“The Flying Tomato” has gone from carving the slopes to owning them.
Olympic gold medal snowboarder Shaun White has taken a minority stake in the company that runs Mammoth Mountain and recently spent $38 million to buy Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, the Southern California resorts where he perfected his ollies, rail slides and back flips.
As a part owner of Mammoth Resorts, White will help oversee the operation of more than 4,000 acres of skiable land in California, visited by more than 2 million skiers and snowboarders each year.
“It’s like a homecoming to me,” White said.
Rusty Gregory, Mammoth Resorts’ chairman and chief executive, said White will play a key role in reinventing the resorts, which have a reputation as homey, local operations without the high-end, ritzy developments found in major Colorado resorts. In particular, White will help expand on the base of young snow enthusiasts and open the mountains to more year-round activities, he said.
“We think he is the exact right guy to sit at the table with us and move culture in Southern California,” Gregory said.
White said he already has a few ideas to draw visitors to the resorts, including organizing more sports and music events on the mountains and developing classes to teach snowboarding with less pain and frustration.
“There are so many situations where people don’t get introduced to snowboarding in the right way and they never come back to it,” he said in an interview.
Details of the deal were not made public, but Gregory said White made a “seven-digit” investment in the company, whose other owners include Gregory, Canadian ski resort operator Intrawest Corp. and Starwood Capital, the private investment firm led by luxury hotel mogul Barry S. Sternlicht.
White isn’t the first celebrity to venture into the world of big business. Actress Jessica Alba, basketball great Magic Johnson, music producer Jay Z and singer Justin Timberlake have all invested heavily in various endeavors, including tech start-ups, real estate developments and sports teams.
But industry experts point out that White’s years as a professional snowboarder give him insight into what young skiers and snowboarders want in a resort.
“I don’t view this as a marketing move, but rather an opportunity for Mammoth Resorts to bring in a hands-on professional to actively shape the guest experience,” said Michael L. Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., a trade group for the state’s 28 resorts.
White insisted that he is not just lending his celebrity to Mammoth Resorts. He said he will be actively involved in the development and operation of the resorts, particularly the slopes where he learned to snowboard as a child.
“I’m completely vested in it,” he said. “I want to do right by the mountain and all the people there.”
White, 29, has experience in the business world. In addition to endorsement deals, he has launched a line of clothes sold by Target as well as snowboards and boots he developed with snow equipment manufacturer Burton and goggles and sunglasses with eyewear maker Oakley.
Marketing experts say White’s name should generate excitement for Mammoth’s resort because of his strong following among extreme sports fans.
“It’s a smart move,” said Mark Francis, a sports business lecturer at the UCLA Anderson Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports. “It’s only going to help them be more visible.”
The only potential drawback of the tie between Mammoth and White is if the snowboarder does something illegal or controversial, he said.
“Any time you get involved with a celebrity endorsement, you run the risk of that celebrity going off the rails or doing something unsavory,” Francis said.
White has had a couple of brushes with the law of the youthful-high-jinks variety.
In 2012, he was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication and vandalism. News reports said White got drunk at a friend’s wedding, triggered a fire alarm at a hotel and kicked a hotel guest who was calling police. White apologized on Facebook for “unwise choices.”
A 2007 prank with a fire extinguisher at a Colorado ski resort also drew attention from police and national media.
White, nicknamed “the Flying Tomato” for his wavy red hair, was born in San Diego and grew up skiing at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. White is a two-time Winter Olympics gold medalist and the record holder for the most medals at the Winter X Games. He also has X Games gold medals for skateboarding.
Like ski resorts across the western United States, Mammoth, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit have been adding summer activities such as mountain bike trails, hiking paths and zip lines to generate revenue throughout the year.
In the past, Mammoth Resorts suggested the idea of adding ski and snowboard trails that would connect Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, which are separated by about a mile of forestland.
White said he approached Mammoth Resorts to team up after hearing that the company was interested in buying Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. “Obviously, it’s close to home for me,” he said. “They were pretty excited about the thought.”
White joins Mammoth Resorts as the company rebounds from four years of record drought. This year’s El Niño storms, however, may be turning around the fortunes of California’s ski industry.
Bear Mountain reported a 40-inch snow base Wednesday, with 11 lifts operating, while Mammoth reported more than 80 inches of snow and 27 lifts operating.
With California resorts drawing big crowds and healthy revenue, Gregory said the company hopes to draw up plans to overhaul Mammoth Mountain and the resorts near Big Bear Lake to serve year-round visitors. A budget for the improvements has yet to be drafted, he said.
Mammoth Resort’s deal last year to buy Bear Mountain and Snow Summit came with a golf course, a driving range and several parking lots — totaling 136 acres of private land — as well as rights to 438 acres of skiable land owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
Gregory said he expects Mammoth Resorts will invest in new developments around Bear Mountain and Snow Summit but won’t launch any plans without first getting the input from locals around the resorts.
“We are in the early phase of community outreach,” he said. “On a crowded day, there is a lot of impact to the surrounding communities. We don’t want that to just be people looking for parking spaces.”