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Dave Brownlie (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Dave Brownlie (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Dave Brownlie: On top of the world, all year round Add to ...

The Horstman Hut stands 2,284 metres above sea level near the peak of Blackcomb Mountain, amid glaciers and couloirs. It's Dave Brownlie's favourite place to eat at Whistler Blackcomb, the sprawling ski resort north of Vancouver.

Sunshine splashes through windows of the log-walled hut in the early afternoon on a Friday in February on the bright end of a wild storm that has graced the mountains with an epic two metres of snow.

From the Lunch archive

The hut has warmed and fed visitors since 1987. Mr. Brownlie arrived two years later, signing on as director of finance for Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises, then a fledgling business Vancouver real estate developer Joe Houssian wanted to remake into a massive resort company. Mr. Brownlie was 26 and moved to the quiet little town on the same weekend that local hero Rob Boyd won a World Cup downhill on Whistler Mountain.

"I thought that was maybe a good sign," said Mr. Brownlie, eating a lunch of French onion soup and melted Emmental on salami and rye, pickles and mustard on the side - mountain fare.

Like the mountains, Mr. Brownlie finds himself having freshly emerged from a storm. He's now at the helm of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. , newly public after a $345-million initial public offering in November, one of Canada's largest offerings last year. The ski resort, as a single entity, had never been public. It was always part of Mr. Houssian's larger Intrawest business which, in the late 2000s, became private after Intrawest was purchased for $2.8-billion in a heavily leveraged buyout by Fortress Investment Group.

Intrawest was gutted by the financial crisis and recession. The seller of expensive ski holidays and high-end resort real estate buckled under a severe debt load. Fortress's equity evaporated and the New York hedge fund barely held on to Intrawest, battling lenders who threatened to auction off Whistler Blackcomb during the 2010 Winter Olympics when the mountains played host to the ski races and sliding sports.

Fortress eventually satisfied its lenders but to do it Intrawest had to give up its main asset, Whistler, to drum up enough cash to pay down its debt. Intrawest, a long-time Vancouver company, decamped to Denver, moving its small head office to the state where two of its seven ski resorts are located - down from 10 when Mr. Houssian sold to Fortress.

Mr. Brownlie, who had climbed the ranks of Intrawest as it grew, helping to expand the mountain and real estate businesses, now turns his full attention to Whistler Blackcomb, whose assets are no longer focused solely on the skiing industry. The 48-year-old president wants to make it an "iconic Canadian company."

Whistler - routinely ranked as the best ski resort in North America and considered among the top in the world - had a bumpy beginning to its public ride. Fortress, after failing to attract a private buyer for Whistler, turned to the public markets. It asked $15 a share, presenting the company as a yield vehicle with a 6.4-per-cent coupon for income-hungry investors. But potential shareholders balked and the offering was slashed to $12, pushing the yield to 8 per cent.

Mr. Brownlie hit the road to sell the offering and counter skeptics who pointed out that ski resorts aren't known for reliable results.

"The biggest [question]was the ability to grow and the stability of the business," said Mr. Brownlie. "Everybody's perception is: 'Well, it all depends on snow.' … But if you really look at it, snow does have an impact, but we've done a lot over the years to weatherproof our business to ensure we can deliver consistent cash flow."

While unpalatable to investors at $15, Whistler Blackcomb shares have fared well, holding at about $12 to $12.50 since the IPO. Even the weather has co-operated; the two metres that fell down in mid-February pushed the resort to more than 10 metres for the season - more than Whistler gets on average through an entire winter.

Part of Mr. Brownlie's "weatherproofing" is an ever-greater focus on skiers, in British Columbia and Washington State, who are within driving distance. This market underpins current revenue, compared with a decade ago when Whistler depended on American visitors taking advantage of the low Canadian dollar.

Developing Whistler's summer business and reducing its dependence on snow is the second major push. "Getting summer profitable is really unique," Mr. Brownlie said. "Most resorts lose money all summer long until winter comes." An average of 4,500 people ascend the mountains in July and August, up about 50 per cent over the past several years. (The average midwinter number is around 15,000.) The surging popularity of mountain biking - Whistler is a global centre - has helped, but the real lure for less-extreme hikers and sightseers has been the $52-million Peak 2 Peak gondola, a 4.4-kilometre link between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. At its height, the gondola soars 436 meters above the valley and creek that separate the two. While popular in winter, Peak 2 Peak is fast becoming a summer can't-miss for visitors to B.C - and summer now accounts for about 15 per cent of Whistler's revenue.

While the resort is solidly profitable, growth has been elusive. Annual fiscal-year revenue has been stuck for several years around $220-million and income at about $50-million. During its first weeks as a public company, from Nov. 9 to Dec. 31, Whistler's sales were $43-million and profit was $6-million.

To expand the business, rather than just maintain it, Whistler has to attract more so-called destination visitors, those who are willing to travel farther and who will spend more money - on everything from ski school to meals at the Horstman.

Before lunch, while in the Solar Coaster chairlift climbing the mountain, Mr. Brownlie had chatted with a couple visiting from England. They'd previously skied in Canada, but admitted they were "one click away from the Alps" when they decided to book Whistler. They were happy they did: The woman called Whistler "ski heaven."

Mr. Brownlie wants to leverage the exposure of the Olympics to bring in more such destination guests. Tourism Whistler, a regional promotion group largely funded by Whistler Blackcomb, is spending most of its marketing dollars to draw people from farther away.

While the Olympics might have looked like easy and amazing advertising for Whistler, converting that exposure to profit is a significant challenge. Intrawest chief executive officer Bill Jensen has said it isn't certain the Olympics will produce a "longer-term sustained bump."

"There's exchange rates, there's the economy, there's airfare," Mr. Brownlie said. "There's a lot more things that you have to overcome. We've got the most awareness we've ever had in the world today. We are on people's lists, but we went into this year with countries going bankrupt. If you're in the U.K. and everybody's losing their jobs and they're cutting back, people stay closer to home. As those barriers change, we're in an extremely good position to take advantage."

One tangible bonus of the Olympics was the government-funded $600-million expansion of Highway 99, the picturesque but previously treacherous road that connects Vancouver to Whistler.

Still, the resort has not been able to eclipse the skier visit peaks of early last decade; in 2001-02 the resort drew a record 2.23 million, the high-water mark for any North American resort. Mr. Brownlie believes the company can beat that, yet skiing in general appears to be stuck in neutral, barely ticking up in the past decade as baby boomers age. Mr. Brownlie again points to the local market - the outdoors-orientated Pacific Northwest - and his goal to win market share.

He's convinced he's got the best product around. After lunch, at the top of the snowy black-diamond run to the base of the Blackcomb Glacier, Mr. Brownlie marvels at the beauty. "You just can't make them like this."

______

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginning

Born Sept. 22, 1962

Grew up in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby

Father drove a gravel truck, mother worked in retail

Earned a B. Comm from University of British Columbia

Home life

Lives in Whistler, married to Liz.

Father of three children: an 11-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl

Career

Articled to be a chartered accountant at a predecessor to KPMG

Joined Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises in 1989 at age 26 as director of finance

Rose to chief operating officer of Canadian ski resorts at Blackcomb's former owner Intrawest

Now president of Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc.

Passions

A sportsman, he enjoys skiing, hockey, golf, mountain biking and running

Played varsity hockey at UBC

Plays in Whistler's top-tier men's hockey A League: "I've been the oldest player in the league for the last number of years, I'm definitely in the twilight."

Other interests

Since 1997, president of the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, which raises funds for services such as food banks in the region around Whistler

Serves on minister's council on tourism to help the B.C. government promote the province

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

 
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