Mogul shares lessons learned from diverse ventures

George Gillett
George Gillett

Phil Castle, The Business Times

George Gillett Jr. attributes his success in diverse businesses to a few common factors.

For some enterprises, Gillett says he’s taken advantage of his background and experience in profiting from what he knows. For other enterprises, he’s acted on trends he’s identified. For still other enterprises, he’s done just the opposite as a contrarian eager to disrupt industry norms.

Gillett advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “stay close to home, stay close to what you know.” But he also acknowledges, “There might be a better way to do it.”

The Colorado mogul who’s bought and sold over the course of his career such varied ventures as professional sports franchises, food processing companies and ski resorts delivered the keynote address at the Entrepreneurship Day luncheon at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. His wide-ranging and mostly impromptu presentation covered a range of topics almost as eclectic as the businesses in which he’s been involved.

Gillett serves as founder and chairman of Booth Creek Management based in Vail, the latest of the more than 200 companies in which he’s been involved.

Gillett grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a doctor. Gillett graduated in 1961 from Domincan College in Racine and worked as a regional sales manager with Crown Zellerbach, a paper and packaging manufacturer, before moving into marketing and management consulting with McKinsey & Co.

In 1966, Gillett made his first foray into professional sports as business manager and part owner of the Miami Dolphins National Football League franchise. Gillette subsequently purchased the Harlem Globetrotters and reinvigorated the basketball team with a marketing effort that included a popular cartoon series on television. Gillette later purchased controlling interests in the Montreal Canadiens National Hockey League team and an automotive racing team as well as a share of a professional soccer team in England.

Gillett’s diversified business holdings also have included over the years the Packerland meat packing company and a string of radio and television stations. At one time, Gillett was the largest private owner of television stations in the country.

In 1985, Gillett became president of Vail Associates, which at the time owned the Vail ski resort. Three years later, he purchased the resort.

Gillett’s business empire suffered a setback when interest rates on bond financing increased and he defaulted on almost $1 billion in debt. In 1991, he also declared personal bankruptcy.

Gillett rebounded, though, in buying back Packerland and in 1996 founding Booth Creek Ski Holdings and acquiring small and medium-sized ski resorts. Within four years, Booth Creek became one of the largest ski resort operators in the country.

Gillett also extended his holdings in the meat business by building Corporate Brand Foods America, which was purchased by Iowa Beef Processors in 1999. Gillett subsequently joined in the purchase of Swift & Co. in 2000 for $1.4 billion. JBS S.A., the largest beef processor in South America, acquired Swift in 2007 for $1.5 billion to become the largest beef processor in the world.

Now 77 years old, Gillett says he and his family have sold most of their businesses. In deciding what they could do  to effect the greatest benefit, they opted to invest in controlled nuclear fusion, he says.

In harnessing the same process that powers the sun, it could be possible to not only generate electricity, but also as a byproduct heat that could be used for everything from manufacturing aluminum to desalinating seawater, Gillett says. Unlike nuclear fission power plants already in operation, nuclear fusion doesn’t create radioactive wastes. However, fusion requires temperatures as high as those found on the sun. One technique under development uses high-powered lasers to trigger reactions.

The scientific issues have long been settled. It’s a matter, he says, of solving the mechanical problems. “This is a major breakthrough if we can make it work. And that’s a big if.”

Gillett says he went into the food processing business in part because of his family’s involvement in agricultural enterprises. He says he was familiar and comfortable with the industry.

But at the same time, Gillett says he worked hard to identify trends and sometimes went against industry conventions in doing so. He says his companies started supplying natural and organic meats 20 years before competitors and eventually contributed to widespread changes. “We disrupted the heck out of an industry.”

It sometimes takes decisive action to recognize and capitalize on a trend, Gillett says, comparing the process to surfing in identifying a coming swell and quickly paddling to move into place. “We do what we do to try to catch the wave.”

In looking for trends, entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to steal ideas, he says.

Research also reveals, though, there’s enduring demand for some products and services — such as the entertainment provided by professional sports, he says.

While business ventures pose risk, Gillett says it’s possible to minimize those risks. One way is acquire existing businesses with a track record and retain the seller as a partner. “Entrepreneurs also acquire businesses. You don’t always have to start things.”

One way or another, students attending Colorado Mesa University are off to a good start, Gillett says. “This is a world-class educational institution.”