Buying a mountain

Catamount Ranch development partners in running with ski area suitors

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— Tim Mueller confirmed Thursday that he and his wife, Diane, are in the running to purchase the Steamboat Ski Area.

The Muellers were partners in the Catamount Ranch & Club real estate development here, and are the sole owners of Okemo Mountain ski resort in Vermont.

"Obviously we have some ties to Steamboat," Mueller said from his office at Okemo in Ludlow, Vt. "We think Steamboat is a great mountain, a great resort and a great town. With the proper operator, it can reach its full potential."

Mueller said he is still hopeful he can reach an agreement to purchase Steamboat in time to close on the transaction before the first of the year. However the deal probably will not get done before the beginning of ski season on Nov. 21.

"I think it's got to happen fairly quickly in the next few weeks," Mueller said of cementing an agreement.

The Muellers were also bidding this summer to partner with the city of Denver to reinvigorate the Winter Park Ski Area about 100 miles east of Steamboat.

However, the two finalists to fill that role have been named and the Muellers are not among them.

Steamboat Today has also confirmed with a source in the ski industry that Goldner Hawn Johnson & Morrison Inc. a large Minneapolis-based investment banking firm is in the running to acquire Steamboat. GHJ&M is not a ski area operator.

Steamboat Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth would not confirm the interest of any prospective owners, citing confidentiality statements the ski area has signed.

Wirth said the sale process remains "fully engaged;" however, none of the prospective suitors was in town for site visits this week.

A spokesman for GHJ&M did not return a phone call on Thursday, but the firm's Web site indicates that it typically acquires companies with recent annual operating profits of at least $4 million. Then, within a 4- to 7-year time frame, GHJ&M works with the management team of the acquired company to strengthen its position and move toward an exit strategy that could include a sale, merger, public offering or advantageous refinancing.

Mueller said he is aware of GHJ&M's interest in acquiring Steamboat. He said he and his wife have received a great deal of "moral support" from acquaintances and business partners regarding their interest in Steamboat. The Muellers acquired Catamount with another Vermont native and part-time Steamboat resident Lyman Orton. They brought in the Cordillera Group from the Vail Valley to successfully develop luxury home sites and a golf course here.

Asked if he would bring other investment partners into the Steamboat deal, Mueller said that issue "could go either way."

"Possibly there would be some may even be local people," Mueller said, but Cordillera is not involved at this time. "Our plan would be to put together a package not only to purchase the resort and some of the real estate, but to ensure significant capital improvements within the first couple of years."

Mueller is also mindful of the prospects of the coming ski season and said he would build a cushion into his financial planning in order to protect against the potential downsides of a "risky year."

If GHJ&M should emerge as the successful bidder for Steamboat, the ski area would easily rank as the most glamorous of the companies in the investment firm's portfolio. Other companies controlled by GHJ&M include a padlock company, a manufacturer of aerosol cans and a laminated wood-flooring manufacturer.

Another investment banking firm reported to be interested in Steamboat is Babcock and Brown of San Francisco. A spokesperson for the firm said Thursday the company would have no comment on the pending sale of Steamboat.

One ski area operator that is not in the running to purchase Steamboat is Powdr Corp., owner of Park City Mountain Resort and recent purchaser of Mount Bachelor near Bend, Ore.

Vern Greco, president and general manager of Park City Mountain Resort said his company showed a very preliminary interest in Steamboat, but has not been involved for many weeks. Greco is a former president of the Steamboat Ski Area himself.

Powdr did sign a confidentiality statement allowing it access to Steamboat's books, Greco said. And his company did engage in conversations with company officials, but those were part of a larger discussion with American Skiing Company, owner of Steamboat, Greco said. Steamboat was never a specific target of Powdr Corp., Greco said.

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