A Master Of Mountains

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Charlie Locke's parents bought him a pair of $7.50 skis at the drugstore for his eighth or ninth birthday (he's no longer sure which) and "diligently waxed" them. But the floor wax they used prevented the skis from sliding, and it took hours for him to make his first run down the slopes of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. "That is the last time I cried," jokes Locke, now 53, his eyes crinkled with laughter behind coke-bottle glasses.

Today, Locke owns Lake Louise, and he skis a lot faster, too. That's because he has more terrain to practice on now that he and his wife, Louise, own eight areas spread around Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. He is undoubtedly one of the largest ski area operators in North America-falling only behind Intrawest, Vail Resorts, the American Skiing Company and Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc.,-in terms of skier visits.

How Locke went from novice skier at Lake Louise to king of a ski area empire is an interesting story that's reflected in the name of his investment company-Locke, Stock & Barrel, Ltd. He refined the art of risk-taking through mountain climbing and working with stock-both the paper kind on Canada's exchanges and the herds of cattle that ramble around his 6,700 acres of ranch land.

Locke's lifelong interest in investing money began at age 12, when the Alberta provincial government offered every resident five shares of Alberta Gas Trunk Line. A few years later, this young entrepreneur sold his shares for about $300, then increased that stake by rolling oil and gas penny stocks during his late-teen years until he had made enough to cover a university education. After graduating, he worked at a bank and then moved to a Calgary-based investment firm to learn how to manage his personal investments. But Locke, who looks more like a balding cherub than a canny financier, swears that the start of the real money came the day a friend talked him into purchasing oil and gas leases in northeastern British Columbia. So he rolled the dice and bought in.

Locke's love of risk-taking showed up in the outdoors, too. Pick up a book about climbing that lists first ascents in Canada and you'll read about Locke. His passion for scaling heights began at an early age when he went hand over hand on a rope strung from the second story of his house to a friend's home. At age 21 he became the then youngest person to earn a license from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. He and his climbing buddies went on to pioneer more than 40 first ascents, including the north face of Mount Temple (which you can see from Lake Louise's slopes). They also ski-toured the backbone of the Canadian Rockies, crossing seven icefields during the almost 200-mile trek from Jasper to Lake Louise.

In 1974, Locke carved a foothold in the ski world. He bought a small share of Lake Louise ski area and seven years later he became sole proprietor. Since then, he's purchased seven more resorts, which would explain the "He who dies with the most ski areas wins" sticker on his tattered briefcase. But the acquisitions weren't part of any grand plan. They were the inevitable fare of Locke's unabashed bottom-feeder appetite (both for stock and ski areas). "Basically, he's gone into each one because he has been asked to, or because the opportunity has come up," explains Ted Farwell, a ski area appraiser. In 1986 Locke bought Fortress, which edges up to the Continental Divide north of Calgary, when the Aspen Skiing Corporation was dumping it. In 1989 he purchased Wintergreen, a small day area, just 30 minutes outside of Calgary. In 1995 he rid himself of competition by buying nearby Nakiska, the money-losing resort created to showcase the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. (Following his "buy when no one else wants it" mantra, Locke purchased Nakiska's long-term operating lease-the government owns the land-for $1 plus auction sale value of furniture and fixtures, which he claims was less than $1 million.)

These four Alberta area all within 2 driving hours of Calgary, became the nucleus for Locke's dominate-the-region marketing approach. Then, in 1997 and 1998, he bought British Columbia's Kimberley and Fernie, two struggling regional resorts within a 4-hour drive of Calgary. To keep locals wedded to his resorts, early in the season skiers can purchase a season pass for around $625 valid at nine areas (Locke's six resorts as well as Banff/Mount Norquay and Marmot Basin in Alberta, and B.C.'s Panorama).

Locke's two new Western resorts also hold keys to a kingdom: base-area land to create villages. For years Locke unsuccessfully tried to convince the Alberta provincial government and the federal government to let him build a village at the base of Lake Louise. Now he is building, but at the base of the two B.C. areas-ironically with the profits generated in Alberta.

Both villages are now in nascent stages, but they will be medium-sized, comparable to River Run in Keystone, Colo., rather than the village at Whistler. They will feature a national park look, with stone and timber. The goal is to balance the development on the mountain with the rental property at the base, ensuring lively atmospheres. The heart of Fernie's village sits on 10 acres within the 110 acres of land to be developed. Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, there is substantial interest from U.S. builders, and total buildout should be completed within approximately five years, according to Paul Bates, vice president of resort development for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), the marketing arm for all of Locke's resorts. At the base of Kimberley lie some 200 acres for a village. At build-out, in eight to 10 years, the resort is expected to comfortably hold about 7,000 skiers a day.

Within the past 18 months, Locke has also stretched eastward, picking up two resorts within 35 minutes of Quebec City. Last year he bought Stoneham from a Quebec businessman for a "tax loss." Earlier this year he purchased Mont Sainte-Anne from Texas-based ClubCorp, a company more experienced at running golf resorts. Each purchase included the promise of major tax incentives to build villages from the Quebec provincial government, which envisions increased tourism dollars. A master plan for Stoneham is being created, but the resort will retain its quintessential Quebecois ambiance. Plans for Mont Sainte-Anne will be developed after Locke has watched resort operations for a year.

Locke buys ski areas, charges through life and runs his businesses the same way he skis, powering through the toughest snow more with agility and sureness of foot than with elegance. He's a hands-on proprietor, which means frequent tours of the Western resorts in his 1997 GMC Sierra. The truck may only be 3 years old, yet the cracked windshield and 103,000 miles on the odometer reveal many long hours on the way to and from his resorts.

Although Locke swears that he's a dull guy who reads balance sheets for a living, his employees don't all agree. Most appear genuinely pleased to see him and yell "Hi Charlie!" as he skis by or heads up the lift, refusing to cut the line. Those who don't work hard don't stay long at Locke's resorts. As one employee puts it, "People who can't take full plates don't fit into Charlie's organization. First you have to love the outdoors, and second you have to work very hard because he'll jump in with you and work on whatever task is at hand." Visitors seldom realize that the parking attendant, a rumpled-looking guy in a Norwegian wool sweater with "Charlie" on his name tag, owns the resort.

And it's evident that Locke's hard work pays off. During the 1998-99 winter season, his eight resorts combined recorded 1.94 million skier visits. Clearly all of his operations are successful but even so, Locke insists he has no interest (at the moment) in owning any more. He views himself as a "regional operator" and does not want to build a ski conglomerate or go public. His style, he admits, is to operate the businesses "on the cutting edge of common sense." Perhaps that is the lesson one learns when hanging by a few fingers on homemade pitons and crampons early in life. It's not an approach commonly used by public companies, but it's Charlie Locke's way.

Explore Locke's Resorts

Explore Locke's Resorts: Fernie Alpine Resort, B.C.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Kimberley Resort, B.C.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Fortress, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Nakiska, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Wintergreen, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Lake Louise, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Stoneham And Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebects, is to operate the businesses "on the cutting edge of common sense." Perhaps that is the lesson one learns when hanging by a few fingers on homemade pitons and crampons early in life. It's not an approach commonly used by public companies, but it's Charlie Locke's way.

Explore Locke's Resorts

Explore Locke's Resorts: Fernie Alpine Resort, B.C.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Kimberley Resort, B.C.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Fortress, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Nakiska, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Wintergreen, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Lake Louise, Alb.

Explore Locke's Resorts: Stoneham And Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec