It appeared at first to be the unlikeiest of weddings -- the joining of the mundane Washington, D.C.-based Solon Automated Services Inc. with the glamorous Sugarbush Valley ski resort here. What is clear, in retrospect, is that the matchmakers knew what they were doing.
Seeking diversification and recognizing that enhancement of this area's ski slopes would increase the value of the adjoining land for real estate development. Solon moved aggressively into the recreation industry in the mid-1970s.
As a consequence of this incongruous union, Solon, the nation's largest supplier of coin-operated laundry equipment services to multifamily housing, barracks and dormintories, now stands to be the owner and operator of one of the nation's largest ski resorts.
Sugarbush Valley Inc. already is the largest continguous ski complex in the Northeast and is described by the Chicago Tribune as the "Sun Valley of New England." Plans well beyond the draft board-stage project it to become the largest ski complex in the nation in next few years.
Solon, based at 115 L. St. SE in the District, has been the largest business of its type in the United States for the past several years. It cinched this leadership position with the acquistion of similar Texas and West Coast operations, thus extending the company's holding from New England to California.
Revenues last year exceeded $66 million with net earnings of more than $5 million. An integral part of the company's principal business is the manufacture at its New Bedford, Mass., factory of commerical clothes dryers for such companies as Panasonic, General Electric and Westingtonhouse. A Wall Street publications, America's Fastest Growing Companies, lists Solons as one of the 23 companies in the U.S. which has posted annual revenue gains of more than 20 percent in the last nine years.
The acquisition of Sugarbush Valley began four years ago. By the winter of 1977 Solon had acquired all of the Sugarbush Valley stock in two increments for about $3.5 million. For another $2.4 million Solon also acquired ownership of the nearby Glen Ellen Resorts Inc. Now the combined properties are valued at more than $20 million.
With the purchase of 3,000 acres and the lease of 1,600 acres from the U.S. Forest Service, Solon promptly put the two properties together -- changing the name of Glen Ellen to Sugarbush North. Installing a free bus service between the two separate mountain complexes -- each with its own support facilities -- gave skiers a greater variety of choices and challenges at no additional cost. Tickets purchased at either area are good at both.
Together -- Sugarbush and Sugarbush North -- the ski complex capacity of 6,000 skiers and hour. There are 70 trails with more than 75 miles of skiing for novices, intermediates and experts.
Sugarbush Valley Inc. intends to join the two areas by ski trails, a move that will require the approval of state and local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency. It also will be necessary to overcome opposition from some local factions and conservationists.
If the area are joined by ski trails, Sugarbush will be the largest intergrated ski complex in the United States with a capacity of about 15,000 skiers a day.
Sugarbush Valley previously was patronized largely by the method jetset, many of whom flew into the area in their own planes or arrived in expensive European sports cars.
That exclusivity has changed. Roy Cohen, the president of Solon, organized a marketing thrust that now is directed at younger skiers, singles or married couples and young familes.
Of course, the new corporation does not disdain the affluent skier. In fact, the basic appeal is to this affluence -- to sell them second homes. With land along the ski trails appreciating as rapidly as Sugarbush improves the ski faclities, developers have found the area a bonanza. They have built condominiums, restaurants, stores, tennis clubs and other support facilities.
The growth has been phenomenal. The Boston Globe said "development is spreading at an epidemic rate." One local selectman bothered by the activitiy, called it "a disease."
Condominiums are selling before they are completed. The demand is so great and the appreciation so rapid that a condo which originally sold for $69,000 went for $150,000 a year later. Condo owners have no trouble renting their units for $120 a day during the peak winter season.
The growth and economic boom is being felt in the neighboring towns of Warren, Fayston and Waitsfield. The increased employment and revenues generated by the ski activities and the recreational housing developments have given these communities a strong tax base.
Last summer the company added an additional $1.5 million worth of snow-making equipment, opened a million-dollars sports center with indoor tennis, swimming, squash courts, sanua and a restaurant.
Asked if a ski resort is not a high business risk, Cohen answered, "Lack of snow is tempered by our ability to make snow. We have the capability, when the temperature is 10 degrees or below, to make an inch of snow per acre per hour. Or we can cover 350 football fields with one foot of snow in six days."
To date, this warm winter has put a heavy demand on the snow-making equipment. In an area where the average annual snowfall is 220 inches, only about a foot had fallen through Feb. 5. But February and March normally are good ski months. Cohen pointed out that normally there is sufficient snow for good skiing from November to May at Sugarbush.
With annual revenues at the ski complex running more than $4.5 million, and with accommodations growing rapidly, Cohen is bullish on the potential. "The skiing population is growing at a faster rate than faclities throughout the nation can comfortably accommodate them. The high development costs and severe environmental restrictions discourage the building of new large-scale ski areas like ours and those in Colorado and Wyoming. So prospects for those ski resorts already in place and established, particularly ours, are very good," he said.