Stuart McLaughlin: Mountain man

The McLaughlin family owns 1,210 acres and leases 130 more acres on Grouse Mountain even as it has whittled down real estate holdings at Burns Bog from 5,500 acres decades ago to 513 acres today

A passion for continual innovation has helped Grouse Mountain co-owner Stuart McLaughlin expand offerings at his ski resort while encouraging him to diversify investments into packaging drinks and brewing beer

Stuart McLaughlin's drive to innovate and offer customers a wide range of recreation options helped turn what was a money-losing ski operation in 1988 into a profitable venture that generates roughly $50 million in annual sales.

It also prompted the owner of Grouse Mountain to get into both the water and beer businesses while simultaneously managing family real estate investments such as land at Burns Bog.

Grouse Mountain, however, remains his prime focus.

Ski revenue is the mountain's largest sales channel, larger than both general admission ticket sales and revenue from food and beverage transactions at the attraction's five restaurants.

But, whereas skiing visits accounted for 80% of Grouse Mountain revenue a generation ago, those visits now contribute less than half of every dollar that the mountain generates, McLaughlin said.

"Our success has come from innovation," said McLaughlin, whose late father, Bruce McLaughlin, bought the mountain in the 1980s after first investing in a troubled public entity and then taking that venture private.

McLaughlin has made an art form out of adding attractions, diversifying the resort and making the mountain an all-season hub for adventure.

The Eye of the Wind turbine that he spent several million dollars to build in time for the 2010 Olympics is simply the most recent of a string of initiatives aimed at luring visitors to Grouse Mountain.

Diversification started in the late 1980s when McLaughlin launched the Theatre in the Sky – an addition that mimicked General Motors' popular Spirit Lodge pavilion at Vancouver's 1986 world's fair.

That 110-seat venue exclusively shows two films that McLaughlin produced specifically for his mountain's theatre.

One film reveals B.C. landscapes shown from the perspective of an eagle. The other, co-produced with the Discovery Channel, tells the story of orphaned grizzly bears Grinder and Coola.

"I wouldn't classify it as a movie theatre in that we don't show first-run movies," said McLaughlin, who speaks in measured tones and chooses words carefully.

Another of his attractions is what he calls the tramway. It is not a "gondola," McLaughlin explained, because gondolas can be detached from cables. Tramways affix permanently to a cable.

A five-line circuit of ziplines arrived in 2008. McLaughlin also markets a nature reserve that has a conservation centre.

It is his 215-foot-tall turbine, however, that most visibly reveals McLaughlin's twin passions of sustainability and making a buck.

"The turbine started to pay off from the day we erected it," he said. "We approached it not only with a financial objective. We pride ourselves on our sustainability programs."

The turbine demonstrates that McLaughlin is willing to go the extra step to ensure his mountain's carbon footprint is as small as possible.

A second way that the turbine contributes to sustainability is by educating visitors about how strong the wind is, thereby converting them to the possibilities of harnessing that power.

"That's what compelled me to do this – to have that experience. I went up a mechanical elevator and stood on a platform in Italy to have that Eureka moment of discovering how powerful the wind can be in providing energy for the future," he said.

The turbine powers most of the energy that McLaughlin needs for his destination to conduct activities such as making snow, powering lifts and operating restaurants.

He has no storage capacity, however. Nor is his turbine connected to BC Hydro's grid. That means that McLaughlin can't save power for breezeless days. Nor may he sell electricity to BC Hydro after a particularly gusty day.

The situation is similar at Turning Point Brewery on Annacis Island where Mission Hill Family Estate Winery owner Anthony von Mandl built a 110-foot-tall turbine to help power operations.

Von Mandl, however, did not follow McLaughlin's example and install an elevator up to a lookout pod so visitors could watch the turbine's blades swoosh by.

"It costs about $1 million per megawatt to build a turbine. Ours is 1.5 megwatts. We have some additional things that we did to it, such as the pod and the elevators. So ours cost north of $1.5 million," McLaughlin said.

Tens of thousands of people have so far paid to visit McLaughlin's turbine, he added.

McLaughlin is not cash-strapped but he plans to put further innovations on hold for now.

"We're trying to continue to improve and grow our business as we stand," he said. "We're preparing for upgrades to our existing capital assets. There's nothing that will be earth-shattering in the next 24 months."

That's a little disappointing for ski hill operators who regularly visit Grouse Mountain to see what has changed and what new initiatives they might incorporate into their resorts.

"We always go down and check out his operation," Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc. CEO Dave Brownlie told Business in Vancouver.

Brownlie has known McLaughlin for years and sits with him on a 14-member advisory council to Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell.

"We can go to competition in Colorado, at Lake Tahoe or in Utah. Or we could just go down the road and check in on Stuart. That's a tribute to the quality of work that he's doing."

Brownlie described McLaughlin as engaged, opinionated and a great tourism ambassador.

McLaughlin's business, however, stretches far beyond tourism.

He and sisters Joanne McLaughlin and Julie McLaughlin all own stakes in the family business, Peel Financial Holdings Ltd.

McLaughlin examined Peel's holdings in 2004 and realized that the family was heavily dependent on the price of real estate.

The family has whittled down land holdings at Burns Bog to 513 acres, from 5,500 acres, by selling land to the province, Metro Vancouver and the Corp. of Delta.

But the McLaughlin family still owns 1,210 acres of freehold land at Grouse Mountain while leasing a further 130 acres.

To diversify, the family's holding company bought Whistler Water – a venture that packages beverages for brands such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Jones Soda and Dad's Root Beer.

Separately, Peel has invested in fast-growing brewer Northam Group, which owns Bowen Island Brewing Co. Ltd.

"We're a fully integrated beverage company," McLaughlin said. "Part of what I did when I acquired the business was to diversify to be able to do alcohol ready-to-drink products."

McLaughlin balances work with family time spent with his wife Della and their son and daughter, who are both 14 years old.

He also keeps active in the community by volunteering on the board of the Presentation House Gallery, which is launching a fundraising campaign to seek a new home on the North Vancouver waterfront. •