Bill Stenger: From humble roots to visionary for Vermont

Bill Stenger: From humble roots to visionary for Vermont

Published October 7, 2012 in the Times Argus
By Steven M. Pappas
Staff Writer

JAY — Bill Stenger’s office at Jay Peak is a collection of sorts. Along one wall, there are skis representing moments in skiing history — 10th Mountain Division war relics alongside sport prototypes. At the end of the line, Stenger’s well-maintained Rossignols are simple and practical — an unpretentious fit for the head of an internationally recognized ski area that has become the shining hope for economic development across the Northeast Kingdom.

Stenger’s busy office is tucked away in the back side of a chalet-style building out of place aside Jay Peak’s hotel and resort, the state-of-the-art ice arena, a massive highly acclaimed indoor water park and a chic conference center still under construction. 

The modest president and chief executive officer of Jay Peak is surrounded by milestones of his success. There are blueprints and plans piled nearby, numbers and measurements put to every inch of the growing resort; marketing materials, pictures and awards fill shelves and walls. 

There are no business diplomas, however. Stenger studied political science and public administration at Syracuse University.

Through bold initiatives and EB-5, an immigration visa program aimed at drawing foreign capital, Stenger and his staff have changed the course of the ski industry in the East. 

Created by Congress in 1993, the job-creating visa program attracts foreign investors seeking permanent legal residency in America. They must pledge a minimum of $500,000 for a project within an approved regional center and apply for an EB-5 visa. 

If approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, applicants are granted a conditional two-year “green card,” after which they must provide proof that they have created at least 10 jobs and made additional investments. 

EB-5 has worked for Jay by creating hundreds of jobs and growing a flailing economy.

Stenger says he sees Jay Peak and recently purchased Burke Mountain’s growth as vehicles to boost the region and the state. But that is only part of the equation for his success.

“It is done through listening and ordinary hard work,” Stenger said. “Nothing else.”

He bristles at being called a visionary for Vermont. 

Now closing in on 64, he has spent decades talking to mentors, staff, friends, colleagues, family and even snow-covered strangers waiting in lift lines. Stenger, who lives in Newport, is the first to admit that all of the people brave and passionate enough to speak up are his inspiration; while he would never accept the term, he has become the ambassador for their creativity and courage.

“I am a collector of ideas,” he said. “It comes from paying attention to the market and hearing what people want to make the experience better.”

Stumbling in

Stenger’s path to Jay is implausible, yet it makes perfect sense.

He was born and grew up in Corning, N.Y. His grandfather was a glassblower at Corning Glass Works for 45 years, creating some of the first Steuben classics. Stenger’s father also went to work for Corning, starting out part time in the mail room. It was just after the Great Depression, and Stenger’s father, a teen at the time, needed the job. He wanted to attend college, but it was not to be.

“The family came together to get through the Depression,” Stenger said. “They all worked.”

After high school, his father finally landed a full-time job at Corning. For the next 45 years, Stenger’s dad continued working at the glass works, as Corning grew to be a Fortune 500 company. Eventually, he climbed his way up to being senior manager in the consumer products division. 

“(My dad) was a bright, loving, caring man,” Stenger said. “He started as a mail boy and ended up with hundreds and hundreds of people working for him. … I remember his retirement — there was just this incredible outpouring of love and appreciation for the way he conducted himself, for the way he managed people, for the way he led.”

It left a lasting impression. “I grew up with this big company legacy,” Stenger said.

Because no one else in his family had ever been to college, Stenger seized his opportunity to go. He considered law school.

While at Syracuse, Stenger and his classmates traveled often to Killington to ski on weekends. (In high school he had skied at a local ski area in upstate New York.)

“It was a sport I just adored,” he said. “It was a marvelous experience.”

When he met his soon-to-be wife, MaryJane, she had just finished nursing school at Northeastern University. He was still finishing up college and always had skiing on his mind. He considered moving to Denver. 

MaryJane was in Boston.

“That was the better choice,” he said. Stenger sidelined skiing and picked up a job selling insurance for Northwestern Mutual. 

“It was a great learning experience. I got the (expletive) kicked out of me,” Stenger said of his year and a half as an agent, cold-calling customers. “You had to get out there, knock on doors and do what you needed to do. It was quite an introduction into business.”

His mild-mannered demeanor got him inside. He learned to make pitches, how to speak clearly and how to make a point.

But it was not satisfying. As a product of the late 1960s, Stenger wanted to do something that he was passionate about but also provide for his new family. “If you are going to work hard at something, you should work hard at something you like,” he said. 

While scanning want ads one Sunday, he came upon a position for the director of membership services at the Eastern Ski Association, a trade group based in Brattleboro. He applied and got an interview. It went well in part because the executive director at the time also had sold insurance for a year and a half. Their shared paths endeared them to one another.

He worked for the association three years, organizing programs for ski clubs and coordinating races. He traveled a lot around New England and the East.

“I didn’t know a lot about the ski operation side of things, but it fascinated me,” he said. Slowly, getting to know all of the jobs — from general manager to marketing to mountain operations — the diversity of the ski industry drew Stenger in.

Stepping up

Then, while in Pennsylvania at a competition, the general manager of Jack Frost Mountain, Wes Smith, asked Stenger to be his assistant. It meant helping to run two ski areas in the Poconos. Stenger was 26; he and MaryJane had a second child on the way.

They stayed for a decade. Within the first three years, Smith had moved to another ski area, and Stenger was given a chance by the mountains’ owner to manage them.

“I told him, ‘I won’t let you down,’” he said. “All I knew was I had to work hard and lead by example. … I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but I had some good people with me.”

As his dad had at Corning, Stenger worked hard and did it all. He bused tables in the cafeteria and ran the lift; he did promotions and marketing. The mountains there were feeder areas, meaning they supported a lot of day and learn-to-ski and destination visitors from outlying cities. The sport was growing — both in technology and enthusiasm. It was getting busier by the year, with more annual visitors.

Then, at the National Ski Areas Association meeting in May 1983, Stenger met Jacques Hebert, Jay Peak’s owner since 1978. Hebert also owned Mont St.-Sauveur, a ski area northwest of Montreal — a high-activity day area. Hebert bought Jay Peak from a lumber company that had owned it for nearly two decades. His intention was to make the ski area a feeder ski area for Montreal.

“That wasn’t incorrect, but it was only half of the equation,” Stenger said. “Jacques wanted to take the area in a new direction.”

And he did. Hebert asked Stenger to visit Jay Peak and consider being its general manager. That was in 1984, and the Stengers — now with three children in tow — moved back to New England.

But Stenger had one request of Hebert. “I really would like to try and get some kind of ownership position, or work toward that,” he said. “(Jacques) made that commitment to me, and he was true to his word.”

Immediately, Stenger introduced a “Vermont flavor” to complement the strong French Canadian draw of Jay. 

“It was about making the pie bigger and adding some market dimensions to it,” Stenger said. 

Other than advances in skis and snow-making equipment, the industry had not changed dramatically in years. When he started looking around for fresh opportunities, Stenger said that was when he had his eyes opened.

And the ideas started coming from everywhere.

Collecting ideas

Jay Peak started going after college kids and day pass holders from Vermont. The marketing worked, and the numbers started taking off. Dedicated Vermonters turned out in strong numbers. Improvements were made to the lifts and snow-making; trails were added.

Then something odd happened. “I was in the lift line and I saw these two guys. They both had long hair and beards. But they were covered with snow, top to bottom,” Stenger recalled. “I said, ‘Where did you pick up all of the snow?’”

Fearful they would have their tickets pulled for skiing off-trail, the men reluctantly admitted they had been in the woods.

“I didn’t chastise them at all for skiing off-trail,” he said. Instead, Stenger went to his management team and recommended using the natural snow to change attitudes and encourage people to ski in the woods. The ski patrol cleared the branches at five popular areas and created “the glades.”

“People went crazy over it,” he said. They built 20 more glades the next year. “That started a policy of letting people ski wherever you wanted to go. If you were responsible enough, and good enough, you could go anywhere you wanted to go.”

Word got around. Visitor numbers soared as the skiing experience expanded.

“That experience becomes infectious with friends and other skiers,” he said. “It creates an energy that people are drawn to.”

But then visitors were grousing there were not enough places to stay in the remote Northeast Kingdom area. So Stenger started adding a “bed base” in the form of duplexes, condos and hotels. Suddenly, Jay Peak became even more of a destination.

Most of the second homes, about 80 percent, around Jay Peak have owners who want to rent them during the week. That, too, became a draw — and part of the marketing of the region and the ski area. 

“When you shut down your ski area at the end of April, it’s a long time until next November,” Stenger said, noting he had to lay off up to 400 employees each spring. With that industrywide challenge gnawing at him, Stenger and his team took two bold steps toward becoming year-round: They added a championship 18-hole golf course and last winter opened the Pump House, a state-of-the-art indoor water park. 

Again, Stenger was talking to skiers — this time businessmen from Montreal — who asked him why he was not taking advantage of EB-5.

In 1997, Stenger called Vermont’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy, who acknowledged the program was available.

It required making economically depressed Orleans County a regional center. Then, as the application was being completed, someone wondered why the entire state could not be its own regional center. After some checking, Stenger modified his application. It was accepted.

“We were perfect for the application,” Stenger said. 

It was not until 2004 that the immigration rules changed in such a way to allow more flexibility for investors and workers. Initially, Jay Peak recruited 35 investors for the Tram Haus Lodge project. Quickly, other projects were added. In all, through EB-5, Stenger has attracted more than 500 investors from 56 countries. “It has provided us access to affordable capital,” he said.

Risks involved

“It was a big gamble,” said former state Secretary of Commerce Bill Shouldice, who was closely monitoring the troubling economic statistics crossing his desk every day. 

Historically, the Northeast Kingdom — the state’s fartheast northeast counties of Orleans, Caledonia and Essex — has had one of the worst unemployment rates in the entire United States.

“These were good times,” Shouldice recalled, “but not everywhere in Vermont” and especially not in the Kingdom.

Not only was Stenger the person bringing the vision to the Northeast Kingdom and the state, he was the one bringing financing. Stenger had sought advice — both at his office and at his kitchen table — on the most fruitful approach to growth. “I thought, ‘Any other guy and this is too risky, but it’s Bill,’” Shouldice said.

Former Gov. James Douglas agreed: “The state was never going to be on the hook. The risk was absorbed by the investors. … They understood they might not get a return on their investment, or even get their principal back. (Bill) made sure of that.”

“I was clear that the (Commerce Agency) would administer EB-5. That was what guaranteed the state’s involvement and may have lent some credibility, initially,” Douglas said. “But it was Bill and his dogged determination. He was not going to let anyone down.”

Shouldice looks back on that time when Stenger first approached the state and the congressional delegation. “It was his vision, his idea. He was not only going to make Jay Peak an economic engine for the Northeast Kingdom, he wanted it to be a road map for others to follow,” he said. “Most people, you think, ‘No way.’ But Bill is a stand-up guy, so unassuming. … This was not a win for him or his family but the entire Northeast Kingdom. Who thinks like that?”

Douglas agreed. 

“He knew the potential for the number of jobs that would be created. He only saw that as a reason to continue to be successful. … But keep in mind, the risk was there when he first bought the place initially. It was underdeveloped. … He has simply dedicated himself to the Northeast Kingdom.”

Certainly, state leaders at the time heard from plenty of Kingdom leaders concerned that Stenger’s gamble on their corner of Vermont might be too much to bear if it didn’t pan out.

“Bill made sure he could show the progress, demonstrate the success along the way. He did not bite off more than he could chew. He finished one part before he went on to the next part,” Douglas said. “He has done a lot for Vermont, and for that, personally, I am grateful.”

Both Shouldice and Douglas look upon Jay Peak’s success and see the greater potential for Vermont, be it along Interstate 93, around Newport or elsewhere.

“Bill has boundless energy. He’s full of ideas,” Douglas said. “He’s not finished yet.”

Two weeks ago, Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Stenger said the recent extension of the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center program for three years will bring an additional $500 million in foreign investment into Vermont’s economy.

The foreign firms now planning to open plants in the region include the South Korean biotech firm AnC Bio and German-based Menck Window Systems. The companies promise to create 500 and 150 permanent jobs in Newport, respectively. Other projects include the creation of a resort hotel in Newport and the rejuvenation of the Burke Mountain ski area.

Dividends

On any given day — regardless of season — Jay Peak is bustling.

Ask anyone about Jay Peak here, and they tell you there would be no “here” without it. The ski area has created hundreds of jobs in the last few years, both in construction and year-round employment. The winter crew of 500 gets to stay on now; the 400 or so seasonal layoffs are not expected. In fact, they are rare.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have the access to capital and invest in things the market really likes,” Stenger said. “Were it not for that, I think we would be struggling mightily now.”

As he walks from one building to another, staffers greet Stenger warmly. 

“I’ve lived in Newport for 28 years,” he said. “This is my community, too. You treat people the way you want to be treated. You treat your community the way you treat your employees. And you treat your employees like your family.”

The blueprint for Jay Peak and how it fits into the Northeast Kingdom continues to expand. “It won’t be a city. It will be sustainable, and it will not change the character of this region. But there will be fewer people in the unemployment lines, more people working,” Stenger said.

And there will be more ideas.

“I try to put those ideas together. I am pretty stubborn about sticking with something,” he said.

With thousands of visitors a few yards away, Stenger sums up his success with an anecdote: “When the construction worker comes up to me smiling ear to ear to thank me for his job, for the opportunity, for the support, there is no price you can put on that.”

Mounira al Hmoud of the Boston University Washington Journalism Program contributed to this report.

steven.pappas @timesargus.com.