Main Mountain Mogul
Les Otten '71

By Mary Lash

Les Otten

Sharon McNeill photo
The September 1988 issue of the Ithaca College Quarterly chronicled the achievement of Les Otten '71 as a "Maine mountain mogul" who had developed Sunday River from a failing ski resort to one of the biggest in New England. This year Otten topped that: at the end of June 1996 he became the owner of North America's largest ski resort company, with eight resorts that together are expected to draw 3.5 million visitors annually.

Weighing the progress of the last 8 years, Otten says that life is still "pretty much left sock, right sock; left leg, right leg." He doesn't consider the transition from successful resort owner to president and CEO of the $200 million American Skiing Company the most important change in his professional life. More important, he says, is "the point where everyone acknowledges that you know what you're doing." And, he adds, he would have appreciated such recognition more when he was younger.

Back when Otten graduated from Ithaca's School of Business, few would have predicted that the ski enthusiast would be king of the mountain in 25 years. After having been turned down by many employers, he talked his way into a management training program at the Killington ski resort, owned by Sherburne Corp. (later known as S-K-I, Ltd.). In 1972 he was appointed assistant manager of Sunday River; 8 years later he bought it.

Observers have attributed the growth of the resort to Otten's emphases on first-rate snowmaking, reinvesting, maintaining a balance of quality and affordability, and keeping ownership of such amenities as ski instruction and restaurants. By 1995 his LBO Resort Enterprises had acquired Sugarbush in Vermont and Attitash Bear Peak and Cranmore in New Hampshire. Then he engineered the largest merger in ski industry history when his purchase of S-K-I netted the Vermont resorts of Killington, Mount Snow, and Haystack; Waterville Valley in New Hampshire; and Sugarloaf USA in Maine. (The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently ordered him to divest himself of Waterville Valley and Cranmore. He then bought Pico, a resort near Killington.)

These days the media are portraying Otten in near-mythic dimensions. One Snow Country article referred to him as "arguably the most important figure in skiing." A slew of newspapers echoed a Horatio Alger theme-Otten as "the boy with big plans from Teaneck, New Jersey." (Although he's tolerant of the romantic excesses of ambitious writers, Otten admits, "I'd be a liar or a fool to say that I had a plan at 18.") Sifting through the hype, he finds "the thing I think might be true is that I make things happen; I get things done." This, he adds, "doesn't seem to me to be a unique trait."

The press has also made much of Otten's political aspirations, particularly of his prospects for winning a Senate seat. He himself admits to "four great passions"-his children, outdoor recreation, baseball, and politics. He's achieved "a modicum of success in the first three," he says (vicariously in baseball, when the Yankees won the World Series). And as for the fourth, he won't rule out seeking office: "Something comes along, and you have to decide whether you want to take it."

When he ranks his own achievements, Otten rates most highly his role as the father of his three children and his volunteer projects, including founding Maine Handicapped Skiing, chairing the board of the Portland Museum of Art, and supporting the Boy Scouts. His wife, Christine Bennett Otten '69, formerly a merchandiser for LBO, is now chair of the retail committee and coordinator of computer sales technology for the family's empire. The Ottens will continue to live and work in Newry, Maine (population 350), located in "greater Bethel" (population 4,000 and the home of Sunday River).

In response to fears from some quarters that American Skiing Company resorts will become "cookie-cutter" attractions, Otten says that he plans to preserve the character of each. He will focus on attracting new audiences-skiers from the American Midwest and abroad, as well as the ballooning teenage population. Heralded in a November New York Times article, Otten's groundbreaking $30 million marketing campaign includes a mailing of a glossy, 32-page "winter user's manual" to 500,000 skiers; a "Magnificent Seven" promotion offering a discounted lift pass good at all his resorts; and innovative cooperative offers with Jeep, Mountain Dew, and Mobil Oil. And in early 1997 Visa planned a television ad series featuring American Skiing resorts.

In 1988 Otten gave the Quarterly 10 tenets that defined his philosophy of success, including

Today Otten stands by those principles, adding only, "Temper it all with a little love and compassion and mix in a large amount of humility-and you'll be just fine."

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