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Mountain out of a Molehill

Everett Kircher has created a mountain of ski dollars in the gently sloping state of Michigan

The ski resort of Boyne Mountain stands outside the tiny village of Boyne Falls, Mich., 250 miles northwest of Detroit. The name is a crazy courtesy, for until 13 years ago it was a knobby hill in a gently sloping countryside, pleasant but no more so than the neighboring hills. From parking lot to hill bottom (or as one competitor puts it, "from the top of the flagpole to the bottom of the well") the drop in terrain measures just 485 feet, which makes Boyne a mountain in the spirit of the sideshow that once boasted of having the shortest giant in the world.

It was acquired in 1948 by Everett Kircher, a Detroit automobile dealer who wanted to go into the resort business and believed that a man can call his own property anything he likes. He called his molehill a mountain, and he has made a fortune out of it.

For Boyne Mountain is as prosperous as an Alp. It is valued at $3 million. In the time it takes to put out a resort folder this quiet Michigan hill became a small rock-candy mountain, with plenty of gingerbread in its angular Swiss architecture and with comforts that nature never knew. At night the ski slopes are bathed in electric light aided, some nights, by the moon. When natural snow is lacking Kircher can provide the artificial variety. Indeed, the whole place is a remarkable snow job. Nobody works—or at least nobody seems to work; everybody plays. As in Camelot, the 240 employees go about their tasks almost furtively so as not to intrude the sordid into the idyllic.

An intense, bouncy little man of 43, who walks with a swagger, Kircher likes making money and is amused by the ingredients of his success. "People come here because it's pretty," Kircher says. "Look. The sunshine on the snow is beautiful. Everything smells like it was freshly baked. We can't let them know there is a cotton pickin' hint of work involved in anything. Last night $3,000 worth of pipes froze up because some idiot was afraid to call me on the telephone. But this morning I'm around slapping people on the back and telling them it's nice to see them again. That's the challenge in this business: to do things on the sly. People don't like to hear your troubles. As far as they're concerned, I'm just a jerk who skis around all day and sits in the saloon at night having fun. I've got the role down to a science."

Besides the main lodge, the resort has a brand-new lodge (Edelweiss), a chalet, assorted bars, a dining room and cafeteria, an ice rink, a heated pool, and sideline attractions like a country store—all within walking distance even on a sub-zero day. "This is a ski resort," Kircher said, "not a ski area. We want people to feel the togetherness. We don't want them to have to look elsewhere for anything." That logic extends even to the dining room, where hostesses are trained to seat strangers together—preferably male and female—to give nature a nudge.

Kircher and his general manager, droll, nonskiing, 43-year-old Chuck Moll have made a study of the life expectancy of the average skier, with a clear eye toward stretching it from just that side of the cradle to just this side of the grave. They figure that, male or female, a skier lasts three years, then marries and forgets it. "Our job," says Kircher in missionary tones, "is to get them back into the fold. They drift away from skiing until the children are 5 or 6. Then Pop starts to move up in the firm and figures he needs a little exercise. Mom is sick of housework and bridge clubs. They look around, but they don't want to wait for things. We've got the beds, the lifts—all the conveniences. We offer them a tight package and they snap it up."

Two years ago economically depressed Michigan led the recession in idle workers, and general tourist trade was off 16%. But at Boyne Mountain it was up 16%. Last year it went up another 10%. In the past two seasons Kircher has shoveled nearly half a million a year into expansion, and long-range plans for the next three years call for another quarter million a year. "I don't know if we'll ever take any profit out of the place," he says, like a martyr.

As the profit is reinvested, luxury abounds. Last season other resort operators scoffed as Kircher replaced the tow-rope on his beginners' run with a double chair lift. "The toughest thing in skiing is learning to ride those damned ropes," he said, "I think the beginners should have the chairs and the more experienced skiers the ropes." In all, Boyne's 16 runs are served by five double chair lifts, assorted T and J bars and ropes. The chairs bring profits coming and going. As president of Kircher Motors Inc., Kircher heads the firm that leases the chair lifts to the Boyne Mountain Corp., over which he also presides. Thus the right hand lends to the left and the left puts it back in the right's pocket. This causes occasional differences of opinion between Kircher and the department of Internal Revenue.

"What we have left after taxes we invest," he says. "The government doesn't chisel at our profits. It hits them with a meat cleaver." Kircher abhors the $3 million price tag on the premises, though he put it there himself. A few years ago he estimated the resort's assets at that figure for a rural sportswriter, and within hours the village of Boyne Falls had doubled his SI million tax assessment. Still the money rolls in. For the past two years the lodge, runs and other facilities have grossed more than $750,000 annually, and by 1964 Kircher expects the take to top $1,500,000.

He explains it this way: "We've been successful because we've outhorsepowered everybody else. Not many big ski operations are built on ski revenue alone. You've got to invest big, be fathered by outside capital. We're big because we think big. We've become the place to ski in the Midwest area."

