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The Mountain and the Man

The Mountain and the Man

Features
By Jim Neff
posted: 03/12/2003

Back in 1947, a young Studebaker dealer named Everett Kircher opened Boyne Mountain on a chunk of land in northern Michigan that he had purchased for a dollar, laying the foundation for what was to become a resort empire-and forever setting the standard for what a buck can buy. The ripple effect of that dollar has been felt by every skier in the country, whether they know it or not.

Kircher passed away January 2002 at age 85, in many respects fulfilling the credo embossed on a plaque above his desk: "He who dies with the most toys wins." From his corner office, with the big picture windows overlooking the slopes, he reveled in every aspect of ski resort operations. "Everett always wanted to take something good and make it better," says Art Tebo, Boyne's longtime chief operating officer.

Skiers outside the Midwest may never have heard of Boyne Mountain, but to those within the region the resort has an almost religious significance. In Michigan, you never have to say "Boyne," because everyone understands that "The Mountain" refers to only one place. With a 500-foot vertical drop, it's physically unassuming. From a practical standpoint, however, the very essence of American skiing has its roots at Boyne Mountain. Kircher was, at his core, a natural innovator:

  • As early as 1948, the resort was one of the first in the country to offer a five-day, midweek learn-to-ski package, now a staple at most destination resorts.
  • The triple chair (1963), the quad (1965) and the high-speed six-pack (1992) all made their U.S. debuts at The Mountain.
  • If you've ever skied on manmade snow, you may have benefited from Boyne's pioneering efforts in snowmaking and grooming equipment.
  • And if you've ever marveled at a smooth Stein Eriksen turn, give a tip of the ski hat to Boyne Mountain, because it was here that the legendary Norwegian first taught skiing in the U.S.

    The Everett Kircher story is classic Americana. It's the tale of a young, ambitious man who made it big, eventually running six ski resorts (Boyne, Boyne Highlands, Big Sky, Mont., Crystal Mountain, Wash., Brighton, Utah, and Cypress Mountain, B.C.) and was named to SKI Magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential Skiers" in December 1999. In the 1930s, Kircher had to drop out of the University of Michigan to help run the family's truck repair business on Detroit's east side. His passion was skiing, and his favorite resort was Idaho's Sun Valley (Kircher was the sixth person to earn the Sun Diamond Award for skiing Mount Baldy from top to bottom). After selling the family business and gaining some success as a Studebaker dealer, Kircher pursued his dream of finding a piece of land and creating "The Sun Valley of the Midwest."The land he chose was near Boyne Falls, in northwestern Lower Michigan. Ernest Hemingway, who spent his first 22 summers in the area, called it "the priceless place." Nonetheless, Kircher acquired the 40 acres for his resort for $1 from a potato farmer who had no use for the hilly terrain.

    "When I started Boyne in 1947, I knew all the skiers by name, and I had a bad memory," Kircher once told me. "We charged $5 for a lift ticket, and you had to help pack the hill before I'd let you ski. We had about 2,000 skiers that winter."

    Boyne Mountain was on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, so Kircher knew he'd need a hook. Sun Valley was replacing its Dollar Mountain single chair, so he bought it for $2,000, took it apart bolt-by-bolt and sent it on a train to Michigan. No one else in the Midwest had a chairlift.

    "It was quite a feat, because at the time there were only 15 chairlifts in the entire world and only two in Colorado," recalls filmmaker Warren Miller, a long time Kircher friend. "Everett glued it together and wouldn't take no for an answer."

    Boyne was also the first Midwest ski area to create a ski village at its base, with an outdoor heated pool, a restaurant, shops and accommodations. A skier could spend five days at Boyne on t American plan (which included room, meals, lift tickets, lesson and use of the heated pool) for $59. The Monday-Friday learn-to-ski week made it the prime place to ski in the central states and a magnet for executives in the Detroit auto industry.

