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Stephen Kircher's Wildest Ride
A warming climate. Rising costs. Sophisticated competition. Who’d want to be in the ski business today? Meet Stephen Kircher, MBA’88. His company, Boyne Resorts, owns some of the country’s top ski destinations, and he’s betting big on the industry’s future.
Stephen Kircher was in a celebratory mood. It was the middle of December and Kircher had flown into Big Sky Resort in Montana, one of ten North American ski destinations that his company, Boyne Resorts, owns and operates. Kircher, MBA’88, was there to cut the ribbon to open Big Sky’s newest attraction: the Lone Peak Tram. The state-of-the-art lift—the first tram built by a North American ski resort in fifteen years—can carry seventy-five people at a time to some of the most challenging ski terrain in Big Sky’s 5,850 acres.
Even as Kircher, Boyne’s chief executive, accepted congratulations on his company’s grand new investment in skiing’s future, his phone was buzzing with news of how a similar big-ticket upgrade in Maine was off to a disastrous start. The previous night, Sunday River had received more than seven inches of rain. The deluge washed away the snow at Boyne’s largest East Coast resort just days before the start of the crucial Christmas ski week. Key roadways and bridges had been destroyed. Guests in a Boyne-owned hotel were trapped. (Rescuers used a raft for an evacuation.) Sunday River’s new lift, which cost more than $15 million and had opened just days earlier, lay buried in mud. Early guesses at the damage and lost business approached $10 million.
At Big Sky, however, Kircher did his best to keep smiling. “It was really difficult,” Kircher said. “I had to be upbeat and positive because the opening of the new tram is one of the most important moments in Big Sky’s history, [but] we had this craziness going on in Maine at the same time…. It was tough mental gymnastics.”It won’t be the last difficult day for Kircher, fifty-nine. Skiing has boomed since the Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2022–23 season, skiers made sixty-five million visits to US mountains, an all-time record. Boyne Resorts, with eleven thousand employees and $650 million in annual revenue, appears poised to profit from that. But the industry faces significant challenges. Real estate shortages in ski towns have made it difficult to house seasonal workers. Rising lift ticket prices, which are approaching $300 for a one-day pass at top resorts, are creating affordability concerns.
Then there’s a more existential challenge: the weather. In a Zoom interview just after Christmas, Kircher was glum. Ordinarily the temperatures at Boyne’s corporate offices in northern Michigan hover in the twenties in late December, but it was in the fifties and rainy. “It’s almost like living in Seattle,” he complained. It was so warm that Kircher had played golf on Christmas Day, and there was so little snow that his team was considering closing Boyne Mountain, the company’s original resort, during the holiday week.
With ski areas stretching from Maine and New Hampshire through Michigan, Utah, Montana, Washington State, and British Columbia, Boyne benefits from superb geographical diversification. When the weather is poor in one spot, it’s usually cold and snowy at a different resort. But as the New Year approached this year, the weather seemed warm and rainy everywhere. That was partly due to the El Niño weather pattern, but Kircher believes global climate change is also to blame. “This is the most challenging winter probably since 1966,” he said.
For Boyne Resorts, it comes at a critical time. Kircher is investing extraordinary sums in new lifts and snowmaking equipment, hoping the technology will put Boyne ahead of competitors. But the only way to make a return on those investments is to sell more lift tickets—and to do that, it needs to be colder. It’s enough to make you wonder what an MBA class like the ones Kircher took at BC would make of a company facing these kinds of challenges. Would someone reasonably ask: Isn’t there an easier way to make a living?
“If you’re in it for the money, probably,” he said. “We’re snow farmers. Sometimes the crops come in and you do well, sometimes they don’t.” It’s possible, he said, that due to the lousy weather, Boyne’s revenue will drop from last year. But he insisted that the company’s investments in lifts and snowmaking will pay off in the long term. “We’ve seen these ups and downs for seventy-five years,” he said.
When Kircher and his three siblings were growing up in Michigan in the 1970s, they didn’t waste time wondering what career they’d pursue. It was already decided: They were going into the family ski business.
Stephen’s father, Everett Kircher, had owned a Studebaker dealership in Detroit before he and two other men paid $1 for an unfarmable hill three and a half hours north of the Motor City. They carved out trails, installed a recycled chairlift, and opened their new ski facility as Boyne Mountain—named for its location in the town of Boyne Falls—in 1948. Everett soon bought out his partners. Though he died in 2002, he is recalled as a visionary who’s credited with three innovations during the 1960s: His team at Boyne patented a breakthrough snowmaking gun; he installed the industry’s first three- and four-person chairlifts; and he was the first operator to build a golf course adjacent to a ski resort to create a year-round destination.
Everett went to unusual lengths to ground his young children in the family business. In 1973, when he was first considering expanding beyond Michigan, he brought Stephen, age nine, to inspect Telluride, the Colorado resort that was for sale. The patriarch later convened the family around the dinner table and asked the children—all younger than fifteen—to debate the acquisition. Stephen voted against the deal, in part because his father, a smoker, had needed an oxygen tank at Telluride’s high altitudes. “How are you going to run it when you can’t even breathe?” Stephen said. His siblings also voted it down. The company also passed on buying Jackson Hole before agreeing in 1976 to acquire Big Sky, now the second-largest US ski area by acreage.
Being pushed into a company focused on skiing isn’t exactly hardship duty, and Stephen Kircher happily worked for his father during the summer throughout high school and college. But when he graduated from Michigan State University in 1986, he faced a dilemma. His dad was pressuring him to join the company immediately. Kircher resisted. “I don’t think I’ve learned enough,” he told his father. So that fall he enrolled in BC’s MBA program, heading to Vermont and New Hampshire to ski during weekends and breaks. In a statistics class, he did a regression project in which he tried to understand how different variables influenced the number of annual skier visits. He found that most economic indicators, such as unemployment and the stock market, didn’t have much impact on skier traffic. The overwhelming driver, the numbers showed, was the weather.
After graduation, Kircher did join the family company. By the early 2000s, Kircher and his three siblings were all working at Boyne Resorts, just as their father had dreamed. For a long period, Kircher oversaw the company’s operations in Michigan and Montana. At headquarters, he worked to professionalize what had been run as a mom-and-pop business, replacing bookkeepers with accountants, investing in technology, and expanding the leadership team. Then, in 2007, Boyne purchased the Maine ski resorts Sugarloaf and Sunday River, along with Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, and his empire grew to include the East Coast. In 2017, Kircher took over as president and CEO. He admits it’s a great lifestyle business: He skied forty-eight days last season and has played scratch golf most of his adult life. Today, just one of Kircher’s siblings works for Boyne, but the company remains family-owned, with the assets already placed in trusts for the next generation of Kircher children.
To get a sense of how Kircher is leading the family business—and the generational bets he’s placing right now—the best place to visit is Sunday River.
Just after Christmas, Dana Bullen, the resort’s president since 2002, walked through the South Ridge Lodge, pointing to changes that Kircher made soon after purchasing it in 2007. Unimpressed by the lodge cafeteria food, Kircher added separate counters for sushi and burritos, and a high-end restaurant. Then there was the “Chondola”—a chairlift-gondola hybrid that’s common in Europe but rarely seen in the States. Kircher recognized that the Chondola—which Bullen had never heard of before—could help increase revenues by making Sunday River’s mid-mountain lodge accessible to non-skiers for weddings and functions. Driving his Yukon around the mammoth property, Bullen pointed to the dozens of multimillion-dollar homes set in areas no one thought to develop until Kircher pressed for a plan that would allow Boyne to sell the lots the houses were built on—another profit center.
