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January 2018

King of the Mountain

kingofthemountain.jpgBy Steve Eubanks

Stephen Kircher is continuing his father’s legacy at Boyne Resorts, a leading innovator among golf and ski resorts alike

Sometimes it takes an outsider, someone with fresh eyes who has never worn the blinders of tradition. Innovative ideas, those “lightbulb moments,” don’t often spring from the minds of people who have been on the job for years. AT&T technicians didn’t invent the smartphone, for example. It took people from outside, people with beards and blue jeans who played video games; fidgeters who couldn’t get a job in the mail room at the old Ma Bell, to transform human communication and create a world where we have the Library of Alexandria in our pockets.

It’s true in every industry. IBM invented and owned the computer market until a college dropout working out of his garage in Palo Alto turned the industry on its ear. Sears had mail-order, deliver-to-your-doorstep retailing all sown up until the internet came along and a quirky former hedge-fund manager named Jeff Bezos revolutionized how the world did its shopping. Every thriving industry has them—outsiders who see neither the forest nor the trees but rather what lies beyond both; the people who realize that the business you think you’re in, the product you think you’re selling, isn’t necessarily what your customers are buying.

Golf has had plenty of them, from Pete Dye to Bob Parsons. But when it comes to being ahead of his time, few in the industry can match a Michigan entrepreneur named Everett Kircher, a sportsman who grew up in Detroit and loved anything that kept him outdoors. Kircher was someone who knew, instinctively, that the golf business wasn’t really about golf—it was about active, outdoor, leisure entertainment. And he was decades ahead of the competition in capitalizing on that revelation.

“My father learned to ski in the 1930s on a rope-tow hill in Northern Michigan,” Kircher’s son, Stephen, says. “Then he took the train out to Sun Valley [Idaho] and his eyes were opened. He skied behind Bing Crosby and saw a number of celebrities. That’s when he fell in love with the sport and started dreaming about creating something like [the Sun Valley experience] in Michigan.”

World War II temporarily interrupted Kircher’s dreams, but not long after the war, Everett and some partners opened a ski club on Boyne Mountain where they brought some of the Western amenities found in the High Sierras to the Midwest. Because he hadn’t grown up in the ski business and hadn’t been saddled with its many traditions, and because Northern Michigan isn’t the Rockies, Kircher’s mind was free to innovate and create his own way of doing things.

“We were the first [in the ski business] to have triple chairs [on the lifts],” Stephen, the president Boyne Resorts’ Eastern Operations, boasts. “We had the first quad-chair and the first six-place, high-speed [lift]. We were innovators from the beginning.”

So it should come as no surprise that Kircher was the first person in the Midwest to realize that combining golf and skiing into one resort provided operational efficiencies and a steady, consistent income stream year-round.

It happened one warm afternoon in 1955, when Kircher and a friend were having a drink at the lodge of a closed Boyne Mountain. The friend looked out at a nearby hayfield and said, “Everett, you should build a golf course out there.”

A couple of additional drinks got Kircher thinking. Golfers sleep in hotel rooms, just like skiers. They eat and drink in restaurants, just like skiers. They pay to use outdoor facilities, just like skiers. And they did all those things in the summer when the ski slopes were closed.

“You have a lot of the same maintenance issues in golf that you have in skiing,” Stephen Kircher explains. “It’s running groomers on the ski slopes in the winter and running mowers on the grass in the summer. Having people who can run and maintain equipment is a similar discipline.

“Then you have marketing: The language and target markets are different, but the marketing and sales skills needed to sell both (golf and skiing) are the same,” he continues. “So, there’s a great deal of synergy staff-wise. Back 60 years ago, dad said, ‘If I had golf in the summer and skiing in the winter, I could employ people 12 months a year.’”

That afternoon in 1955, Everett Kircher took his tractor out and mowed the hayfield. He then cut holes and put flags at both ends and he and his buddy played golf back and forth on the makeshift course before the sun finally started to set. In 1956, he opened a par-3 course on Boyne Mountain Resort, the first of what would eventually grow to 13 courses owned by the family under the Boyne Resort umbrella.

The first championship-length course came online in 1963, when Everett Kircher bought Boyne Highlands, another ski resort just north of Boyne Mountain. He knew so little about golf that he had to ask a buddy who the best architect was at the time. The answer came in the form of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Three years later, in 1966, The Heather course opened to almost universal praise. The course has hosted three Michigan State Amateurs, been ranked among the best resort courses in the nation and is recognized as one of the best courses in the country for women. “It’s still arguably our best golf course after building eight of them,” Stephen Kircher notes.

The Heather opened Everett’s eyes to the value golf brought to the resort experience. The standards of every amenity could be elevated with a year-round revenue stream, not to mention stability in staffing and all the benefits that went with that–training, consistency, loyalty, standards and institutional memory, to name a few. He couldn’t wait to get started on the next course. But there was only one problem: Boyne Mountain was a topographical challenge—great for skiing, not so much for golf. The par-3 course fit nicely. Anything bigger was certainly going to require a bit of creativity.

That’s where not being a traditionalist came in handy. Everett realized that he could build 18 great holes, they would just be far apart and even farther from the lodge. No problem. Harley-Davidson, another Midwestern company, was building golf carts faster than motorcycles. And while carts were primarily for older players or those with disabilities, there was nothing in the rules prohibiting a course owner from making players rent them, especially if you explained to those golfers that the first tee was more than a mile from the clubhouse.

So, Apline at Boyne Mountain, one of many Bill Newcomb designs in the Midwest, opened in 1968 as one of the first cart-only courses in the country.

The innovations continued. Newcomb designed another course at Boyne Highland that was among the most difficult in Michigan—it’s slope rating today is 141 with a course rating of 73.7. Then, Kircher decided to build a course that was an amalgam of design philosophies from all the great architects of the world, from Alister Mackenzie to Pete Dye. He called it The Monument and dedicated each hole to a different player.

“We had Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen come out when we dedicated the holes to them,” Stephen says. “As a kid, seeing those legends come to our golf course was pretty special.”

Creative minds don’t stop, though. After The Monument, Kircher had an epiphany. Every golfer he knew loved Donald Ross designs. So, why not build a course of replica holes from various Donald Ross courses?

“We built the first replica course in the world at Boyne Highlands called Donald Ross Memorial,” Stephen says. “It began in the mid-1980s and was completed in 1990. We traveled the country with Jim Flick and our team of engineers, and found 120 Donald Ross holes that we liked and then narrowed those down to 18 that best fit the terrain. That process was a real treat for me.”

It wasn’t as great as continuing his father’s legacy, however. Everett Kircher died in January of 2002 at age 85. Stephen, who lettered in golf at both Northwestern and Michigan State and carried a scratch handicap for 30 years, runs the resort operations now. And while the 13 courses—11 they own outright from Montana to Maine, and two others where the Kirchers have minority positions—continue to receive rave reviews, Stephen’s proudest moments are when he talks about the innovations his family brought to the game.

From skiing to golf to marketing, we were always trying new things, always on the forefront,” he says. “That’s our story. That’s what made us different.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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