Retiring Steamboat exec Chris Diamond didn’t set out to run ski resorts – it just happened that way
July 5, 2015
Steamboat Springs — Chris Diamond's rise in the ski industry — from bartender at the Wobbly Barn in Killington, Vermont, to vice president of corporate development for one of the biggest ski area operators in New England to a 15-year run as president of the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. — has a lot to do with fate.
Everyone has a fateful career story to tell, and in the case of Diamond, who retired this week it, was the Vietnam era military draft that disrupted his academic goals and delivered him in a most roundabout way to an early ski industry mentor who taught him to think on his feet.
From humble New England beginnings…..
Diamond played pond hockey more often than he skied as a boy.
"My mother, Mary Diamond, still lives in the house I grew up in," Diamond said. "She is a retired social worker. She went on ski trips — I think we skied with her once. But she was pretty risk averse. Fortunately, I had an aunt Jacqueline who was a great sport. She took my cousin, Alan, and I up to Berkshire East; it was owned by the Brown family, and it was all rope tows."
It was the 1950s — Diamond and his cousin earned their lift passes by ski packing the slopes. He recalls the base lodge with an old stone floor, the smell of burgers on a grill and the large numbers of college kids who came to ski and formed impromptu music groups, playing wash basins and guitars. It was heady stuff.
"It was great," he said. "We didn't have any money, and my gear was always old. My first pair of skis with metal edges were Northlands. Yeah, I had leather boots."
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Uncle Sam throws Diamond a curve ball
Relaxed and looking forward to a weeklong bike tour in the southern Colorado Rockies early this month, Diamond mused on how unexpected delays in the beginning of his two-year stint in the military bought him time to study at the elbow of one of the early marketing gurus in the ski industry.
"I got my notice to report for active duty (in February) the day before Christmas 1969, right before the beginning of my third semester of graduate school at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst," Diamond recalled. "I was supposed to go to Fort Gordon, Georgia."
Diamond had been so certain he would be drafted that he enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at UMass Amherst so that he would enter military service as a lieutenant.
"I wanted to have some control over my destiny," he explained.
Of course, no one is really in charge of their own destiny.
With there being no point in signing up for second semester classes in 1970, Diamond headed north to Killington Ski Area and the familiar Wobbly Barn.
And that's when fortune smiled on him.
"I was very lucky," he said. "Foster Chandler, arguably the most brilliant marketing guy in the ski business, asked me if I would work for him over the Christmas holiday, writing press releases for $25 a day and a free pass."
Wouldn't you know it? Killington received five feet of snow between Christmas and New Year's. And Uncle Sam continued to equivocate.
"As it turned out, my reporting date was postponed until fall, so I had this wonderful learning experience. That said, I never thought I'd end up in the ski business. I just figured I'd pass some time and have a great experience."
After he mustered out of the Army, Diamond's ambitions with regard to English lit were way up in the air.
"I had no desire to go back to grad school," he said. "All my friends had moved, on and my faculty advisor was off to Canada."
Instead, he did what came naturally and headed back to Killington, where the president of the ski area offered him a job as his assistant.
"Preston Leete Smith was one of the great entrepreneurs and leaders in the ski business," Diamond said.
When the Army vet showed up for his first day on the job, his new boss was on the phone with his feet propped up on his desk.
"I get there on the first day, and I'm all excited, and I remember saying, 'I'm really glad to be back and looking forward to working with you.' Then I asked for a job description."
Leete Smith picked up a stack of legal pads and flung them across the desk, hitting his new protege in the chest.
"Listen, I want you to sit in that chair for the next five days and listen to every conversation I have, sit in on every meeting, and when I travel, you'll accompany me. If you think you need a job description after that …"
As it turned out, the job description was boundless.
Diamond could not have predicted that at Killington, he would be in charge of a service station. Remember the energy crisis of the early 1970s?
"I was in charge of Killington's gas station," he recalled with a chuckle. "I bought fuel on the spot market and brought it up on tractor trailers for the guests so they could get home. We'd buy it for $1 a gallon and sell it for 75 cents."
Leete Smith had a reputation for being willing to do whatever it took to build a topnotch team of managers. Diamond was paying attention.
"Leete Smith's leadership team were all stars," Diamond recalled. "They all went on to run either Killington or multiple resorts."
Diamond arrived in Steamboat in 1999 with a new ownership group, American Skiing Company, and its abrasive CEO, Les Otten. Otten was a polarizing figure and Steamboat did not take to him. Diamond, with a professorial demeanor — both firm and affable — held things together. He kept Steamboat on a positive track as American Skiing built the Steamboat Grand Hotel, then ran into financial difficulty and began selling off its other real estate holdings here. During Diamond's tenure, the ski area bounced back from the fall in consumer confidence in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the commercial center in Ski Time Square was demolished to make way for modern condominiums, just in time to see the real estate market fall.
"There were difficult times," Diamond said. "I came here knowing that. But I knew that things were going to change for the better. The status quo could just not continue. There was a lot of bench strength here at the director level. There were people who stepped into VP roles and have done an extraordinary job. Trish (Sullivan vice president of human relations/risk management), Doug (Allen, vice president of mountain operations) and Jim (Schneider, vice president of skier services) have been amazing and are some of the best in the ski business."
