ollow your passion.
It's hotly-debated advice these days.
Some say having passion will propel you to success in your field.
Others counter that you should focus on building competence and eventually mastery in a valuable skill, and from that mastery will come passion.
Rick Schmitz is in the former group.
It was passion that led him to buy a ski resort in 2005, when he was 22 years old.
He had no resume and no money, let alone experience running a ski resort.
But there was this: “If you can find something you’re passionate about,” says Rick, “it makes everything easier, and it’s not work anymore.”
Since that first acquisition 17 years ago, Rick has gone on to acquire 3 more ski resorts in the upper midwest.
Operating ski resorts has become his career, and it all started with a listing on BizBuySell.
Figuring Out What a Business Is
Rick was about to graduate with a degree in finance from Washington University in St. Louis.
Through internships in the finance industry, he had tasted enough of the business to know that it wasn’t for him.
He was always drawn to entrepreneurship, however, and took any class offered on the subject.
In one class a guest speaker told the students something that struck a chord:
Don’t wait to start a business. Do it now, when you’re young and haven’t started a family or gotten used to a nice salary at a corporate job.
Rick recounts, “He said, ‘You’re used to living on nothing. You have no other responsibilities. It’s a great time to do it.’”
It was a compelling point for Rick. “For me, that was like, yeah it is a really great time.”
“Now I just need to figure out what a business is.”
Enter: Nordic Mountain
Meanwhile, his brother had emailed him a website called BizBuySell that listed businesses for sale.
Wanting to return to his native Wisconsin and having an interest in sports, Rick searched the recreation-related listings in that state.
Nordic Mountain Ski Area popped up first.
A ski resort for sale in Wisconsin — awesome.
“From that point forward, I put interviewing to the side and started writing a business plan, and decided this is what I want to do.”
Nordic Mountain Ski Area was a small, under-the-radar ski hill about 2 hours north of Milwaukee.
For 30 years it had subsisted on word-of-mouth and group sales to area schools.
The family who owned it did no marketing.
“It was just there, and you had to know about it.”
Marketing wasn’t the only area where Nordic Mountain underperformed.
It had been on the market for 5 years, and in that time the owners had stopped investing in improvements.
So it was a bit shabby.
Not to mention, losing money.
Rick visited Nordic Mountain during his winter break to see it with his own eyes.
Through the shabbiness, he saw potential.
“This isn’t a great ski resort right now,” he thought, “but it could be.”
“It was relatively tired and just needed some passion. And that’s what I brought to the table.”
Passion became the basis of his business plan.
The Search for Funding
As he started talking about his quixotic interest in Nordic Mountain, he didn’t get much support.
A lot of “that’s crazy” and “why don’t you just get a job”.
His friends, classmates, brothers, even his football coach tried to dissuade him.
“The psychology behind it was, I believe I can make this go. And I was going to stop at nothing until I did.”
While his social network didn’t provide much moral support, it wasn’t them who Rick needed to convince anyway.
He needed to convince financial backers.
Unfortunately, they were just as skeptical as his friends.
Rick had already worked with the broker representing Nordic Mountain to negotiate the price down from $1 million to $625,000.
Still a very large sum for a college senior. “All the money in the world to me, like more than I could ever fathom.”
But with his business plan in hand, Rick started knocking on doors, setting up meetings with as many banks as he could.
“The first meeting lasted 15 minutes.” He recalls thinking, “No one’s going to give me this money.”
He did get a few nibbles though. There were a couple lenders who listened to him.
“They could hear my passion for it and what I wanted to do.”
But even those banks wouldn’t provide all the financing he needed.
So Rick started looking for financing under every rock.
Turned out the county where Nordic Mountain was located had a revolving loan fund. And the state of Wisconsin’s tourism board offered a loan for tourism businesses.
Little by little, Rick cobbled together the $625k.
The down payment on the business, about $100k, actually did come from someone in his social network — his parents.
“Luckily my parents were super instrumental and supportive the entire way.”
Just in time for graduation, Rick got the financing and submitted his offer.
“I graduated on May 15th, and on May 23rd I had an accepted offer to purchase it,” Rick recalls.
“I moved home, and I’m like, ‘I bought a ski hill!’
Turning Nordic Mountain Around
As the 22-year-old new owner of a dilapidated ski resort, Rick started executing his plan.
Which was actually a simple 3-pronged strategy:
- Marketing. “We’re going to create a marketing budget and really get the word out.”
- Improvements. “We’re going to improve the hill a lot and the guest experience a ton.”
- Reinvest everything. “I made nothing for 10 years, to be totally honest. Every penny these businesses make are going right back into them.”
Rick’s commitment to the plan paid off.
He estimates that Nordic Mountain would probably sell for $2.5 to $3 million today. (Not that it’s for sale.)
More Doors Open
After a few years under his ownership, word started getting out about the success Rick was having with Nordic Mountain.
In 2009, a local real investor approached him with an offer to invest in and operate a ski hill in upper Michigan.
“I want to buy Blackjack Mountain, and I want you to run it,” is what he told Rick.
The Blackjack Mountain deal was followed by the acquisition of Little Switzerland in 2011, a ski area just 30 minutes north of Milwaukee.
And in 2017, Rick and his team got even closer to Milwaukee with the acquisition of The Rock Snowpark, from which you can actually see the city skyline.
In the meantime, two of Rick’s brothers (including one of his early skeptics) have joined the business, envious of the fun Rick was having running ski resorts.
“Our business is awesome,” says Rick. “Because we sell fun.”
“Our number one job is to make sure people come here and have an awesome time. And that is really, really fun.”
How to Reach Rick
Rick isn’t very active on social media other than the accounts for his ski resorts.
And those you can find here: