New Snowbird partnership planning major improvements to ski resort
Ski industry • Cumming family purchases majority interest; Dick Bass to remain chairman.
Published: May 13, 2014 08:30AM
Updated: May 13, 2014 10:14PM
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| Tribune file photo A skier carves through powder at the Snowbird ski resort on March 23 2011. Majority interest in the ski resort was sold to Ian Cumming and his family in May 2014.

At age 84, Texas oilman and mountaineer Dick Bass found his body could no longer tolerate the thin, 8,500-foot air at Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, which he helped found in December 1971.

So Bass announced Monday he had sold majority interest in the Little Cottonwood Canyon resort to Ian Cumming, a businessman intimately familiar with Utah’s ski industry since his family owns Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR).

The price and terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The sum is likely to be substantial, if recent resort sales are indicative. When Vail Resorts went on a recent buying spree, it paid $60 million for Northstar by Lake Tahoein 2010 and, two years later, $18.2 million for Kirkwood in California and $20 million for two small Midwestern resorts. Vail’s purchase prices were disclosed because it is publicly held, whereas Snowbird and Cumming are private.

Bass, who will remain chairman of Snowbird’s board, said in a news release he was pleased that his family and Cumming’s could join together to direct the resort’s future development, including the long-discussed and highly controversial plan to build a restaurant around the Tram terminal atop Hidden Peak.

“This partnership will enable Snowbird to achieve more rapid growth and even greater benefits for our guests,” Bass said, and will continue to promote “our founding philosophy of providing a year-round destination mountain resort for the enhancement of body, mind and spirit — with our ever-present emphasis on environmental protection and sensitivity.”

Snowbird’s ownership change is the second seismic shock in a year to hit Utah’s previously stable ski industry.

Last May, Talisker Corp. brought in Vail Resorts to run Canyons Resort outside of Park City, and to take over the lead in a high-profile lawsuit against PCMR’s parent company, Powdr Corp., that could result in PCMR losing access to most of its mountainside.

How the purchase of Snowbird by the Cumming family — but not by Powdr Corp. — impacts the PCMR-Canyons litigation was uncertain Monday. It also wasn’t entirely clear what immediate effects there would be at Snowbird, where the management team will remain intact and the company is proceeding with plans to break ground in July on the two-year Hidden Peak project, to build more biking trails on the mountain, and to renovate the Snowbird Center and Cliff Lodge.

“It will take a little while to digest how the new partnership works,” said Bob Bonar, Snowbird’s president and CEO and a resort employee almost since the beginning. “I have a lot of respect for Mr. Bass and for his family, who really have wanted to keep this a family partnership, a family owned and operated resort.”

A Harvard Business School graduate, Cumming has a reputation as one of Wall Street’s most savvy investors.

In 1979, he became an executive with Leucadia National Corp., based in New York City with an office in Salt Lake City. When he retired from the holding company on March 1, 2013, after its merger with the Jeffries Group, a global investment-banking firm, Leucadia had interests in mining and drilling services, telecommunications, health-care services, manufacturing, real estate, banking and wineries.

The business publication Crain’s said last year that he helped build Leucadia from nothing into a $6.8 billion operation.

“I look forward to working with the Bass family and the team at Snowbird in providing world-class experiences on and off the mountain,” Cumming said in the release. “We are very happy to be involved at a place that has so many fond memories for our family.”

Although residents of Jackson Hole, Wyo., he and his wife, Annette, have been financial supporters of Utah’s Democratic Party and active in Planned Parenthood circles locally and beyond. Four years ago, the University of Utah School of Nursing named its new building after Annette, a graduate, in response to a $5 million donation from the Cummings.

Skiing has been part of the family’s lifestyle all along, Bonar noted, pointing to the presence of one of Cumming’s homes — with its internal elevator rising from the road to living quarters up above — directly across the canyon road from Snowbird.

“Ian raised his kids here,” Bonar said. Son John is now president of Powder Corp., which owns PCMR and eight other ski areas around the country. “It’s an exciting family partnership that really is going to mean a lot for all of us who love Snowbird and Little Cottonwood Canyon.”

Other ski-industry officials agree.

“The Cummings have had a personal relationship with Snowbird for a long, long time,” said Solitude owner David DeSeelhorst. “It’s good that they’ve kept Snowbird within the Utah family. The Cummings will be a great caretaker for Snowbird in the future.”

Vail Resorts President Blaise Carrig praised Bass for “an incredible period of success” at Snowbird and expressed confidence “this transition can bring new capital to enhance the guest experience at one of the truly iconic mountains in the industry.”

Added Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, marketing arm of the state’s 14 active resorts: “This partnership will only enhance Utah’s overall ski product.”

But news of Cumming’s support for the restaurant atop Hidden Peak deflated the hopes of Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher that the new owners’ “first act of conservation will be to not build that atrocity of a structure.”

Opposition to the creation of Snowbird led to the creation of Save Our Canyons, Fisher noted, and “we have not always seen eye to eye on issues” over the years. “But we do look forward to working with the Cumming family to find ways to protect this uniquely beautiful and sensitive canyon which means so much to our community.”

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikegsltrib