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Mike Ross

A business model with altitude for Market Basket

Mad River Glen could be a good future model for the grocery chain

A skier made her way down a run at Mad River Glen.

Michael Riddell

A skier made her way down a run at Mad River Glen.

Every endeavor has its purists, those who reject even the idea of improvement and cling to a dogged loyalty to the old-fashioned basics. Many diligent coffee drinkers insist on 100-percent Kona, and turn away even the finest blend. Certain anglers care more about the perfection of their hand-tied flies than how many fish they catch. And a lot of audiophiles crave the unadulterated sounds of original recordings, eschewing high-quality stereo reproductions in favor of the mono hiss and imperfections of original tape, like the sound of a nearby train, picked up when the record was first made.

For the skier, at least in New England, the purist’s choice is as obvious as the omnipresent bumper stickers that dot the highways and landscape, “Mad River Glen, Ski It If You Can.” It’s not the highest mountain and the Vermont resort lacks most amenities, but it’s built a business model on worker enthusiasm and a sense of authenticity. It’s the mono, not the stereo, experience. But it’s a model that can and should work in other areas of business. It also carries an obvious lesson for Market Basket, whose spirited workers and commitment to the basics has attracted such customer loyalty.

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The troubled New England ski industry has seen the vast majority of its mountains either gobbled up by corporations or shut down completely. Against that backdrop of failure, Mad River Glen found an economic formula that has worked — selling the company to its employees and customers.

Betsy Pratt, the eccentric owner of the mountain, known for her punchy disposition and corn-cob pipe, rejected a multi-million-dollar offer to sell to the giant American Ski Company. Hoping to preserve the mountain’s distinction as home of the last remaining single-chair ski lift in the contiguous United States — a distinction that looked to some potential buyers like a giant liability — she chose to sell the mountain to a community of diehard alpinists.

The single-chair, which was basis for the original chairlift design pioneered in the 1930s, has come to stand for the patience, conservation, and uniqueness that defines Mad River skiers. Modern mountains aim to shuttle as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to the top of the slopes, so that they may careen down by the dozens, side by side; purists prefer a contained throughput along a pathway shaped by nature, not bulldozers.

And so in the mid-’90s, when Les Otten, who ran the American Ski Company, went to visit Pratt to offer to buy her mountain, his timing couldn’t have been worse. His company was more modern than classic. His attempts to go big at the neighboring mountain of Sugarbush, one of his many acquisitions, earned him criticism within the valley, along with a celebrated bumper sticker, “More Snow, Les Otten.”

Pratt, according to the mountain’s marketing director (and part-owner) Eric Friedman, was ready for the meeting. She blew a big cloud of pipe smoke in his face, rejected his offer, and instead offered ownership shares to the purists — her employees and customers, the people who loved the mountain most. The shares started at $1,500, and today are $2,000, but, even now, can be financed on $50 a month.

These buyers don’t do it for the profit, but for the preservation of Mad River Glen. And the mountain has achieved something most New England ski resorts haven’t: sustainability. The resort has tallied a profit 15 of the last 18 years. And the owners have invested over $6 million back into the mountain. They’re now advising a California mountain on how to restructure along the same lines.

This model, it turns out, is catching on beyond skiing. Employee-owned companies are at the vanguard of a more forward-looking segment of the corporate landscape. Barely a handful existed in the mid-’70s, before federal deregulation cleared the way for greater experimentation in models of company ownership. Today, 28 million Americans own part of the company in which they work, according to data provided by the National Center for Employee Ownership. Adding to those numbers, this month, are employees of Harpoon Brewery. If Market Basket shifted to a form of employee ownership, it would merely be joining Publix supermarkets, the largest employee-owned company in America.

People escape to places like Vermont to get away from the endless churn of commerce. But that doesn’t mean that sensible business lessons don’t exist in these types of places. In the gentle sway of a single-chair, they do.

Mike Ross’s column appears regularly. Follow him on Twitter @MikeForBoston.
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