Posted: February 01, 2014

25th Anniversary Colorado Business Hall of Fame

Milestone event is cause for recalling stories of laureates who helped shape the state

Maria Martin

Look through the list of names that make up the Colorado Business Hall of Fame laureates, and it’s hard to miss the big picture.

No history book could better illustrate the history of the Centennial State. The stories of the 136 honored over the past 25 years give readers a glimpse of the grit, creativity and generosity of the men and women who help shape Colorado’s business community.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Junior Achievement- Rocky Mountain Inc., co-sponsors of the event, award only those who have truly changed our state for the better, says Robin Wise, CEO of Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain.

“When you look across the landscape of Colorado, there isn’t much that you can lay your eyes on that hasn’t been in some way impacted by this group of laureates,” Wise says.

“Look at agriculture, and the laureates who have something to do with getting water to the plains, and look at the ski industry and what has come out of that.”

William Philpott isn’t surprised that names like Felipe Baca, Walter Cheesman and John Iliff dominated the early years of Hall of Fame awards.

“Most people don’t realize that the Gold Rush, which brought people to Denver in 1858, was something of a bust,” says Philpott, associate professor of history at the University of Denver. “Half of the people who came to Denver left, but when gold was found in places like Central City, Denver became a supply center for the area.”

And while mining drew people here, agriculture – a way to feed those people – became a thriving business, as did the necessity and desire to scatter those people through the city, and provide them with everything from banking to shopping.

Baca, a rancher who helped found Trinidad; Cheesman, whose enthusiasm for business helped him move the railroad through Denver and improve the city’s water system; and Iliff, a cattle rancher and namesake of a theology school, helped turn Denver into a blossoming city.

Look at names like laureate Peter Seibert, founder of Vail Ski Resort, to see the tipping point, when tourism began to boom in the state. Engineering feats – such as the Eisenhower Tunnel, completed in 1979 – transformed travel in the High Country.

“By 1980, you can drive through the mountains,” said Philpott, author of “Vacationland: Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country.”

“This shift – this growing sense that tourism could become the major industry for some parts of the state – started after World War II.”

Tourism did more than simply draw people fleetingly to the state, he says. It helped paint the picture of Colorado with vivid hues. Real estate mavens, bankers, college deans spread the word.

“They all pointed to the natural beauty and the whole idea of quality of life became important,” Philpott said.

It was more than simply the ski resorts cashing in on the tourist trade – which is now, by most estimates, the state’s second-largest industry.

Laureates like the Gart brothers and David and Renie Gorsuch tapped into the markets of winter sports apparel and equipment.

As youth were drawn to the state, aerospace companies and other high-tech companies recognized the market was a gold mine, and big businesses made Colorado their anchor.

Laureates like Ron Montoya reflect the growth of the technology industry in the state. But look to his background to see that in addition to business savvy, Hall of Fame laureates share a common love for Colorado and a determination to give back.

“I’ve been involved in every community and every board because I feel like the greatest reward is making an impact in the nonprofit world,” says Montoya, owner of Innov8 Solutions, a supplier of telecommunication and electrical products.

“The feeling I get from serving the community far outweighs making a few bucks.”

Wise notes that altruistic spirit has been essential to the panel of individuals with the challenging task of choosing Hall of Fame recipients. The name “Buell” carries a lot of weight to those in the state who love the theater, thanks to laureate Temple Buell, the late architect of some of Denver’s most notable structures.

“Look at the schools and the hospitals and the foundations and scholarship that these men and women have built,” Wise says. “It’s not only their risk-taking, innovation and vision, but their desire to be philanthropic.”

That aspiration might seem unusual, Philpott says, given that many individuals currently in the state are relatively new to Colorado.

“But this is a place that people immediately take pride in,” Philpott says. “It’s a wonderful place to live, and they want to give back.”

Jake Jabs, president and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse, is an example of a laureate who moved to Colorado, fell in love with his new surroundings and opted to give back.

“I’m a farm kid from Montana who started with nothing,” said Jabs. “Colorado has been good to me.”

The Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Denver taps into one of the state’s greatest potentials, he says.

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Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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