Mountains out of mole hills: skiing's unlikely new business model.
Mountains out of mole hills: skiing's unlikely new business model. (Das/Aurora)

The Unlikely Success of Missouri’s Hidden Valley Ski Mountain

It may be tiny, but it’s the center of entrepreneur Tim Boyd’s industry juggernaut

Mountains out of mole hills: skiing's unlikely new business model.

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First I see a mom and her two daughters tracing perfect S curves, dressed in sleek North Face soft shells and woven beanies. Nearby, teens rocket out of the terrain park, pulling 360s. Around a bend I see the Carhartt brigade, decked out in camo hats, orange hunting vests, and welding goggles. A dude on a snowboard whizzes by in a gorilla suit. St. Louis Cardinals jerseys are ubiquitous.

In the distance stands not a ridge of jagged peaks but St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. Astonishingly, I’m carving man-made corduroy at Hidden Valley mountain, in Wildwood, Missouri—which, at elevation 860, offers a grand total of 310 vertical feet.

My guide is 24-year-old ski patroller Dan Arnold, a clean-cut Missouri native wearing black-frame glasses and a weathered baseball cap. Arnold is touting Hidden Valley’s night skiing, which includes red-eye runs till 3 a.m.. on Fridays and Saturdays. “It’s beautiful up here,” he says, “especially at night with the view of the city lights.”

We ski over a well-groomed run not far from a metal shed where families refuel on nachos, chicken strips, and a St. Louis original: toasted ravioli. Our next stop is the patrollers’ hut, which houses zero woolly-faced, wind-burned ski bums. The safety squad here is comprised mostly of middle-age professionals, including a fireman with mutton chops, a nurse, and Beale Luebben, 51, who works for a home-inspection firm by day. She returned home to Missouri in 1995, after living in Park City, Utah, for four years.

“When I moved back, I did the snobby thing and said, ‘I don’t ski at Hidden Valley,’” says Luebben. “Then I finally did and thought, Why haven’t I been coming here? It’s so much fun.”

IT ALL SEEMS SO small, friendly, and Midwestern, but Hidden Valley, with its 19 average inches of snowfall per year, is home to one of the ski industry’s most rapidly expanding companies. Missouri entrepreneur Tim Boyd opened Hidden Valley 30 years ago, and now Peak Resorts, Boyd’s firm, operates a total of 12 ski areas, the most in the country. The newest, Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, was acquired in October 2010. That winter, some 1.8 million skiers visited Peak Resorts properties, and the company recorded $98 million in revenue, ranking it among the nation’s top five ski outfits in both categories. It may soon go public, with Boyd considering a $100 million IPO. And here’s the really surprising thing: Boyd doesn’t even ski, treating his business less as a labor of love than as a money-churning chain. Think Ramada on snow.

“I never really have liked skiing, but I’m passionate about the ski business,” Boyd, a trim 60-year-old with close-cropped gray hair, tells me while seated in his office, a converted two-story A-frame house overlooking Hidden Valley. “That’s better. My decisions are more pragmatic and less emotional.”

“Few in this industry think of someone coming from St. Louis and building a ski company like Tim has,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “He has a relaxed demeanor, but underneath he is intensely competitive.”

It all started on a wet, wretched day in Lake Tahoe, California, in 1978, on Boyd’s first ski trip. At 26, he was the proud owner of a struggling nine-hole golf course at Hidden Valley, which he’d bought right out of college for $250,000. As he carved his first turns at tiny Homewood Mountain, rain poured down.

“We had a miserable day,” says Boyd. But he noticed that thousands of people were still clamoring to ski. On their flight home, Boyd told his wife, Missi, “We have a hill about as big as that at Hidden Valley, and we have plenty of rain.”

When Boyd proposed his plan to clear the hillside above the golf course and install a chairlift, bankers across St. Louis laughed him out of their offices. When he landed a $1.1 million loan through a county industrial revenue bond, skeptics characterized the project as a boondoggle. A rival executive with Ralston Purina, which at the time owned Colorado’s Keystone Resort, told one of Boyd’s ski instructors: “You don’t have a chance in hell. This is the most idiotic idea ever.”

