Roger McCarthy: A Passion for new challenges

by Michel Beaudry, Pique Newsmagazine, June 28, 2007

He’s the Forrest Gump of the ski business. And like the fictional movie character, he’s never forgotten his roots. Although Kiwi Roger McCarthy is now considered one of the most influential executives in the global mountain tourism business, he still exhibits the same easy-going, irreverent behaviour that made him such an endearing figure when he was working as a handyman at Whistler’s Cheakamus Inn back in he early 1970s. “I wouldn’t trade those years and the friends I made then for anything,” says the 57 year old with a laugh. “They made me who I am today…”

And what he is today is eminently powerful. Having completed stints with Intrawest (where he rose through the ranks to become Senior VP of Operations for Eastern North America), and Vail Resorts (where he ran Breckenridge and Keystone and was, essentially, co-president with Adam Aaron), McCarthy shocked the ski world this spring when he walked away from nearly a million dollars worth of stock options to take over the reins of an emerging new ski area in southern Russia. The place is called Rosa Khutor, it boasts 5,300 feet of vertical, and it’s being developed by two Russian oligarchs worth an estimated $14.5 billion… each. And no, I’m not making this up.

“What’s happening,” explains Roger, “is that president Putin is telling the oligarchs: ‘you guys made a lot of money out of the privatization of Russia. Now it’s time for you to invest money back into the economy to help your fellow Russians.’ And because Russia is a winter country — and the ski business here hasn’t really evolved since the 1950s — it makes good business sense to invest in that sector.”

The fact that Sochi is one of the frontrunning candidates as host city for the 2014 Winter Games probably added even more incentive to the economic argument. (The IOC will announce the winning candidate in July.)

But why get involved with such a risky project? Why walk away from a very secure — and prestigious — job in North America for the uncertainty of launching a new resort in the wilds of the Caucasus Mountains? “This was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Roger. “They were offering me the chance to get involved in building a ski resort from the ground up. And that hasn’t happened to any degree anywhere else in the world for decades!”

Think about it, he tells me. “It’s the appeal of working through issues and challenges and getting things right from the very beginning. Paul Mathews (of Whistler-based Ecosign) is responsible for the master plan here, and he and I have a ton of experience working together. We have a level of communication that’s really good — there’s a lot of trust and respect between us.” He stops speaking for a moment. “Which means I won’t have to fight with anybody to get the mountain layout right…”

Besides, he admits, he’d begun to get restless in Colorado. “I was ready for a new challenge. I was doing a lot of neat stuff with Vail Resorts — I’d just completed a deal with Breckenridge to build a gondola from the town to the mountain. But over all, it was pretty safe stuff. I guess I craved a little more adventure in my life…”

And he definitely got that. He now commutes weekly from his office in Moscow to the work site near Sochi on the Black Sea coast (a 2.5 hour flight away). “Moscow is a real trip,” he says. “It’s very surreal. I mean, Mercedes Benz sedans are like Volkswagens here. And everybody has a driver and a bodyguard — even me! It’s kind of like the Wild West: the amount of money flowing through the economy right now is amazing.”

But no less amazing is the Rosa Khutor site. “We have two gondolas, a detachable six-seater chairlift and a fixed grip lift all sitting in the parking lot at the base of the mountain,” he says. “There are armed guards, attack dogs — the security there is staggering.” A long chuckle. “If we did away with security, our on-site work force would probably drop by 20 per cent!”

But that’s the price you pay for doing business in a place like Russia. “You have to leave your pre-conceptions behind,” he explains. “Doing business here is almost like being on another planet. It’s like nothing I’ve attempted before.”

McCarthy sounds like he’s having the time of his life. His passion and enthusiasm for the project infuses everything he says. And I can’t help but be drawn in by the picture he paints of the place. “The mountains here are truly remarkable,” he tells me, with an unfeigned little-kid eagerness. “It’s truly big-mountain country — a little intimidating, for sure, but very exciting. And the people I work with are fabulous.”

Still, there were adjustments to be made. “The Russians have a very particular image of what a senior executive should act and look like,” he says. And pauses. Laughs. “And I didn’t fit the model at all. I’m pretty casual. I like to talk to everybody — and that just isn’t done here.”

Another burst of happy laughter. “I wore a suit on my first day at the office. And I said: ‘Take a good look. Because that’s the last time you’ll see me wearing it…”

What most surprises the Russians, however, is how much of a hands-on executive Roger has turned out to be. “They’re not used to the boss going out in the field and getting his shoes dirty,” he says. “But I firmly believe you can’t manage this business from the office.”

And then he launches into one of his favourite diatribes. “I think a lot of people in our industry have gotten things turned around in recent years. It’s not about the numbers. Forget that crap — focus on the experience instead. For if you don’t get the experience right, you’ll never get the numbers you want. Furthermore, if you obsess over numbers, chances are you’ll make them fall simply by looking at them too much.”

That’s why he’s never hesitated to tell aspiring ski executives: “Get out of your office, put your skis on and go check out the product for yourself. All that the number crunching will tell you is whether or not your product is getting the job done…”

Even more important, he says, is the attitude you take to work. “We’re in the fun business. And if the people who work on your mountain aren’t having fun, then you’re doing something profoundly wrong. It’s simple really — if I walk into the office in the morning and bitch at my assistant, and then go outside and yell at the liftees, and spend the rest of the day with a scowl on my face, it will never happen. I will never be successful. I mean c’mon, it’s a phenomenal thing that we’re doing. Let’s make sure we keep reminding each other just how special this business really is.”

It concerns him, he says, that the modern ski experience has become increasingly “industrial”. “All we’re doing is “processing” people. And that’s wrong. It’s a huge challenge for our business: how do we keep the experience fresh and exciting and sexy for our guests?”

He adds that former Whistler Mountain CEO Lorne Borgal told him something in the 1980s that really got him thinking. “Lorne said to me: ‘The things you see — if you look hard enough — are things that most other people will miss. And that’s a huge responsibility. For you have the resources and experience to fix things.’ And that comment has pretty much steered the way I’ve approached my work duties ever since…”

There’s no question that McCarthy’s hands-on style was honed during his early working years at Whistler Mountain. From liftee to pro patrol — “I was the test dummy who carried the explosives during my first season,” he says with a chuckle — to patrol director to Intrawest executive, Roger’s career path intersected with some of the biggest names in the industry. And he says he made sure to learn a little from each one.

“When I look back and think of all the bigger-than-life people I learned from — whether Franz Wilhelmsen or Jim McConkey or Peter Alder or Terry Minger or Eldon Beck — I feel truly humble. And then I think of the people with whom I worked the closest — people like Hugh Smythe, Chris Stethem, Brian Leighton and Rob Burgess — and I realize that they are all still close friends of mine. That’s when I know I’ve been blessed.”

McCarthy’s Rosa Khutor contract runs until the spring of 2010. So what then? “I still own my old place on the Westside Road,” he says. “It’s called Worlebury Lodge and it was built in 1955. In fact, the view across the lake from my deck is on the wall of my office in Moscow.” He stops talking. Sighs. “I still have so many friends in Whistler. I realize it’s not the same town it was when I left back in ’91. But my dream is to eventually return, build a new house on the lake and hangout with my buddies…”