Kircher is disdainful of those who hope for fast profits on a limited investment. "They come here and watch me sit around the dining room or go skiing with the boys, and they think it's all a snap. So they say to themselves, 'I can build a place like Boyne Mountain for $50,000. There's plenty of higher ground around here, and I'm at least smarter than that dunce Kircher.' So they go off and lose their $50,000 and wonder why it didn't work out. And in the meantime maybe they build close by here and people ski at their place but sleep in my beds, and I lose money. You don't take profit from the beds or dining rooms or bars. You make it on the lifts, and anyone who sleeps here but slips off to another place to ski is costing me money."

Kircher has aimed his appeal toward two groups: the family and the single male and female, tying them together with a single motive, to give them a reason to ski. "Sex," he says, pounding on the oaken table in his office. "Sex brings the girls north looking for guys. And vice versa. You can call it anything you like, but it's just plain sex. I've often wondered just how much the improvements we make affect this boy-meet-girl urge. But skiing must have something to do with it. Otherwise," he chuckled, "they would keep coming after the snow melts."

While there is snow, real or manufactured, the female trade clearly has the upper hand. Stein Eriksen, the demigod of all skiers, was the original bait for Kircher's hook. (He was ski pro at Boyne in 1953-54, 1954-55 and the first six weeks of last season.) "Stein knew what they wanted," Kircher said recently. "They wanted him bareheaded in a bright sweater. Sometimes these girls make me laugh. They all dream of falling in love with the ski instructor. This is the image they want."

This season, Eriksen's place will be taken by blond, blue-eyed, 33-year-old Othmar Schneider, an Olympic gold medal winner in 1952. "Stein is the captain of a pro racing team, and he's going to be on the road quite a bit this year," said Kircher. "Also, he has his ski school at Aspen Highlands. He was spreading himself too thin. Schneider is probably the second-most-popular instructor available and, besides that, he's more the executive type. We have him on a full-time, long-range contract."

Full day of fun

Inside or out, the activity at Boyne moves at quickstep. In a normal day one may take a lesson in the morning, ski all afternoon, take a dip in the heated pool, have cocktails and dinner, then ice skate, take a sleigh ride or watch movies. On weekends Kircher opens all three bars, each directed to different economic groups—from the Scotch-on-the-rocks trade to the pitcher-of-beer mobs.

Kircher has an ingenious, not to say disingenuous, explanation for Boyne's drawbacks as a ski hill. The most dangerous run, Hemlock, is a Sunday stroll for most experienced skiers. But Kircher argues that what the hill lacks in height it makes up for in ease of repetition. "Skiing," he insists, "is measured in vertical feet, whether it's here or Colorado or Europe. In Switzerland you can ski 10,000 vertical feet in a day, but it takes two trips up the mountain. Here our longest run is 485 vertical feet, but because our lifts can handle 5,800 people an hour you can make 30 runs a day, and that's 15,000 vertical feet. If you took six Boyne Mountains and stacked them atop each other, they'd equal Aspen. You can't ski all of Aspen in one run. So here you get the same effect, top to bottom, as making six stops out there."

Kircher spends some $30,000 a year in the manufacture of snow. A few years ago he spent $3,000 a month in an unsuccessful attempt to "seed" the clouds with silver iodide crystals, as they passed over Lake Michigan, hoping they would drop their pay load on his ridge. They unloaded more frequently on other resorts in the area, however, and he cut off his involuntary charity. He switched to giant air compressors that run at his whimsy, day or night.

It is not uncommon for the snow makers to grind away in the midst of a heavy snowfall. "Skiers use an enormous tonnage of snow just pushing it to the sides of the slope," Kircher said. "This little bank runs out of snow about mid-March, and we have to keep going until Easter. We're playing poker with the weather, and it's holding a big handful of thaw. We can't take any chances."

Kircher was born in St. Louis, the son of an auto mechanic. The family moved to Detroit when he was 2. After two years at the University of Michigan, he quit in 1939 when he became bored, restless and broke. He loafed for a year, then bought a house-trailer sales business on a $3,000 loan from his father. A year later he branched into the auto business, becoming the youngest Chrysler dealer in history, and "fed the car business" with the profits from the house trailers.

When World War II cut the bottom from both, he bought some machines and made nose cones for Navy five-inch rockets. At war's end the machines were scrapped and Kircher went back into the auto business, selling Studebakers.

A skier from his high school days, Kircher used to hit the few spots available in northern Michigan, spotted Boyne's possibilities and talked a lumberman out of the original 40 acres. Later he traded another tract of land to the Boyne Falls school board for another 160 acres, then added the rest piecemeal.

In 1948 he paid $2,000 for Sun Valley's old Dollar chair lift as scrap and $3,000 more to move it to Michigan. The same year he brought ski pro Victor Gottschalk (later killed in a western avalanche) to Boyne. "I could see a helluva need for something in skiing that people could talk about; a big Shangri-La where they could get more than wet feet and cold noses." He built the main lodge, kept expanding and modernizing so that now the resort has beds for 425 skiers and/or watchers. In 1955-56 he left the auto business entirely and built a year-round home near the resort. Today Kircher owns 94% of the stock; a friend and his parents own the rest.

Each year he attempts to stretch the season even further. He made a big bid for summer trade by building a golf course, a swimming pool and a riding stable. "People have gotten completely away from one-resort vacations," he theorizes. "They like to ride and stop and ride some more. We'll not only get them thinking 'one-resort,' we'll have them thinking 'winter,' too, before we're through."