DEER VALLEY — Bob Wheaton isn’t exactly the ancient of days. He’s just 66, and with the ruddy, perpetually tanned complexion of someone who wore a ski parka to the office every day, he could easily pass for a good decade younger.
But he has been around, and he is, after all, officially retired — well, at least semiretired; he is now called a “senior strategic adviser” — so on his transition out as president and chief operating officer of Deer Valley Resort, after a half-century in the business, he is bound to get his fair share of questions about the evolution of the ski industry.
Is where it’s been better than where it’s heading, or is it the other way around? Are the new multiresort season passes helping or hurting the sport? What about the new conglomerates of resorts? And just how big of a concern is global warming?
People want to know. And few have seen the industry as up close and personal as Bob Wheaton.
Or how many people do you know who started out as janitor and wound up running the place?
Admittedly, janitor is an exaggeration. But it is true that Wheaton’s first position at Deer Valley was maintenance supervisor, aka chief custodian.
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He’d found his way to the Utah mountains like a pilgrim. Wheaton grew up in Michigan. When he was in junior high he joined the school ski club. By age 15 he was working as a ski instructor at Mount Holly, a little 40-acre resort 50 miles northwest of Detroit that’s ads boasted of “347 actual vertical feet.”
Teaching skiing, along with a variety of other jobs — including shifts at the Uniroyal tire plant alongside his father — got Wheaton through Macomb College in southeast Michigan, where he earned a degree in engineering. His long-range plan was to settle down and do something as an engineer.
His short-range plan was to continue skiing.
At Mount Holly, he met a girl named Marion who impressed him with her skiing and in every other way. In the early spring of 1978, as ski season in the Midwest was about to end, he talked Marion into hopping in the truck with him for a monthlong tour of the ski resorts in the Rockies. They drove all night and arrived in Wyoming at Jackson Hole Ski Area, their first stop, at 8 a.m. — just in time for the lifts to open.
For Bob and Marion, this was high romance. Sometime that day on the chairlift, ascending Jackson’s 4,100 vertical feet, he asked her to marry him and she said yes.
Their trip continued through Idaho, Utah and Colorado.
When they got back to Michigan, they decided that once they got married in August they would return to the West and find jobs as ski instructors. Their top three destinations were Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Park City; and Durango, Colorado.
Park City wound up offering them jobs, so that’s where they went.
In 1978, the Park City Ski Area, its runs built atop played-out mining claims, had recently been sold by wealthy developer Edgar Stern. But Stern hadn’t sold all of it. He kept 2,100 undeveloped acres on the mountains south and east of the town, all of it private property, thus ensuring he could develop the kind of high-end resort he had in mind without interference from the Forest Service or other public entities.
When Edgar Stern’s soon-to-open Deer Valley resort started hiring, Wheaton joined a parade of locals who applied for jobs.
He first applied for ski school director. He didn’t get that.
Next he applied for ski school supervisor. Didn’t get that either.
He did manage to get hired as a ski instructor, a job that would start in December.
But he heard they were also looking for a maintenance manager — a person who would oversee the buildings and infrastructure of the new resort. It was the kind of position that would suit someone with an engineering degree, and it was opening immediately.
“It was a tough decision. It meant I wouldn’t be making my living in ski boots anymore,” remembers Wheaton. “But it was a year-round job, which was really enticing to me, with benefits and all that stuff.”
So he threw his hat in the ring and got the job.
The position put him in close proximity with Edgar Stern and his wife, Polly. He learned of their intention to run their new resort like the five-star hotels the Sterns' parent company, Royal Street, owned in New Orleans and San Francisco. Paying clients wouldn’t be customers, they’d be guests. They’d be treated like they’d just arrived at the Royal Orleans or Stanford Court. The bathrooms would have brass fixtures. The food would vie for a Michelin star. There would be a cap on how many people would be allowed on the mountain a day. And daily lift tickets would be $29 — $10 more than Aspen and triple what Alta was charging. The highest in the industry.
There was plenty of skepticism about Deer Valley making it, remembers Wheaton.
