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In his more than 15 years as a stockbroker in Boston and, more recently, in Portland, Maine, Jeremiah "Josh" Burns '81 has spent countless hours searching for the best business investments for his clients. When Burns made the plunge into business himself, it was done in a matter of minutes.
This was three years ago. Burns, a portfolio manager at Salomon Smith Barney, got a call from a friend who said the Mt. Abram Ski Area in Greenwood, Maine, outside of Bethel, was being sold at auction. Burns had heard. In fact, a prospectus had come across his desk. "I dug it out of the trash," he said.
Mt. Abram, a long-time ski area that had slipped into the shadow of nearby Sunday River, was Burns's childhood haunt. He'd learned to ski there and remembered it as a great place for kids and families. The memories were vivid enough to propel him to Bethel, where Mt. Abram was on the block. "I'd never even been to an auction before," he said.
There wasn't a block but there was a gavel, an auctioneer and a small assembly of prospective bidders. Dangling before them was an 800-acre parcel, two lodges, five lifts and all of the equipment that goes with a ski area. When the auction began, Burns raised his hand. There turned out to be two serious bidders--up until that moment Burns hadn't considered himself one of them. "All of a sudden there was this moment of recognition that I could end up owning this thing," he said. Sure enough, the gavel fell on Burns's bid. He had bought an entire ski area for $325,000. "I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into." He called his wife, Susan, from the car. "There was a pregnant pause," Burns recalled. "And she said, 'We can do this.'"
This was November. They had seven weeks to learn how to run a ski area, hire employees, make the myriad arrangements necessary before the lifts could start running. "We pulled out all of the stops to get it open," Burns said.
Of course, starting the lifts was just the beginning. "It gave us a new appreciation for the small business people who are successful," he said.
That first season there were record snows. With the snow came $700,000 in revenue, a $50,000 insurance bill, $40,000 in real estate taxes, and workers who were depending on Mt. Abram and Burns for their livelihood. "These things weren't real to me," he said. "All of a sudden you have to make a payroll."
So far so good. As of this writing, Burns was gearing up for another season, doing television advertising, talking to the media. The message is that Mt. Abram is an affordable, family-oriented (the two Burns children, Jake and Anna, ski there), safe alternative to the bigger ski resorts. "Our niche is the family that has a couple of kids. For a hundred bucks they can all come to ski."
With the cooperation of Mother Nature, the operating side of the ski area should continue to break even and the success of the skiing side of the venture should lead to growth in the real-estate end, he says. Burns, with his years of experience in the stock market, knows full well the risks associated with any business. As front man for Mt. Abram, he also knows that a lot of people in New England are watching. "It's not like closing down a sub shop if you go," he said. "It's a pretty public failure."
And a big responsibility. "You work very hard to make a place successful so you can pay the employees, afford the benefits you have," Burns said. "It's a constant challenge."
-- Gerry Boyle '78
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