea that this relatively remote resort was the new hot spot in New England skiing. The formula worked so well that Otten was anointed skiing's reigning visionary.
"Les has always been in the vanguard," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "He sees opportunity where others don't."
Now Otten is trying to become skiing's Donald Trump. In the last few years he has been buying ski areas the way most skiers buy lift tickets, often focusing on sagging resorts that can benefit from an infusion of money and energy.
In 1994 and 1995 he purchased Attitash, a struggling New Hampshire area, and Sugarbush, a northern Vermont area that had also fallen on hard times. In 1996 he bought Killington, Sunday River's major competitor.
Ski-industry insiders joked that adding Killington to Otten's holdings was the snow-business equivalent of a Coke-Pepsi merger, but the U.S. Justice Department didn't find it very funny. Seeing that Otten had all but cornered the market in Maine and New Hampshire and had made major inroads into Vermont, the government ordered him to sell Cranmore and Waterville Valley, two New Hampshire areas that he owned, effectively clamping the lid on any more East Coast expansion.
Otten's response? Go west. In the fall of 1997 he bought two of the largest resorts in the country: Steamboat, in central Colorado, and Heavenly, the Lake Tahoe area where Sonny Bono died. He also added Wolf Mountain, a small Utah resort that he promptly rechristened The Canyons.
These acquisitions - and more that will probably follow - will insulate Otten's East Coast empire from the effects of balmy winters and give him a hedge against a problem that bedevils any Eastern-ski-resort owner: the perception that the East is fine for weekends, but the West is where you spend six days and five nights.
The price tag for this shopping spree: $325 million. The financing: leverage from Otten's real-estate holdings and a public stock offering that sold briskly after it was announced last October.
And the stakes? That's a matter of opinion, but they're considerable. Out West, Otten is entering crowded marketplaces in three of the world's premier skiing zones, and there's no guarantee that his more-more-more formula will impress anyone there.
If it does, his success will do a lot to accelerate an existing trend toward consolidation and development that, over time, has taken American skiing away from its rough-and-ready post-World War II roots and toward a style best exemplified by the Ottenized Sunday River: deluxe, well-groomed and, to some skiers, somewhat generic and off-putting.
If he fails, there will be a lot of unsold condos, out-of-work lift attendants and smug I-told-you-so's. As the saying goes: If Les Otten gets a hernia, the entire ski industry goes shopping for a truss.
For now, Otten is living in the moment. As he steps back to survey the scene at the K-1 lift, he's still grinning, but it's hard to know exactly why. Is it because he sees the chanting skiers, clamoring to board the lift, as a harbinger of skiing's new golden age, a replay of the days when Jackie O. graced the slopes at Sugarbush? Or is it simply because he gets to flex his muscles in front of an audience?
Otten doesn't let on. Still beaming, he searches for a broom to sweep up stray sand.
As Otten and I chug slowly over a teeming beginner trail at Kill-ing-ton, on an ancient Snowshed chairlift, he describes how in the winter of 1973 he spent his first job as a management trainee and lift operator here, saying, "Hi, there! Have a great run!" a thousand times a day.
Whatever Otten learned in those days, it's easy to see why skiing attracted him. Twenty-five years ago, the sport didn't need much image building - it had edge, and skiers such as Billy Kidd, Suzy Chaffee and Spider Sabich became cultural icons. But the cachet didn't necessarily translate into profits.
In the mid-'70s, Otten was put in charge of Sunday River, then a small Killington-owned day area in Bethel, Me., and a textbook example of how to lose money in the skiing business. Sunday River was rundown, and it hemorrhaged more than a quarter of a million dollars annually. The owners were mainly looking for a tourniquet.
By the winter of 1980, after years of seeing his grand revitalization plans get shot down by management, Otten, then 30, made his move. In a now-legendary display of chutzpah, he first threatened to quit, then convinced the Killington brass to sell him Sunday River and lend him the cash to buy it.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," he recalls with thinly disguised glee. "My father. My wife. Everyone."
