Tactics: John Merriman rises to the top at Mt. Bachelor

Bachelor’s new general manager talks about last winter’s sudden shakeup, the resort’s upgraded lifts and facilities — and why the company wants to woo Central Oregon skiers.

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Skiers at Mt. Bachelor always have lots to cheer with reliable snow and fantastic terrain — but last season they also had reason to grumble. Northwest Express, the mountain’s longest chairlift that accesses the most enticing terrain, was on the fritz and wheezing along on backup power. The next lift over, Outback Express, seemed to break down more than it ran. And then there was Skyliner Express, a critical high-speed quad that sits above a parking lot popular for tailgating. It had failed suddenly in 2021, couldn’t be fixed and would be closed for the entirety of the 2021-22 season. That one stung.

But then the avalanche: In February 2023, executives from Bachelor’s Utah-based parent company, Powdr, including CEO Justin Sibley, flew to Bend with little warning, summoned Bachelor’s seven-year president and general manager, John McLeod, and asked him to “pursue other opportunities.” Bachelor’s director of marketing and communications, John Sereni, who’d been in the job for a scant nine months, was also let go. Stacey Hutchinson, Powdr’s vice president of communications and government affairs, offered the public reassurances of a plan to navigate the upset, including the appointment of an interim director while Powdr did “a thorough search for a new general manager.”

The company ran a full hiring process but ultimately didn’t stray far. John Merriman, 52, the VP of finance at Colorado’s Copper Mountain resort, one of Powdr’s nine ski areas, had been encouraged by Sibley to apply for the job. He got it and started in May 2023, making this his first winter in the post. (Lauren Burke left California’s Mammoth Mountain to replace Sereni.)

Merriman — a self-professed “numbers guy,” “people person” and affable dad — assumes the role as Bachelor faces several large infrastructure projects, including a long-awaited replacement for Skyliner, a $10 million-plus, top-to-bottom rebuild that brings Bachelor its first six-person chairlift — only the third such lift in the state. Merriman has also more than doubled the mountain’s repair and maintenance budgets while overseeing the replacement of chairlift motors, haul ropes and gearboxes to improve reliability. Soon Bachelor will also fire up the country’s first major biomass plant at a ski resort, a facility that will burn otherwise unwanted forest scraps from federal lands to heat buildings while drastically cutting propane costs. 

For now, though, Merriman has made it his mission to foster a strong culture among employees and to reconnect with upset locals. “There is a certain amount of people who have been disenfranchised for one reason or another, and we want to win them back,” he says. “It’s not something we can do overnight but I’m 100% confident we’re going to.”  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you end up in the ski industry?

I’m fairly new to it. I worked at Time Warner Telecom for 14 years in finance, and my last job there was to sell the company [for $5.7 billion]. I got into the ski industry after seeing a job posting on LinkedIn for what was essentially a CFO role at Copper Mountain. I’m a numbers guy at heart. Numbers ground me. But I grew up outside of Portland, Maine, and started skiing there. The first time I went skiing, the very first run, I broke my tibia. Now I get in 125 days a year. 

The strategy for managing a ski resort in Central Oregon has to be wildly different from Colorado resorts, no? 

The bread and butter for Summit County is people driving up from Denver. That’s 3 million people versus 100,000 here in Bend. From a business perspective, that means it is much more important to connect with the community here. We certainly have destination skiers, and we want to keep bringing in the Ikon Pass holders, which has been great for us, but Central Oregon requires a lot more partnerships. At Copper, we could own the entire experience. Here we have to rely on hotel partners to help us sell tickets and we’ll help them sell rooms. I love how much more community-based it is here, with a lot more symbiotic relationships than what I was used to.

That community hasn’t always been very happy with
Bachelor. What’s your strategy for mending those fences?

We have a passionate community. Sometimes the tone can be negative, but I’m from New England and can ignore tone. Communication is one of the hardest things you can do, be it with your employees or with guests. If there’s a day where it’s blustery and we’re not sure Northwest is going to open, we’re going to be really clear about that and not say, “Hey, come up! You might see it open!” I think that’s disingenuous. If I get letters, emails or phone calls from people, I personally answer every one of them. We’re also discounting lift tickets on Thursdays [to $99] and donating $5 from those tickets to a new nonprofit every week. 

There’s sometimes the impression that Bachelor is Powdr’s middle child. Where does the resort fit in, in terms of getting attention from Mom?

Someone just mentioned that to me, too, and it’s a misconception, to be perfectly frank. It’s hard to predict exactly when we will get capital, and yeah, there are times when it ebbs and flows, and maybe Copper gets a little more love one year and Killington gets a little more the next, but I think they do a really good job of spreading it. Bachelor has had a lot of love the past few years. My goal is for that to continue.  

What’s one of the first things you did as GM?

I assigned each member of our leadership team a building and asked them to look for everything that could be improved. We broke it down into things we can do now and what we can work on. We replaced handrails and repainted the entire inside of the West Village lodge. We redid a bunch of bathroom countertops. It’s the simple things that can make a huge difference. 

But you have much bigger problems than paint.  

Our lift infrastructure is a little bit older, and sometimes things happen that aren’t due to a lack of maintenance. This year we’ve replaced the motor on Northwest. We replaced the haul rope on Northwest. We replaced both the motor and the haul rope on Little Pine. We replaced the gearbox on Outback, and we’re replacing the motor on Sunrise. And Skyliner, of course, is an entirely new lift — towers, terminals and all.

The shakeup at Bachelor seemed very sudden to us outsiders. Do you feel like you inherited a team or did you see a need to rebuild?

There’s always some weeding that happens, and sorry if that sounds crass, because the vast majority of the team really wants success and they’d bleed for Bachelor. You need to hire the right people in influential positions. Our leadership team now has really bought in. They need a consistent leader and somebody who’s going to have their back, all the time. But I like to consult; I don’t ever like to tell people what to do. 

But obviously you have to make decisions.

Absolutely. But I don’t like to. It might even make some people a little uncomfortable. I want to talk through their process so they come to the right decision on their own. 

What is it you’re trying to cultivate by doing that? 

Confidence. As a leader, you have to have that. That’s what I feel is my life mission, to develop young leaders, and help people to really spread their wings and grow.

You’ve said you want to enhance the employee experience. What does that mean?

That is critical to any business, but especially in this business, because every single one of our employees has an impact on our guest experience. One thing I think all businesses suffer from is you take your best individual contributor, and you make them a manager. They’re not really trained for that, so we’ve started this new leadership training. Every employee also goes through an orientation that makes sure we’re all on the same page right from the start. A lot of your employees have to be in this business for the lifestyle, and we want to help that and encourage that.

A huge part of that lifestyle requires a place to live. How is Bachelor handling housing for these low-wage workers?

At Copper, something like 70% of our employees lived in the [company housing or deed-restricted housing], but Bachelor has zero. But the unique thing about Bend in the ski industry is that Bend is busier in the summer, with occupancy that’s 75% or higher. That flips in winter. So we reached out to some hotels and worked out a deal where we guarantee rooms and then recruit employees to stay in them well below market rate. We just did that with Campfire Hotel, where they set aside 51 beds — 30 rooms — an entire wing for our employees. 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the timeframe during which the Skyliner Express was closed. Skyliner closed in December 2021 and was closed for 2021-22 season, but was was open all of the 2022-23 season, until construction started in late May. Oregon Business regrets the error.

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