“A lot of people didn’t think it would fly. Could you run a resort that different in a pretty entrenched industry? On the one hand you’ve got the industry over here where guest service may be talked about, maybe, but that’s about as far as it goes. And the food, if you get a warm cardboard hamburger you’re doing pretty well. And then you look at the food at Deer Valley and you’re going, 'Wow!' It was a big shift in philosophy and the cost structure was dramatically different.”
The resort had its growing pains. Despite the Sterns’ deep reserves — Edgar was an heir to the Sears fortune — they brought in a partner when Roger Penske, the race car magnate, bought into the resort in 1987.
By that time Wheaton had been promoted from maintenance manager to equipment manager to director of ski operations, averaging a promotion every other year. The next year, in 1988, he became general manager, in 1989 vice president of operations and in 1997 — by now knowing more or less every nut, bolt, ledger, corner, purveyor, lift operator, food server, greeter, snowcat driver, snowmaker, ski instructor, brass fixture and janitor at Deer Valley — his meteoric rise culminated with Stern and Penske naming him president of the company and chief operating officer.
He looked around and it was just Stern, Penske and him.
“Which one didn’t fit?” he asks.
But Wheaton did fit, and famously. His talent, say those who watched his ascension through the ranks, was getting along. With pretty much everyone. Owners, staff, guests, even the unruly ones. Wheaton’s genius was treating the staff as well as the guests. There’s more than one story of a high-powered billionaire being brought to task by Wheaton when the abuse of a staff member went beyond all propriety.
“We’ll take care of your problem,” he’d say to the guest. “But first you’ve got to apologize for how you treated the staff member.”
In commenting on Wheaton’s management style, Edgar Stern, before his passing in 2008, said, “Bob Wheaton never forces an idea down anyone’s throat. He runs Deer Valley using a method of group consensus. There is a very relaxed atmosphere in which no one hesitates to comment or criticize.”
“Bob Wheaton didn’t have to read ‘Good to Great’ to become a level five leader,” says Chuck Coonradt, a management consultant who has worked with Deer Valley for more than 30 years. “He has a unique blend of humility and passion. He has absolute awareness of the importance of people.”
Wheaton kept in touch with Deer Valley’s enormous staff — at 3,000 employees, the largest employer in Summit County — by putting on his skis virtually every day he was on the job. He’d get out and take a tour of the mountain, sometimes alone, sometimes with other managers, checking out the runs, observing the snow quality, talking to guests and staff, sometimes hosting VIPs ranging from former presidents to sports legends to movie stars.
But in Deer Valley lore, the stories that live on about Wheaton aren’t as much about he and Stein Eriksen showing Bill and Hillary Clinton around as are the ones about the times ski lift operators — seeing him in his Deer Valley uniform, having no idea who he was — asking him if he’d take over for them so they could take a bathroom break.
“Sure,” Wheaton would say, dutifully loading chairs as a mountain supervisor skied up and did a double take, wondering what in the world the president of the company was doing being a lifty.
“He would never ask an employee to do something he wouldn’t do,” says Nathan Rafferty, the president of Ski Utah. “I personally watched him change Kleenex boxes in the lift line. He could have easily delegated that task. And I think it says a lot that he wore the same uniform that the lifties did.
“Bob was an exceptional listener. I must have sat through literally hundreds of meetings with Bob over the years. He spoke the least … but when he did, people listened.”
Under Wheaton’s hands-on management style, the Utah resort became the creme de la creme in the North American ski industry. In 1998, the year after Wheaton took over as president, Deer Valley cracked the top three in Ski magazine’s prestigious Best Resorts in North America rankings for the first time. For the next 20 years, until the magazine discontinued the rankings in 2018, Deer Valley finished No. 1 a record-setting eight times, including five consecutive years from 2008-12 — out of more than 700 North America ski and snowboard resorts.
Since the World Ski Awards began in 2013, Deer Valley has been named Best Resort in the United States every single year, right through Wheaton’s retirement a year ago.