Diamond kept his executive team together through all of that and even after an anticipated sale of the ski area fell through.
Copper Mountain President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Rodgers, who knows Diamond well from two seasons when both worked for Intrawest and as colleagues on the Colorado Ski Country USA Board, said he had taken on the role of elder statesman in recent years.
"When he talks at the board of trustees, people listen because they know he's putting forth a very thoughtful statement," Rodgers said. "They know he's taken the time to understand the data and the downstream effects of any decision. His committee discussions come from a wealth of experience and a lot of common sense, but also patience. I've never seen Chris lose his cool over anything, and that's what I've always respected about him. He's a very thoughtful voice at the table."
Diamond has seen it all on the ski mountain and managed to keep Steamboat on a positive path. He wouldn't take credit for all of it, but under his leadership, Maverick's Superpipe was first installed in 2001. A new $1.3 million Burgess Creek chairlift (part of $16 million in improvements) was installed in 2004, the ski area's first six-pack chairlift, Christie Peak Express was installed in 2007 and the Kid's Vacation Club expanded with a new slope side entry. Snowmaking improvements have been an annual fact of life under Diamond, but 2010 was a big year, with the installation of new low-energy tower guns.
During Diamond's tenure at the helm, the experience for skiers walking through Gondola Square was vastly improved in 2011 with new heated pavers, and the $5 million Four Points Lodge was completed in 2013.
There were bumps in the trail, but outwardly at least, Diamond took them in stride. Asked if the day in 2009 when he learned that the ski area needed to replace the gondola haul cable – for the second time in three years – was one of his worst on the job, Steamboat's president laughed.
"That's small stuff. Things break, you fix them."
Applying lessons well-learned
Former Steamboat and Intrawest Chief Marketing Executive Andy Wirth, now the chief executive officer of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings in Tahoe, said Diamond knows how to keep a team of executive ski area managers focused against all odds.
"What's notable is what Chris navigated through in terms of challenge, volatility and tumult in his first year or two of his engagement as president of the ski area as regards to the American Skiing Company. He did a very fine job of meeting challenges both personal and professional. He kept our team at the executive level focused, collected and dialed in."
Diamond acknowledges that American Skiing CEO Les Otten was arrogant and probably not prepared to run such a large resort company. But he also believes the level of vitriol aimed at Otten, signified by the bumper stickers that read "More Boat, Les Otten" was over the top. Diamond went as far as saying the harsh rhetoric damaged the resort community, probably to the tune of millions of dollars in investment capital foregone by corporate investors.
Former longtime Steamboat chamber executive Sandy Hall, now CEO of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, said it was Diamond's measured response that helped the community to heal.
"Chris wrote a letter to the community – it was, I think a really important piece he wrote early in his time in the community. He set forth a boundary and a reminder that we're a friendly community and we work with people in a civil way. He asserted himself in a very thoughtful and respectful way. He took the Chris Diamond approach," Evans Hall said, "Which is, you don't hide behind things or pretend that they don't exist. You meet it head on and that earns you respect, and allows people to understand your point of view."
A Diamond on the slopes
During his time in Steamboat, Diamond was at the forefront as the ski area armored itself against climate change with a new era of efficient snowmaking guns. He was on the airport board as Routt County modernized its terminal and was greatly expanded, and Diamond campaigned for passage of a general sales tax to keep Steamboat's ski season flight program competitive in an era of airline mergers.
The ski area leveraged the public improvements at the base of the ski area in the Diamond era, with a music performance stage and a large sandstone barbecue deck overlooking the newly snow-melted pavers adjacent to the gondola building.
The first six-pack chairlift helped move beginner skiers up the mountain early in the ski day to reduce congestion, and that same six-person ski lift helped to usher in the era of night skiing at Steamboat, setting it apart from most of colorado ski country.
The Steamboat Ski Area, more than ever under Diamond's leadership, continues to embrace the competitive youth skiing programs of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Perhaps most of all, Steamboat's unique status as an international ski resort that happens to exist in a genuine community remains intact.
Rodgers described Diamond as being fortunate to have his wife Eileen's support through a long career in what can be an unpredictable business.
"Chris has such a wide network, and he's had Eileen by his side through thick and thin in what we know is a crazy business," Rodgers said. "He's been so successful in an industry that we all know has crazy variables, not the least of which is having Mother Nature as a business partner."
As he steps aside, Diamond is firmly convinced the influence and passion of the snow sports public will propel the winter resort industry into the future.
"The reality is that skiing — snow sliding — is just such a unique experience that keeps getting reinvented by participants, not by anybody else but participants — the Jake Burtons (snowboard innovator) of the world," Diamond said. "There's always a constant freshness to it."
Wirth said it's significant that Diamond, who has long ties to New England (he returns every fall), chooses to continue live in Steamboat after he leaves the Ski Corp.
"It's telling that he will remain in Steamboat after his retirement," he said. "It says what a great community Steamboat Springs is. He's not from the region. At the same time, he chose to call it his home. I wish him all the best as he rides off into the sunset, in this case, on a bike."