Buying and Running a Ski Resort with Diane McFerran

About Diane and Matt McFerran
Diane and Matt McFerran, a young couple by way of Bend, OR, left their comfortable careers to pursue their passion for the outdoors. In November of 2015 they were selected from several thousand applicants to purchase and run Soldier Mountain Ski Resort. Shortly after purchasing Soldier, they sold their home in Bend and moved to Fairfield, ID where they started the next chapter in their careers as ski area owners and operators.
Diane and Matt McFerran

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you guys were actually able to purchase Soldier Mountain?

My background is actually in owning a pilates studio for a decade.  But getting into the outdoor industry was another way for me to turn something I loved, a passion of mine, into a career.  My husband did pharmaceutical R&D.  So we did not come from the ski world, although we have both been skiing since we were young and love it along with all sorts of other outdoor activities.

So when my husband Matt was in high school, he was on the ski teams and said his ultimate dream job would be to own a ski area.  We found out that there was one for sale in Oregon called Spout Springs that we went and looked at last summer.  It was a couple hours away from where we were living in Bend, Oregon.  Just for fun we went and checked it out and thought maybe our retirement dream could happen a lot sooner in life because we’re in our 30s so we’re certainly not ready to retire at this point.  We went and checked it out, and although it wasn’t the right spot for us, it was a place to start.

Even though we had a comfortable life, great careers, great friends and we had just built a home, we only live once so why not take a chance and have an adventure when something presents itself?  A couple months down the road, we saw our friend Patrick’s Facebook page that Soldier Mountain was for sale for the debt owed [$149,000].  It was going to be a quick sale and needed to happen immediately because they were looking for people to run it for the season.  That was at the end of October of last year [2015].  By early November we were chosen to be the new owners of Soldier!

We had to apply to be the owners of Soldier Mountain, and they had thousands of inquiries.  When we applied we had to show what our intentions were with the area, what we were trying to do with it and they wanted to know that we were going to be owner and operator.  Basically we gave it our all, showed that we would drop everything, move to Idaho and start running Soldier the best we could.  We were lucky to be chosen.  I moved here December 1st of last year and we opened December 14th so we hit the ground running.

Do you have any idea how you two were chosen out of that huge pile of applicants?

We were never really told.  They never really shared that process, but what I do know is that they wanted owner and operator.  Most of the applicants were people who had a substantial amount of money, but they weren’t interested in actually running the ski area themselves.  We were different than that.  We do not have a substantial amount of money, we actually got a loan to run it ourselves, but the key that we were going to find a way to make the money to be able to run it and we really wanted to be hands on right from the beginning said a lot.  They wanted people who were really going to care about operations and not just look at the financial side of it.

The other thing is my husband came here three times in two weeks.  Now Bend, OR is 7-8 hrs away from here, and like I said we were both working full time, but he made it very clear that we wanted this and we wanted this badly and we were going to do what it took to make it happen.  I think those two things were part of it.

To top things off we found a cabin about a mile down the road and we put an offer on it contingent on getting Soldier of course.  But we made it clear to them we were willing to quit our jobs and sell our house so they really liked that passion.

Soldier Mountain Cat Sking

Did you guys previously ski at Soldier or spend a lot of time in Idaho?

No, we had never skied here before.  My father lived about an hour outside of Boise in a different direction for many years, but I never lived here and my husband really hadn’t spent any time in Idaho either.

Can you tell me a little bit about the transition?  What was it was like to quit your jobs in Bend, move to Idaho and own your first ski resort?

Oh that would be a whole other conversation so I’m going to condense that!  I grew up in a city and progressively moved to smaller towns, so moving to a town of 400 was a bit of a challenging transition for me.  My husband took to it immediately.  He’s definitely someone who likes communities that are the smaller the better.

In terms of going changing careers, for me that was a hard transition because while I love what I’m doing now and it’s a passion of mine it’s not what my background is so I had a very steep learning curve which is challenging because I like to know what I’m doing.  I had to learn very fast.

Matt had some experience working at Mt. Bachelor and being on ski teams.  He took to that immediately too.  It’s been his dream job and he’s been phenomenal at leading the crew. He’s the mountain manager and does everything outside while I’m the lodge manager and I do everything that’s not pertaining to being on the snow directly.  He’s still consulting for his last job which is wonderful because he still gets to keep his hands in something that he’s also very good at.

Aerial view of first tracks Soldier Mountain

Did anything in your previous jobs prepare you for owning a ski resort?

There are so many different departments that owning a ski area is like owning 6 or 7 different business all at once.  There is snow removal, the lifts, the lodge, restaurant, bar, etc.  That’s where my expertise comes in as a business owner.  With my pilates studio I definitely wore a bunch of different hats.  You have to figure out how to allocate your time, prioritize and learn how to trust a good team of people and we do have a great team who really cares about Soldier.  There have been generations of people that have been brought up at Soldier either skiing, instructing or patrolling here whose input, help and support has been immensely valuable.

Is owning and operating the resort anything at all what you expected?

I actually didn’t come in here with any expectations.  I truly didn’t, I didn’t have time to come in here with any expectations!  As I lived through what it’s like to own Soldier I can tell you it’s fun, challenging, rewarding, surprising – it’s one new adventure every single day.  When you wake up in the morning and you start getting ready to come to work you have your list of priorities, but you know one, two or three things are going to come up which is what keeps it exciting.

The one surprising piece is that I didn’t know how much I would love our cat skiing operation.  To be honest when I first started here I don’t even know if I was aware of the cat skiing area that we had and it’s been phenomenal!  I had never been cat skiing before, I didn’t really know what it all entailed, but it’s the best part about it so far.

What would you two be doing today if you didn’t have the opportunity to purchase Soldier Mountain?

I think we would still have pursued finding a ski area.  That first trip to Spout Springs got us dreaming about it.  And then I remember looking at each other in our kitchen in Bend, OR when we first learned about the opportunity to buy Soldier we were ready to drop everything and make it happen.  If the board of Soldier Mountain hadn’t selected us, we still would have tried to find a way to just have this kind of opportunity happen.  Although I have to say, I’m glad we’re here I can’t imagine where else we would prefer to be.

Fairfield Snowmageddon 2017 Soldier Mountain

What is your primary focus now for Soldier?

We started the season with a new bar and kitchen manager, she is the wife of our ski patrol director.  She was sort of doing us a favor because she has a different full time job.  So we need to make sure that our bar and kitchen are running well with this transition which is top on our priority list.

Second to that is our cat skiing operation.  We did cat skiing last year but it has grown probably 10 fold this season because we have so much amazing snow.  We have it fully booked with a three person deep waiting list just about every day.  That’ s a huge part of our priority list just in terms of time, maintenance and avalanche control.

Soldier Mountain Bar and Restaurant

How have you been going about hiring your employees and what kind of qualifications do you look for?

We had a job fair the first weekend in October that basically filled all of our requirements from the applicants so that was wonderful.  On an ongoing basis we’ve had a small bit of turnover for various reasons but most of that was actually anticipated so we did our hiring and scheduling at the beginning of the season.

In terms of qualifications it really does depend on the position that you’re talking about.  For our kitchen cashiers we have high schoolers working with us.  For our bar manager or maintenance they were either employed with us or they have experience in those areas.

Any final thoughts you would like to share about owning Soldier Mountain?

One of the things I’ve learned about being an owner vs being on the other side as a customer at a ski area is that there is a lot of debate and decision making that goes on behind the scenes for something like, “Why is the ski area closed this run?”.  A lot of other things that just aren’t visible to the general population has surprised me.  Most ski areas really want to say yes, they want to give you the best experience and bring the customer as much joy as possible.  And most of the time they really are.  All these ski areas like us operate because we want people to have fun, we want people to go outside and enjoy the snow and we do our best to make that happen!

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