In Bullen’s office, a bookshelf contains titles about management. Kircher is constantly sending such books to his executives. Employees describe him as someone who talks about “servant leadership” and remembers the names of their children, but also as someone who watches the numbers carefully. When the presidents of Boyne’s ten ski resorts present to the company’s board each spring, whoever had the worst year goes first, and the leader who had the best year goes last. “You don’t want to be in that first spot a couple of years in a row,” Bullen said.
Kircher has pushed his team to find ways to overcome the industry’s historic pattern of booms and busts. Some of the changes reflect industry-wide trends. To minimize the effects of bad weather in any particular region, for example, the ski industry has consolidated, with a handful of companies now controlling multiple mountains in different geographies. (The industry giant Vail Resorts owns forty-one locations in North America, Europe, and Australia.) As these companies have scooped up more mountains, they began offering multi-location season passes—the two biggest are Epic and Ikon—that are sold at discounts before the season begins. (Boyne is part of the Ikon program.) These early sales help to provide insurance against lost ticket sales resulting from bad weather.
Another innovation is dynamic pricing. Instead of having fixed lift ticket prices for weekdays, weekends, and holidays, ski resorts have mimicked the airlines, constantly moving prices up and down based on demand, weather, and other variables. Boyne, which also operates fourteen golf courses, first used the technique about a decade ago to price tee times. For the past five years, its ski resorts have depended on algorithms to set prices for lift tickets. Say you want to ski a certain resort on a Thursday in February. If you buy the ticket in August, you might pay $35; wait until the week of the trip, however, and you could pay $95. “You can maximize revenue and also push demand to off-peak times,” Kircher said. “Dynamic pricing is probably the biggest thing the industry has done.”
Collectively, Kircher said, these developments should help Boyne grow revenue consistently—which is key to funding the gigantic investments he’s making out on the mountain.
If you visit an average resort, you may encounter lifts dating from the 1970s or 1980s. But Kircher believes in making big investments in the latest lift technology. In 2019, he took twenty employees to ski in Europe, where lifts are far more advanced than in the United States. European lifts often feature heated seats, automated safety bars, and hard plastic screens (called bubbles) that lower to protect skiers from wind.
It wasn’t long before Kircher imported the technology to Boyne resorts. Sunday River has introduced two new bubble chairs since 2022, the Jordan 8 and the Barker 6 (the numbers refer to how many skiers ride on each chair). The new lifts move astonishingly fast but are quieter than traditional ones, and they can operate in winds that shut down older lifts. To ease loading, they feature conveyor-like “magic carpets” that allow skiers to step on, avoiding the rushed and awkward shimmy forward to load. Kircher promised that I’d be just as warm riding the Barker 6 as I’d be sitting in the lodge drinking hot cocoa. When I visited in December, that turned out to be an exaggeration, but not much of one. It was surprising how much the wind-blocking bubble adds to comfort.
That coziness comes at a cost, however. Kircher wouldn’t say what each of the new lifts cost, but people in the industry guess they run more than $15 million apiece. A less advanced two-seat lift might cost $4 million, which explains why US ski resorts have been slow to adopt newer lifts. No one is betting on the high-tech chairs as heavily as Boyne, which is simultaneously building new gondolas and trams at other mountains. “Stephen is crazy for lifts,” said Kelly Pawlak, head of the National Ski Areas Association, on whose board Kircher sits. Kircher says the costs are justified. Instead of trying to grow by acquiring more ski resorts, Kircher believes it’s better to grow organically by upgrading the experience at his existing mountains to attract more customers. The high-tech lifts may last fifty years—far longer than cheaper ones. The lifts also better distribute people around the mountain, reducing bottlenecks and lift lines. Advanced lifts are “a differentiator,” Kircher said. “It’s the future of skiing.”
Peter Landsman, who runs the industry publication Lift Blog, confirmed that some skiers flock to resorts with the newest lifts the way other people head to amusement parks with the latest roller coasters. “Boyne has done a good job of making lifts an attraction,” he said.
