PITTSFIELD — Tyler Fairbank is CEO of the Fairbank Group, which owns three Northeast ski areas, including Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock.
His father, Brian Fairbank, has owned Jiminy Peak since the late 1970s and has been involved in the operation of the Berkshires' largest ski area for over half a century.
Father and son haven't always worked together, but they always have been close. That bond became more apparent two years ago, when Tyler was diagnosed with a rare, genetic brain disorder that required a risky operation to fix.
It has been two-and-a-half years since that surgery, and Fairbank still is recovering, but he slowly is getting better. He says the experience has made him a more appreciative, helpful and empathetic person.
"It really makes me appreciate things that I never appreciated before," he said.
We talked with Fairbank recently about his recovery, how his family became involved in the ski business and what his future holds.
Q: How is your health?
A: Getting better. It's certainly been quite an interesting experience having gone though what I've gone through — when you dance with the devil, as they say, so closely.
Q: What's been the hardest thing to get back so far?
A: It's balance. I'm able to participate in work in any way that you can imagine. But, I can't do the things that I did, whether it was skiing or mountain bike riding and so forth, that require that extra muscle balance.
Q: Are you able to do anything yet that requires those skills?
A: Guitar playing has been an absolute godsend. That helped me recover really well.
There was a period of time when I first had my brain leak that I could not even hold my hand on the guitar. It would slip right off. I had to teach myself to play almost all over again, but it was something to focus on and something to wire your brain back together. That was an interesting thing.
Q: Your father is originally from the Buffalo area, which gets a lot of snow but isn't really known as a ski area. So, how did he get involved in the ski business?
A: Crazy, interesting story.
His parents grew up skiing. He was introduced to skiing as a young boy, and he loved it. He wrote a letter to a ski manager when he was 11, saying, "How do I get into the business?" He got a letter back. The guy gave him his blueprint, if you will, of how to get into the business.
My father always knew this is what he wanted to do. My grandfather told him he'd never be able to raise a family in this business. He's done all right for himself, I guess.
Q: How did he learn the business?
A: He didn't go through a formal education process. He took an opportunity at 23 years old (in 1969) to move to Western Massachusetts to a small, dusty ski area named Jiminy Peak. He was sent out by the then-owners to oversee the operations (Brian had been working as a ski instructor at a resort in Wisconsin). And, over a couple of years, he started this process of building Jiminy, which took decades to build into what it is now. ... My father has a vision of the mountain forever, and that became a reality throughout his life, and it's been sort of a beacon to the business principles of the Fairbank Group.
What we've done at Cranmore (a ski resort the Fairbank Group owns in North Conway, N.H.) and elsewhere is really built on the foundation that he started years ago.
Q: Why did you follow your father into the business?
A: It's like Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave. I didn't, and I did.
I worked with my dad for years after I graduated from college (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). Then I left the business for a decade with really no intent of coming back.
The ski business is a tough place to make a living. I didn't intend that we would find our way back to each other. But, in late 2002, we saw an opportunity to be partners ... to come back together to start EOS Ventures, that's our renewable energy company. ... We've always had a great affection for each other. We've been friends and business partners and father and son, and a really tight, tight unit.
Q: I've noticed in conversation that you always refer to your father as Brian.
A: That's a good question; a really good question. I have to think more about that one.
Q: I know running a ski area is a tough business, but what are the challenges that operators face today?
A: There are some major headwinds, especially this far south in New England, in the Berkshires. There's the weather. I'll call it weather volatility. ... Equally important is that it's a really expensive business to be in. The capital costs, for instance, are huge.
Those groomers that nobody ever sees, those Sno Cats that groom at night, we need three or four of them, and they're $300,000 to $400,000 apiece. To put in a new chairlift is a multimillion-dollar investment. The energy costs to make snow are very expensive ... it makes it real challenging to be in this space.
Q: Does operating Jiminy and your other two other ski areas (Cranmore, and Bromley in Peru, Vt.) as four-season resorts help?
A: I'm smiling, because I think so. We think so. (Jiminy became a four-season resort in 1977).
There may be some real wisdom to being a ski resort and only a ski resort and having those folks out. We've developed our three ski resorts; all three have very substantial summer operations, and that allows us to keep staff around. ... They're all a little different, Jiminy, Bromley and Cranmore. We really try to maintain the uniqueness of each of these three mountains as we work to develop them, leverage them and make them more appealing for skiers. ... We have not had a cookie-cutter approach at all.
Q: Can you expand skiing at Jiminy any further?
A: No. Jiminy as a mountain, is really fully developed. The master plan is complete. The mountain has been expanded upon and developed the way we envisioned. It's really now just a function of continuing to attract more and more people, and to hone and tweak the operations.