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Retiring SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan reflects on a 30-year career in Aspen

Aspen Skiing Company President and CEO Mike Kaplan speaks to the crowd during SkiCo’s 75th anniversary celebration at the base of Aspen Mountain in 2022
Jeremy Swanson
/
Courtesy of Aspen Skiing Co.
Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan speaks to the crowd during SkiCo’s 75th anniversary celebration at the base of Aspen Mountain in 2022. Kaplan retires from his position after three decades with the company on April 27, 2023.

Thirty years ago, after a stint at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico and an MBA from the University of Denver, a young Mike Kaplan came to the Aspen Skiing Company to work as the ski school supervisor at Aspen Mountain.

He rose to chief operating officer by 2005, working as second-in-command to SkiCo’s then-president and CEO Pat O’Donnell — then filled the top spot a year later, at the age of 42, when O’Donnell retired. Some 17 years later, Kaplan is the one retiring: Thursday is his last day on the job as he hands the reins to his successor Geoff Buccheister.

Kaplan’s tenure has spanned major updates at all four of SkiCo’s mountains, from Aspen Highlands’ terrain expansions in the Highland Bowl and Deep Temerity in the late 1990s and early 2000s to a forthcoming expansion into the Pandora’s area at Aspen Mountain, set to open next winter. Snowmass Ski Area got a host of new amenities on the mountain and in Base Village over a span of two decades; Buttermilk Mountain completed a base area renovation this winter.

But Kaplan, always quick to credit others for the company’s achievements, says it’s the people of SkiCo who really stand out.

“The thing I'm most proud of is really the team that's developed here and grown here and become, in my opinion, the best in the business,” Kaplan said in a phone interview Monday. “And it's not only their skill, but their passion — their authentic, true, real caring for what they're doing for each other and for making the experience what it should be.”

The winter of 2022-23 was a nostalgic one for Kaplan as he reminisced at hallmark events, industry talks and government meetings. He shared some final thoughts with Aspen Public Radio this week before he heads out on a long vacation into retirement.

***

Kaya Williams: Looking back, I'm curious what advice you would give to your younger self, maybe the Mike Kaplan that was just getting started as a CEO 17 years ago.

Mike Kaplan: Advice to myself would be, ‘Enjoy it, enjoy the ride. Never forget what you're doing and why. And take the time to look around. Because in the thick of it, you know, it can get hard and can get exhausting, but make sure you take the time to get outside and get a couple runs, get some chairlift rides with some fellow employees or some guests and remember why you're doing it.’

Williams: As you're coming out of the thick of it now, have there been any moments that really stood out to you, reflecting?

Kaplan: It's hard, right? Like, ‘Oh, my god, 30 years, I want to remember everything.’ So, you know, I guess I just had one now. Employee days are always special, so after we close each mountain, the next day, we have a little employee party, and the employees get the mountain themselves and you get to ride with people and catch up and hear about their day.

And it's pretty special, and I just had one of those, where I had a run from Dipsy Doodle all the way down Spar [Gulch]. It was sort of me and one friend and [we] had the mountain to ourselves, and it was just sort of a fitting ending to what has just been a spectacular and really fun tenure here.

Williams: What do you think you'll miss most when you retire?

Kaplan: First tracks, last tracks. [Laughs.] No, it's the people, it's that camaraderie, right? Coming down at the end of the day in the locker room, and being part of that team, and grinding it out together, celebrating together, that'll be hard. But it's definitely my family. And while we’re staying here in the valley and not going anywhere, not being with them every day is going to be hard. That’s going to be a hole for sure.

Williams: And aside from vacation, what's next for you?

Kaplan: We're going to come back here and enjoy the place, right? We'll be here this summer, and just get reconnected with my wife and my bike. And we'll have some kids home on and off. And we'll see. No immediate plans. I keep saying I reserve the right to change my mind, not that I've made up my mind on anything yet. So take six months, and we'll see.

Williams: Well, we started this by chatting a bit about the advice you'd give to your younger self. Any advice you'd give to your successor, Geoff Buchheister?

Kaplan: He's probably sick of hearing it from me because we’ve sort of been attached at the hip for the last few months. But no, I think it's what he's doing, you know? Immerse yourself in the community, in the company, in the business, which he's doing now, and get to know it. And, you know, keep — as he said, the momentum going. I think we're in a good place and [have] good momentum, and then find the place and way to sort of make your stamp on it and continue to embrace the future, but start from this foundation and start from understanding.

Williams: Right on. Well, Mike, thank you so much for your time today. And really kudos on a very long career here in Aspen.

Kaplan: Thank you Kaya. I really appreciate it. It's been amazing. And I appreciate — this community has really been supportive and embracing, and really raised my family. So that's the other, I guess, accomplishment I should mention, which is four kids out and about in the world. And that's the goal in life, right? And it wouldn't have happened nearly as well, wonderfully, if it weren’t in this community. So thank you.

Williams: Well, thanks again and I hope there's many more fresh tracks in your future.

Kaplan: Me too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.