It’s a long way from Andover, Massachusetts, to Vail, Colorado — 2,078 miles, in fact — but it’s a trek Andy Daly made more than 40 years ago and never looked back. The road to Vail wasn’t direct; along the way he found himself in the wilds of Alaska and the upscale streets of Aspen. But he’s called Vail home for the last 21 years, and in 2011 he was named mayor of one of America’s most popular ski towns.
Daly’s role in the development and modernization of the ski industry is legendary. But it came almost by accident. As a child, he assumed he would eventually end up working in the family business, a New England-based medical supply and distribution company. But before his father would hire him, he insisted that Daly work somewhere else for five years. So in 1969, Daly packed up his things and headed west. He was passing through Aspen when a friend from college (Daly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania) invited him to spend the summer in Alaska fighting forest fires. At the end of the summer, Daly returned to Aspen and got a job working for Aspen Highlands. It was a job that was only supposed to last a few weeks. Instead, he stayed in Aspen for three years, working as a ski patrolman.
In 1972, Daly opted for a change of scenery and took a job at Copper Mountain, which at the time was an up-and-coming resort.
“Moving to Copper was a great decision,” says Daly. “Chuck Lewis was the president of the resort back then, and he was a wonderful mentor. He really started me on a path toward management.”
Within his first year at Copper, Daly had moved up to the patrol director job, and then he was promoted to mountain manager. In 1980 he was named vice president of operations, and in 1982 Daly became CEO of Copper Mountain. Along the way, he got an MBA from the University of Denver, Daniels College of Business.
“Getting an MBA was an extremely valuable thing for me,” says Daly. “I was at Penn during the Vietnam years, which was a very disruptive time. Going back to school as an adult was incredibly focusing. I have no doubt that a graduate school education contributed to my career.”
Although he loved working at Copper, in 1987 Daly decided he was ready to head out on his own.
“I had been at Copper for 15 years,” says Daly. “I had a strong desire to run my own ski area, so I left my job and started my own company, which reopened Eldora Mountain Resort, near Boulder.”
It was around this time that Japanese investors and developers entered the U.S. resort market, driving up values. To stay competitive, Daly made a deal with Vail Associates: in return for Daly agreeing to manage Beaver Creek and the Broadmoor Golf and Spa, Vail would invest a significant amount of money into Eldora. His relationship with Vail very quickly formalized, and Daly was named president and CEO of Vail Associates in 1992.
Daly turned around and sold Eldora to Chuck Lewis and set his sights on making Vail the top ski destination in North America. Over the next 10 years, Daly would oversee the massive expansion of Vail Associates (later renamed Vail Resorts).
“I spent a lot of time working with the New York investment company that owned Vail Associates,” says Daly. “That was an interesting experience, as was the process of taking the company public in 1997.”
During his tenure, Daly made the decision to acquire both Keystone and Breckenridge in Colorado, Heavenly in California, and Grand Teton Lodging Company in Wyoming, making Vail Resorts one of the largest mountain management companies in the country.
“My time with Vail Associates and then Vail Resorts was a tremendous opportunity,” says Daly. “But I always had in the back of my head that I wanted to retire when I was 55. In fact, I walked away from Vail and into retirement in 2002 when I was 56.”
And how was retirement for someone as active and involved as Daly? Not great.
“I was retired for about 18 months,” says Daly. “It was a fun 18 months, during which I took my youngest son to Bhutan for three weeks to do research for his senior project. That was incredible. But it didn’t take me long to get the itch to get back into real estate.”
You could argue that in “retirement,” Daly is actually busier than ever. In 2007 he was elected to the Vail Town Council; in 2011 he purchased Powderhorn Ski Area just down the road from Vail in Grand Junction; also in 2011, the Town Council elected Daly mayor of Vail.
“Being a mayor is primarily about shaking hands, cutting ribbons and kissing babies,” says Daly. “But we’ve also been doing some serious stuff like putting together a 10-year plan for the town that allows us to plan ahead. For example, the impact of the pine beetle on our trees has been devastating, so we need to invest in more fire equipment. There is so much dead wood lying around that’s it’s not difficult to predict that fire will be of increasing concern in the valley. We also have our eye on making a great town even better. Vail Resorts is a premium asset. This is the most successful mountain in the world in terms of profit. We want to make sure that when people visit, what they find here lives up to their expectations. We run the largest free bus system in the United States. We are constantly looking at redeveloping aging sites, and also adding parking to improve the guest experience.”
Elected to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 2000, Daly has watched the ski industry change significantly since he first made his way across the country in 1969. High-speed chairlifts are the norm, ski technology has advanced, and snowboards have entered the picture.
“Equipment, grooming and uphill transportation have made huge strides,” says Daly. “Those advances have allowed older people to ski much later in life. On the corporate side of things, consolidation has changed the industry. Family owned and operated resorts are a dying breed. The economies of scale found in consolidation make it a business model that’s hard to compete with.”
Daly also had a front row seat to huge changes in Vail. From the construction of Interstate 70 to the completion of the Eagle-Vail Airport, transportation improvements have made the town easily accessible. He’s also watched Vail turn into a year-round destination.
“These days, summers at the mountain are just as popular as winters,” says Daly. “Kayaking, golf and mountain biking started the summer trend. But there has also been a cultural push in Vail. We are now the summer home of the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The town is very much focused on wellness, helping people learn about their own wellbeing. That’s especially appealing for people coming out of an urban lifestyle.”
Looking back on his time at Brooks, Daly has a unique perspective; he was a day student during his first two years, and then became a boarder in fifth and sixth form.
“I loved being a boarder,” says Daly. “I got to know the masters so much better. Teachers like Oscar Root, Chych Waterston, Doc Scudder, Ray Eusden, Dick Holmes, and Frank Ashburn were all hugely influential on my life.”