His departure comes at a time when the ski world is seeing seismic shifts. Two years ago, Deer Valley was bought by Alterra Mountain, a company that has since acquired a total of 14 destination resorts, including, among others, Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado, Squaw Valley and Big Bear in California and Stratton in Vermont. Alterra is a competitive challenger to Vail Resorts, owner of 19 resorts, including Park City Mountain, Vail, Whistler Blackcomb and Breckenridge, among others.
These new “big boxes” of ski resorts offer season tickets (Alterra’s Ikon and Vail’s Epic) that are good for all their resorts at a price far more affordable than buying single-day lift tickets for anyone who skis or boards more than a handful of times a year.
It’s as revolutionary a concept as Deer Valley was back in 1981.
Wheaton’s opinion is the new trend is a good thing, and he insists it’s not just because Deer Valley has joined the Alterra conglomerate.
“It’s different, there’s no doubt about it, but I think it’s better in a lot of ways,” he says. “With the whole consolidation thing there is a much broader breadth of resources that are available to ski area operators that are within that consortium. The ski business is a small industry, everybody knows everybody and for the most part everybody’s pretty darn good friends. But having said that, as an independent operator you never really know for sure what other people might be doing that you’re not. Before, nobody ever shared financials and that kind of stuff. Now, you can look at what’s working for somebody else and see how it can help you, too.
“And there’s better buying power. When you buy, say, a detachable chairlift, or a grooming cat, those are not small ticket items. When you get a 2 percent discount because you’re buying volume, it’s huge.”
Who benefits from all that?
“I really think that one of the big winners is going to be the skier and snowboarder,” says Wheaton. “It’s so much more affordable now. Look at season passes now versus 10 years ago, and with that same pass you’re able to ski at dozens of other ski areas and those ski areas are literally around the world.
"People used to think, ‘I don’t need a season pass unless I’m right next to the ski area.’ Now, if somebody’s going on a week’s ski vacation it makes total sense to buy a season pass. I think participation is going to increase.”
As for the higher rate for a single day pass, Wheaton says, “From a business standpoint, as season prices go down the ticket window pricing has to go up.”
Global warming is “absolutely real,” he says. “Do I think we can turn it around? One hundred percent, maybe not. But can we have a measurable effect? Absolutely. I don’t know anybody (in the ski industry) that’s not trying to do their part to try and affect change not only in the ski area but in educating our guests as to what’s important.”
At Deer Valley, he notes, they’re focused on sustainability in every phase of the resort. That includes snow-making, which has increased by leaps and bounds since Wheaton first came to Deer Valley in 1981. Then, a resort could survive without making snow. Now, it’s imperative.
“We can make more snow now with a fifth of the energy that we could 10 years ago,” he says. “And we can make snow at a warmer temperature because of the technology. It costs money, but it’s good for our company, for the economy in the town, for the ski industry and the environment.”
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As Wheaton phases into the next phase of life, Alterra has tapped him as a senior strategic adviser, “which means I get to opine my opinions in the general direction of the company and all the other ski areas as well.”
It also means he doesn’t have to work every day.
“I think it’s the right time for me to move on,” he says. “We’ve had a retirement plan for years.”
In January, he and Marion, who will celebrate 41 years together this August, took their first winter vacation since that truck trip to the Rockies 40 years ago, traveling to Costa Rica and Panama. Home base is their 400-acre ranch in Woodland, just over the mountain from Deer Valley, where they raise horses and alfalfa.
“We enjoy horses and ranching all that kind of stuff,” says Wheaton. “I like hopping in the tractor and cutting hay and when it’s time to bale I cut it and flip it and Marion runs the baler. It’s a lot of work but something we really enjoy.”
Looking back on his 50 years in skiing, Wheaton confesses he has a hard time believing his good fortune.6 comments on this story
“I’ve been very, very fortunate,” he says. “My dad built tires for a living and that’s how I knew I didn’t want to do that. Skiing wasn’t something I was going to do forever. It took a long time for my mom to quit asking me when I was going to get a real job. After a while, after I’d been GM for 20 years, I was like, ‘Mom, come on, there’s 3,000 people that work here and I’m kinda the guy running the show. You know, it’s kind of a real job.’
“She said, ‘Yeah, but you still ski every day.’”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.”