    Just after the 1952 Winter Olympics, Kircher heard that the world's best skier, Stein Eriksen, needed a car. So Kircher offered him a new Studebaker and the ski-school director job at The Mountain. Eriksen declined, but after winning three gold medals at the 1954 World Championships, he took the offer. Eriksen spent two seasons at Boyne. "If it hadn't been for men like Everett Kircher, 80 percent of us wouldn't be in the ski business today," Eriksen says. After Eriksen left, Olympic gold medalist Othmar Schneider spent 14 years there as founder and director of the Austrian American Ski School, a tradition that's still a key part of the Boyne experience.

    While Austrians were recruited to add cachet, nothing gave Kircher more delight than snowmaking. "Natural snow's only good for looking at," he routinely quipped. "It falls where you don't want it, like in your parking lots. It's not durable, and it's sporadic at best. We can make better snow and put it exactly where we want it, when we want it. If I had it my way, we'd never get natural snow."

    For 55 years, the Boyne business model has been driven by a single Kircher credo: "Crowds mean more business." To attract skiers, a resort has to create reasons for them to come. In this regard, the tenacity of the Boyne Mountain operation sets it apart from most ski resorts in the Midwest. "The company is always trying to do something new at The Mountain," says Everett's son John, now president of Boyne's Western Operations. It could be new terrain, a new lift, an amenity or a program. If something works at The Mountain, it will work everywhere else. Even Boyne's fiercest competitors will admit that keeping up with Boyne has made Midwest resorts better, because it sets standards other ski areas are obliged to follow. "You love to hate them," observes a Midwestern competitor, "but they force you to raise your level of play."

    These days, a typical Saturday at Boyne brings more than 3,500 skiers. The annual St. Patrick's Day bash alone lures 8,000 skiers to the slopes. With 62 trails, 11 chairlifts and a vast array of accommodations and amenities, The Mountain's reputation is well deserved. Add sister resort Boyne Highlands, 20 miles north, and you have a combined total of 111 ski runs, 20 chairlifts and beds for 1,800 guests.

    The Mountain's skiing has always attracted hardcores because of its no-nonsense black diamonds. Hemlock, the resort's first run in '47, is still an imposing shot. It has towering pines on both sides, the Eagle's Nest restaurant perched on top next to a narrow entrance, a drop-off in the middle and a clear view of the resort's signature clock tower-so there's no dispute about your time of death. Hemlock has hosted the world's best skiers, from Jean-Claude Killy to Cary Adgate, a hometown boy who was a U.S. Olympian. Variety, however, is The Mountain's strong suit.

    New this winter are 10 additional trails off the previously undeveloped northwest side of the mountain. They are narrow, Eastern-style runs through the hardwoods that appeal to novice and intermediate skiers. Facing in the direction of prevailing lake effect snow from Lake Michigan, the new runs promise to be powder magnets.This huge ski venue centers upon a base village with an aura of tradition. Bavarian architecture sets the theme for the buildings that house Eriksen Restaurant, Trophy Room pub, Snowflake Lounge, shops, a general store and the cavernous Civic Center cafeteria/convention facility. On the slope side of the Main Lodge is a giant outdoor pool and hot tub, purposefully reminiscent of Sun Valley.

    Boyne is a big operation, but there's still a sense of community and camaraderie, undoubtedly because it's always been a family business. The Kirchers still hold "board meetings" around their kitchen table.

    "We grew up at The Mountain and went to Boyne Elementary School," John Kircher recalls. "Boyne Mountain is our home and will always be the heart of our company." While John heads Boyne's Western Operations from his office in Washington state, Stephen Kircher serves as Boyne's president of East Operations and is headquartered at The Mountain. Their sister Kathryn heads the Boyne Design Group, and another sister, Amy, is on the company's board of directors. Their mother, Lois, keeps everyone on track, and there are several grandchildren in the wings.

    The challenge for the new Kircher generation is the same one Everett faced in resort's early years-attracting people to Boyne Mountain. But today, Native American-run casinos, the expansion of other resorts in northern Michigan, and a greater competition for finite tourism dollars complicate the picture.

