Published November 9, 2012 in the Rutland Herald
Killington co-founder Sargent dead at 83
Joseph Sargent, co-founder of the Killington Ski Area, whose financial acumen was especially critical in the early days of the resort, died Wednesday in West Hartford, Conn. He was 83.
In 1956, Sargent and Preston Leete Smith founded Sherburne Corp. to fulfill Smith’s vision to build a ski area from scratch out of the wilderness of the Calvin Coolidge State Forest, five miles from Route 4 in what was then the town of Sherburne.
The two raised $80,000 from local investors with Smith persuading the state to build a five-mile access road in the shadow of Killington Mountain.
On Dec. 13, 1958, Killington Ski Area opened with seven trails, two surface lifts and a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps building serving as a base lodge.
Smith and Sargent, who both grew up in West Hartford, came together with opposite backgrounds: Smith’s was forestry, and Sargent’s was finance. But the two meshed into a successful business relationship.
“Perhaps the most important other ingredient was mutual respect,” Smith wrote Thursday in an email from his home in Florida. “The ski business is a very complex business for the fact that it encompasses an array of different businesses rolled into one.”
Smith also recalled his friend and partner as someone who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He said Sargent and his wife, Mary, would travel on weekends from their home in Connecticut.
“Sargent in the early days pitched in on trail clearing or whatever had to be done, as everyone associated did, since funds were very limited,” Smith said.
He said the two of them did “virtually all the lift and trail design for the first 10 years” the resort was operating.
Phil Camp, Killington’s first marketing director and its third employee, recalled Sargent as more than just a savvy businessman.
“He was a financial genius and an everyday guy,” said Camp, publisher of the Vermont Standard. “And when it came time to get out and direct traffic … Joe was there helping. If it needed something to get to the top of the mountain, Joe put an old military knapsack on his back.”
Sargent did have one bit of advice when Camp started working at the ski area in 1959. “There’s only one thing we require of you,” Camp said. “He said never go over budget.”
It was advice Camp said he took to heart.
Sargent, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in economics and geology, was managing partner and chairman of Conning & Co., an investment firm with a focus on the insurance business.
He served as chairman of Sherburne Corp. and its successor, S-K-I Ltd.
Smith credited Sargent with thinking outside the box in building a business that was challenged in no small part by its seasonal nature. It was also a highly competitive business.
“He put forth the idea of ‘spy in the sky,’” Smith said. “Flights were scheduled to photograph the parking lots of their competitors, after which the cars were counted. This provided Killington a means to measure its marketing expense and success.”
Under Smith and Sargent, Killington became the largest ski area in the East. It acquired other ski resorts, including Mount Snow in Vermont, Bear Mountain in California, Waterville Valley in New Hampshire and Sugarloaf in Maine.
S-K-I Ltd., a publicly traded company, was sold in 1996 to Leslie B. Otten, who started American Skiing Co. Today, Killington and its sister resort, Pico, are owned by Powdr Corp. of Utah.
Larry Jensen, who was Killington’s manager of business development and later controller, remembered Sargent as someone respected by Smith and others for his fairness and leadership.
“One of Pres Smith’s strengths was he was willing to listen to people, and Joe was one of the people he listened to very carefully,” Jensen said, “and I think had a great deal to do with the overall success at Killington.”
Added Smith: “Joseph D. Sargent indeed had a profound impact on Vermont and the ski business.”