Dave Likins on his journey from ski industry leader to surf park pioneer.
I grew up in Del Mar when it was a small beach community. My brother and I had our surfboards at a friend’s house on the bluffs. We lived up in The Heights, we’d ride our bikes down the hill, crawl down the canyon and go surf. I remember shaping my first board, a twin fin, in seventh grade. If we weren’t surfing, we were spearfishing. If we weren’t in the water, we were playing volleyball. That was my childhood. I just got to love recreation and the outdoors.
I traded coastal for the city life when I went to college at UC Berkeley (Cal). I actually tried surfing in San Francisco once in college. That was such a shock to the system that I didn’t ever jump back in that cold water again. My parents had grown up on the beach in Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane in summer was a little bit more palatable than trying to surf underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the winter. So I decided to go skiing instead and ended up on the ski team at Cal.
After college I joined a neat consulting firm called Monitor Company, a strategic consulting firm. I lived in LA, right on the strand of Manhattan Beach before it was super gaudy and expensive. I had some really fun business experiences consulting to the Basque government in Spain. I did a bunch of work in Canada. I was in oil and gas. I was in media applications. Most of my work was around financial services, principally mergers and acquisition. It was great, but after four years, one day I just decided I wanted to do this kind of work for businesses and industries that I was passionate about. I left the company, moved to Lake Tahoe and I started my own business doing mergers and acquisition, advisory work in the ski space. I had a few employees from the statistics PhD program at Stanford. We did a bunch of work to understand the demographics of mergers and acquisitions in the ski space.
I made the move to ski at a time there were a lot of mom-and-pop ski resorts. There wasn’t much professional advisory in the space at the time and most people weren’t thinking about deploying finance best practices, they were just working to make a paycheck and feed their families from businesses they’d started decades earlier. There was a big opportunity to introduce some financial discipline and to put some academic rigor towards a consolidation of the businesses in that space. I was at the right place at the right time as the industry transitioned from highly fragmented to widespread corporate capital ownership of recreation assets. I saw the benefit of being able to deploy capital against business plans. The value of consolidation, and stronger management teams to deliver both financial benefits and guest experience benefits. When Northstar went out and bought other ski resorts, I was the tip of the spear on their acquisitions strategy. With access to capital you had the ability to create the kinds of experiences that the ski industry is now well-known for.
After several years I sold that advisory firm and got an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. I got a Masters of Arts in International Studies, Latin American Studies in particular and spent a little time working for Morgan Stanley doing international mergers and acquisitions, mostly out of the Mexico City office. Then I decided to go back into consulting. I got a chance to work for McKinsey who we’re just starting a practice supporting the Silicon Valley businesses, mostly enterprise software. This was through Silicon Valley’s growth spurt from 1997 through 2000, a phase when everybody was putting money into almost anything in Silicon Valley. I connected with some partners and we built a venture capital fund. We had almost a quarter of a billion dollars of capital under management.
I got a call from some guys who had purchased a resort called Kirkwood, up in the Lake Tahoe area. They were struggling, not only with the core business, but also the real estate business. They had some debts and land, but no entitlements. They had some ideas, but no sales. They were a bunch of real estate professionals who had a ski business they didn’t know how to operate. I joined the team as the president and became CEO a couple of years later. We went through a process of figuring out the right balance between real estate development and resort operations and I spent the next 11 years, day in and day out, building up the resort operations.
I wasn’t very good at the tech business. I’m much more interested in concrete businesses with earnings and real issues, as opposed to blue sky thinking of technology applications. But I did it. You only have to be right 30% of the time to be considered successful in that space and we had some great runs during that pre-bubble period. When the bubble burst and the economy tanked, lots of pieces got thrown into chaos, including the ski business which had ridden a very long run of real estate development. All of a sudden there were no buyers and no guests.
When you run any kind of resort, there is seasonality. The ski business is remarkably seasonal. You go from 15 employees to more than 1800 employees in the course of two to three months. Most of those employees are between the ages of 18 and 25, many are just there to play and have a good time. They’re taking their X number of months off after graduation or just trying to find what they want to do in life. When you’re the CEO of those businesses, you learn a lot about people. You learn a lot about what people want and need, both on the employee side and the guest side. We learned our lessons and took a business that was in real trouble and got it into a position where Vail felt comfortable to come in and buy it. The Vail stamp of approval is really the gold standard in skiing.
Almost immediately after we sold Kirkwood to Vail I went to work at Mammoth as its President. Mammoth had suffered through the California droughts from 2012 through ’14 and there were many challenging years recovering from the real estate recessions of the mid-2000 period. The first thing I did there was to purchase the Big Bear Mountain Resorts. I felt they were really undervalued, both within the industry and by their ownership. It felt like a really good opportunity for Mammoth as they hadn’t really made a single acquisition, and we were very successful. We built the right management team, and we thought long and hard about the guest experience.
The beauty of Big Bear is that a something like 78% of Southern Californians learn how to ski there. This presents a real opportunity to touch people who have never even seen snow, who have never skied or snowboarded, to touch them in a meaningful way. If, as the steward of that experience, you do it right, you’ve got a guest for life. But if you do it wrong, they’re never going to come back. How do you mitigate the discomfort of guests who have never been in the snow, or on the mountain, or on a chairlift, or in a blizzard? Big Bear was a great opportunity to think about those things. Over the course of a couple years we took a business that was struggling to make money at all, and we made it into an incredibly successful resort that became the spearhead of the sale of Mammoth to Alterra.
We spent three years on the acquisition of the Big Bear resorts and building up Mammoth. We spent another year selling the company. That created some room for me to think about what I wanted to do next. During that period I was approached by a recruiter for the Kelly Slater Wave Company and came onboard almost the exact day that they proved out the wave as you see it today.