Of course, lifts don’t make much difference if there’s not enough snow—something Sunday River experienced during Christmas week—which explains Boyne’s major investments in its snowmaking capabilities.
The physics of snowmaking haven’t changed much since the first snow gun was patented in the 1950s. Snowmakers pump water and compressed air through guns, and when the temperature is cold enough and humidity is sufficiently low, grassy hills disappear under white flakes. What has changed is how efficiently this technology can be deployed, the quality of the snow it produces, and the amount of energy it consumes.
Brendan Ryan, a thirty-seven-year-old engineer who oversees snowmaking at all ten Boyne mountains, skied crisply through the mush at mid-mountain, stopping smoothly at two portable snow guns mounted on tripods. Guns like these require substantial labor. Workers need to move them into position, run water lines, and turn them on and off manually. That takes so much time that resorts only turn such guns on when the weather is expected to stay cold for at least twelve hours.
From there, Ryan schussed over to one of Sunday River’s latest “fan guns.” The $50,000 device sat atop a fifteen-foot tower. Fan guns can make snow at thirty degrees, produce three times as much snow as older technology, and cover nearly three-quarters of an acre. These particular fan guns aren’t portable—they are set permanently into the sides of slopes—but they are highly automated, as they can be turned on remotely from a smartphone app or programmed to begin spraying snow if the temperature hits a threshold. (Each tower has its own mini weather station.) That saves labor and makes them easier to use. The newer guns “make a higher quality, more uniform [snow],” Ryan said. “They make it faster…and by using less compressed air, they use less energy, so it costs us less.” Sunday River has added thirty-eight full-auto fan guns since 2020.
Ryan estimated that just a few years ago, it took nearly 1,600 hours of snowmaking to get Sunday River’s terrain open. This winter, despite all the rain, it will take fewer than 1,225 hours. The goal, he said, is 750 hours. Faster, more efficient snowmaking is just another investment Boyne is making to stay ahead of the competition by allowing people to keep skiing even as climate change means less natural snow.
In fact, Boyne executives are less concerned about climate change crippling their industry than you might expect. They acknowledge temperatures are rising, but they don’t see it as a near-term existential threat to skiing, particularly in northern, high-altitude resorts such as Boyne’s. “I’m much less worried about ski resorts than I am about populations along the coastlines, and droughts and hurricanes,” Kircher said.
And as miserable as the conditions were at Sunday River during Christmas week, two nights later, the temperature dropped. Ryan’s team turned the snowmaking equipment to full volume. Within days, the resort’s Instagram was filled with images of snow-filled slopes. A week after that, New England was walloped by a Nor’easter.
Finally, the snow farmers were seeing this year’s crop come in.
Even as Boyne’s ski resorts began looking like they normally do in winter, the question remained: As the world comes off its hottest year in recorded history, is it really a good idea to bet your family’s fortune on skiing? To put it another way: If Kircher could transport himself back to 1948 and quietly advise his father to instead invest in an industry with better and more consistent margins, wouldn’t that be wise?
Kircher responded by paraphrasing an old joke: The fastest way to become a millionaire is to start out as a billionaire and invest in ski areas. When pressed to reflect seriously on all the other things he might be doing, he seemed slightly mystified. No matter what his spreadsheets show at the end of this winter, he simply can’t imagine being in another industry. “If you’re in it because you love the outdoors and love the sports and the lifestyle of skiing and golf, and everything we do, then it’s fantastic,” he said. He argues that in an increasingly obese and sedentary society, outdoor recreation has value beyond profits. So does creating meaningful family vacations. In business school, Kircher recalled, professors talked about hypothetical companies that built “widgets,” suggesting the specific product doesn’t really matter. “We don’t make widgets,” he said. “We make something that people are passionate about.” No one more so than the CEO himself.
Daniel McGinn ’93 is an executive editor of Harvard Business Review.