    The Kirchers thought they had the answer when they broke ground for a new hotel and base area redevelopment in September 2000. With the 226-room Mountain Grand Lodge & Spa as its centerpiece, a $250 million "Renaissance" was to have transformed the resort's core area into a true village, with retail shops, restaurants and amenities, in time for the 2002 ski season. Those plans had to be put on hold, however, in the wake of 9/11 and a sluggish economy. The construction of the Mountain Grand Lodge & Spa is moving forward again and will anchor the new base village. Boyne also is negotiating with Marriott to operate several hotels in the Boyne family, beginning with the Summit at Big Sky, Mont., and the Inn At Bay Harbor in Petoskey, just a few miles north of The Mountain.

    Boyne is also building Avalanche Bay, an indoor water park with an Austrian/Swiss ambience that will tout skiing all year. "This is something that's impervious to weather, so families can enjoy it 12 months a year," says Stephen Kircher. "Part of the concept is to introduce kids to skiing in an innovative way, so when we do have snow they'll want to give skiing and boarding a try."

    There are also plans for a 64-unit interval-ownership condo project at the base of the Superbowl area. And The Mountain will continue developing ski-in/ski-out lodging with family-sized condos in the Disciple's Ridge Village and secluded Mountain Log Cabins on the backside of the property.

    And new this year, Boyne has rolled back the price of a weekend lift ticket from $43 to $39. Everett Kircher would love it; he always knew that a buck can go a long way.

    For information on Boyne Mountain and the other Boyne USA resorts, call 800-462-6963 or visit boyne.com.s. The Kirchers still hold "board meetings" around their kitchen table.

    "We grew up at The Mountain and went to Boyne Elementary School," John Kircher recalls. "Boyne Mountain is our home and will always be the heart of our company." While John heads Boyne's Western Operations from his office in Washington state, Stephen Kircher serves as Boyne's president of East Operations and is headquartered at The Mountain. Their sister Kathryn heads the Boyne Design Group, and another sister, Amy, is on the company's board of directors. Their mother, Lois, keeps everyone on track, and there are several grandchildren in the wings.

    The challenge for the new Kircher generation is the same one Everett faced in resort's early years-attracting people to Boyne Mountain. But today, Native American-run casinos, the expansion of other resorts in northern Michigan, and a greater competition for finite tourism dollars complicate the picture.

    The Kirchers thought they had the answer when they broke ground for a new hotel and base area redevelopment in September 2000. With the 226-room Mountain Grand Lodge & Spa as its centerpiece, a $250 million "Renaissance" was to have transformed the resort's core area into a true village, with retail shops, restaurants and amenities, in time for the 2002 ski season. Those plans had to be put on hold, however, in the wake of 9/11 and a sluggish economy. The construction of the Mountain Grand Lodge & Spa is moving forward again and will anchor the new base village. Boyne also is negotiating with Marriott to operate several hotels in the Boyne family, beginning with the Summit at Big Sky, Mont., and the Inn At Bay Harbor in Petoskey, just a few miles north of The Mountain.

    Boyne is also building Avalanche Bay, an indoor water park with an Austrian/Swiss ambience that will tout skiing all year. "This is something that's impervious to weather, so families can enjoy it 12 months a year," says Stephen Kircher. "Part of the concept is to introduce kids to skiing in an innovative way, so when we do have snow they'll want to give skiing and boarding a try."

    There are also plans for a 64-unit interval-ownership condo project at the base of the Superbowl area. And The Mountain will continue developing ski-in/ski-out lodging with family-sized condos in the Disciple's Ridge Village and secluded Mountain Log Cabins on the backside of the property.

    And new this year, Boyne has rolled back the price of a weekend lift ticket from $43 to $39. Everett Kircher would love it; he always knew that a buck can go a long way.

    For information on Boyne Mountain and the other Boyne USA resorts, call 800-462-6963 or visit boyne.com.

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