At first, Otten got by largely on luck and hard work, but slowly his hustle and ideas began to pay off. The first step was coming up with something "new" to sell, which led to Otten's first epiphany: It's the snow, stupid.
Sounds obvious, but when Otten started out as an owner, New England ski areas were not making snow as energetically as they do today. Otten's investment in snow guns let Sunday River stay white during those inevitable Eastern thaws that browned out his competitors.
The promotions helped - Otten turned Sunday River into the second largest resort in the East, growing from 40,000 skier visits a year in 1980 to 550,000 last season. But real estate was and still is Otten's main moneymaker.
In 1993, 56 percent of Sunday River's operating income came from development ventures. Otten began by building midprice condo units that middle-class owners would rent for most of the year, providing lucrative vacation business for the resort.
Lately, he has expanded that concept to include a "Grand Summit Hotel" at most of his Eastern areas. With each of the hotels' 200 quarter-share units selling for an average of $60,000, the total works out to a cool $48 million per resort. If the units sell out, the payoff is more than what Otten paid for a midsize area like Sugarbush.
Now Otten is poised to go national with this strategy. His prospectus for the stock offering tantalizes investors with the potential of up to 30,000 more residential units companywide. Sticking with that $60,000-per-quarter-share average, that represents a total market price of $7.2 billion.
Of course, Otten's success hasn't come without a cost, mostly to his competitors. By Otten's own estimate, more than 70 percent of his skiers were lured from other areas. That kind of draw-off has a tangible impact.
Since the mid-'70s, the number of U.S. ski areas has dropped from more than 700 to 521, with many of the victims being small New England areas that just couldn't keep up with the capital-intensive improvements that big operations like Otten's rely on.
Such are the facts of life in any competitive business, but to many skiers, the smaller areas are important, in large part because their retro charm keeps a fair amount of funk in the sport. As more of the surviving areas follow Otten's drive to capture the middle of the market - with fast lifts, generic condos and wide, buffed-out slopes that are like skiing superhighways - skiing as a whole has become homogenized.
Otten's detractors say he's the king of the milkmen. In fact, his success has fueled anti-Otten sentiments throughout ski country, where bumper stickers like "Don't Settle for Les" and "Less Otten" are still displayed proudly on rusted Subarus.
"There's a world of difference between the tradition of mom-and-pop skiing and Les Otten's industrial skiing," says Randy Koch, a carpenter turned activist who is one of Otten's staunchest critics. He adds, "I think Otten is basically running a Ponzi scheme supported by these hotels and condos."
And while Otten has proved that real estate may be the quickest way to make money in the ski industry, history has shown that it's the quickest way to lose it, too.
How precarious is Otten's perch? It depends on whom you ask.
"On the basis of current operations, they're not highly leveraged," says Mark Manson, leisure analyst of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, one of the underwriters of the initial public offering.
The ASC prospectus, which must rely on past performance rather than future projections, paints a less-rosy picture, calling the company "highly leveraged" and revealing that for the last fiscal year "the company's earnings would have been insufficient to cover fixed charges by approximately $3.2 million."
What this means is that Otten's stockholders are counting on him to bolster ASC's bottom line. So far he seems to be doing it, at least based on midseason numbers for 1997-1998, which revealed a companywide increase in revenues of 23.2 percent.
Does the future risk worry Otten? Not really. He cites the riches-to-rags-to-riches story of his father, Albert Otten, who lost his steel fortune when the Nazis held power in Germany and then rebuilt it in America. "I've always been more interested in building than having," he says.
That may represent a mixed message to investors, but never having lost a gamble, Otten is sure he won't start now. To him, the task ahead can be reduced to a simple equation: more and more. More baby boomers are hitting the time of life when they can afford to buy ski homes. More of their kids will take up skiing or snowboarding and insure a period of sustained growth.
"Sometimes when you're buying into the bottom of the market, you wonder if you're really buying at the bottom of the market," he emphasizes. "We're totally convinced we're at the bottom of the market."
But ultimately Otten's style is a sort of skier capitalism: Whatever happens, he's going for it.