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Good twists and turns for Otten

Ex-ASC boss thrives after downhill run

Ex-Red Sox minority partner Les Otten hasn't let the loss of his American Skiing Company ruin his passion for the slopes. Ex-Red Sox minority partner Les Otten hasn't let the loss of his American Skiing Company ruin his passion for the slopes. (Jack Milton/Portland Press Herald)
By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2008
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After the rise and fall of the largest ski conglomeration ever formed, American Skiing Company - which sank under the weight of mountainous debt and resulted in the sale of nine resorts - Les Otten still retains his passion for the sport.

ASC's former CEO was getting ready one day last week to make his first turns at Sunday River - the resort he once owned and developed into one of the most successful in the Northeast.

After a few runs on limited early season terrain, Otten - at 59, tall and slim and still making his turns as gracefully as ever - pronounced the experience simply, "Nice. Snow's pretty good."

Otten was never a business guy who liked to ski; he was always a skier who found his way, as early as his college years, into the industry.

And after falling short in his bid to reclaim Sunday River two years ago, Otten today maintains a sanguine view of things.

"Seeing the tremendous values my companies finally sold for is quite heartening," he said.

And as he prepared to head off skiing with his family, Otten noted in response to a question about the sport, "You're right. The passion never dies."

But talk to him for very long, and the bitterness is still there. And along the way, there was his second passion - baseball.

In 2004, he became a small investor in the current Red Sox management group, convinced the existing Fenway Park was one of the greatest assets the team owned, and helped find a way to modernize it and expand the seating rather than build a new park.

But when he made his bid to buy Sunday River and Sugarloaf, Otten sold his interest in the team to prepare for what he hoped would be his restart in the ski industry. (He will not discuss his return.)

By then, Otten had lost control of American Skiing, although he hoped to reacquire its two Maine assets. However, his bid was eclipsed by Boyne USA Resorts, which offered $77 million and $2 million in debt and liabilities. Otten's view is that his bid was only used to drive the selling price higher, though a former ASC executive denies that Otten was blocked from consideration.

Regretful partnership

Whatever the case, the failure to reacquire Sunday River was a final blow in a nightmare, the makings of which began almost a decade earlier when ASC was a high-flying company that owned nine resorts from Maine to California.

But the acquisition of those properties resulted in debt, which Otten sought to pay down in part by selling ASC stock, but the timing could not have been worse. Two poor snow winters led to income losses and eventually a tightening of ASC credit.

Otten needed an investment partner and thus, in hindsight, he says, made the fatal mistake of making a $150 million deal with the Texas investment firm, Oak Hill Capital Partners. Under the terms of the deal, if ASC was unable to pay dividends, Oak Hill would get more stock. When that happened, the investors had control of ASC within two years, and Otten, though he had invested $15 million of his own money, was out.

"We were caught in an equity scam that was identical in many ways to the equity problems in our real estate markets - which are unrealistic values that could never be supported in the long term," Otten said.

Otten blames himself for choosing Oak Hill as an investor, believing they did not care so much about ski resorts - and certainly not the sport - and worked to break up ASC and "cash out within the first few months of making its investment. They didn't have the heart to stay with the investment."

While ASC was still viable, Otten was legally prohibited from talking in-depth about his business machinations with the firm, but after the company dissolved and he made his accusations public, Oak Hill executives issued a sparsely worded response first published in the Portland Press Herald: "We have done an excellent job. Results improved. We have a great track record."

Innovator, visionary

In the aftermath, Otten feels he was successful in the ski business, and he points to many of his innovations and advances with pride. For example, Sunday River's snowmaking and grooming became a standard in the industry.

But perhaps his proudest achievement was his company's partnership in the shaped-ski movement that revolutionized standard teaching of the sport by actually returning to the old Graduated Length Method, but using the new parabolic-shaped skis.

Defying old assumptions that skiing required sometimes years of instruction and training, Otten ordered 10,000 pairs from Rossignol for use in his ski shops and the establishment of his Perfect Turn school, which assumed novices could learn to make turns in a day.

"Maybe 60 to 65 percent of the new skiers wouldn't come back, but a third of them really enjoyed it and did come back," Otten said.

As new skiers by the tens of thousands came into the sport, Otten was early to recognize the future of snowboarding, and he removed all restrictions on them at his resorts.

Within two decades, Sunday River had expanded horizontally to a chain of eight summits, with yearly skier visits growing from some 30,000 to a high of 568,000, second only to Killington, which also became an ASC property.

"The idea was to make skiing a lifetime sport that families could enjoy together over the years," he said, adding that ASC's teaching methods provided the basis of shaped-ski instruction by the Professional Ski Instructors of America.

Warm as some of his memories in the ski business and baseball may be, Otten is not one to dwell in the past. His third passion, he says, is politics. Although it has long been rumored that he is interested in running for governor of Maine, he says only, "Nothing to announce right now."

Otten is currently running a green energy company that distributes wood pellets for home heating, an automated system he says is cleaner and cheaper than oil. Having installed a unit in his house in Maine, Otten says the time is right for his new product, especially in a region so dependent on heating oil.

"Not only is this [system] clean, but the environment stays cleaner and my wallet is not cleaned out," he said. "We have a good start on it, and the whole point is to retool for the 21st century with fuels that are not going to damage the environment."

All part of what Otten calls his personal mantra, inspired by his father, Albert, a successful Jewish businessman who, financially ruined by the Nazis, escaped from Germany and went through many business incarnations in North America.

Just two words guide him, his father's initials.

"Always onward."

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