In December 1982, Hidden Valley ski area opened to the public. On the first day, Boyd had the snowmaking capacity to blanket only one run. Still, 1,000 people showed up. During its inaugural winter, Hidden Valley hosted 30,000 skiers and generated $750,000 in revenue. Encouraged by the results, Boyd looked west and in 1986 developed a similar ski area outside Kansas City, Snow Creek. In 1997 he bought Paoli Peaks in southern Indiana and incorporated the three areas as Peak Resorts. “Once we got our third ski area,” Boyd says, “I began to look at it as a franchise.” Before long, Boyd was expanding into Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Vermont. He closed Hidden Valley’s golf course in 2008; during the 2010–11 ski season, the area made $3.6 million.

THIS APPROACH—METHODICAL, DISINTERESTED in the spirit of the sport—is the key to Boyd’s success. He often steps into markets where he encounters no local competition. Operating multiple resorts lets him push suppliers for better deals. It has helped him test and implement cost- and time-saving processes, such as self-service boot rentals and multiguest waiver forms. It also makes Boyd an outlier in the insular ski world.

“Most of the ski-area business has already lost its soul. It’s been run by golfers for the past couple of decades,” says Aaron Brill, owner of Colorado’s Silverton Mountain. “From a purist’s perspective, it’s easy to scoff, but that’s an elitist attitude. The whole industry has become just a business.”

“Tim looks at what people can afford to spend and what he needs to do to keep his places full and operating,” says Rick Kahl, who tracks resort trends for Ski Area Management magazine. “That could be considered pragmatic, even soulless if you like, but he delivers for his customers.”

At Hidden Valley, beginner lessons and lift tickets cost $15 and $45, respectively—cheap by resort standards. Kids under six ski for free. The staff is friendly. Lines move quickly. And if you aren’t up for hitting the slopes on skis, a tubing area called the Polar Plunge offers alternative thrills.

To make it all work, Boyd has had to master the tricky business of generating snow in places that don’t get it naturally. Nearly every square inch of skiable terrain at Peak Resorts properties relies on man-made snow. Hidden Valley now employs 110 elevated snow fans that together can bury 30 acres under a foot of snow in 24 hours.

“We assume zero snowfall,” Boyd says. “We have to have overwhelming force. We’re pumping over 5,000 gallons of water a minute. That’s more than nearly any municipality in the St. Louis area can put out.”

Although that might seem like a lot, Missouri has plenty of water, and megaresorts out west make far more snow each winter. Operating a ski area in such a warm climate, though, is a challenge. The snow fans can operate only at temperatures below 28 degrees. Last winter Hidden Valley averaged 42 degrees and was open for only 49 days during the December–March season. “We tough it out,” says Boyd. “We rely on Mother Nature and take the hand that’s dealt to us.”

Certainly, many ski areas are concerned with what milder winters might do to their bottom lines, and even bunny hills like Massachusetts’ Berkshire East and Maine’s Mount Abram use onsite renewables like wind turbines to offset their carbon footprints. That doesn’t interest Boyd. “It makes no economic sense,” he says. “The problem with all this solar and wind and other stuff is it only works if it’s subsidized by taxpayers. Not everybody skis, so why should everybody have to subsidize our energy?”

Still, one thing’s not up for debate: Boyd and his snow fans play an essential role in welcoming recruits to the ski world. There’s a reason so many lifties out west are from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn learned to ski at Buck Hill in suburban Minneapolis before moving to Colorado. Hidden Valley is home to 15-year-old Abigail Murer, a junior Olympian who now trains in Vail. And big-mountain skier Seth Morrison took his first runs at Devil’s Head Resort and Cascade Mountain, both in south-central Wisconsin.

“Small resorts in the Midwest give people the chance to try skiing,” says Morrison. “That’s how I started. The biggest deal was to make it up the rope tow, which was the beginner area. It was the best feeling to get released from that struggle and ride a chair.”

“It all starts at mom-and-pop ski areas,” says Kimberly Plake, who has traveled the country hitting small resorts with her husband, legendary extreme skier Glen Plake. “It doesn’t take a megaresort to have fun skiing.”

Sure enough, as I flatten out at the bottom of a blue trail known as Show Me, I pass a Hidden Valley instructor with a pack of little kids stepping into bindings for the first time. Maybe one of them will compete in a future winter Olympics. Or maybe they’ll grow up to cruise these hills in a gorilla suit. Either way, they look like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun.

From Outside Magazine, Dec 2012 Lead Photo: Das/Aurora