40 at 40
ColoradoBiz turns the Big 4-0 in 2013, and seizing the moment to flex our journalistic muscle, we’re offering up a narrative nod to some notable Colorado enterprises that have endured at least as long, and in the process helped shape Colorado as we know it. ColoradoBiz 40 At 40 is what the name suggests: a look at 40 Colorado companies that not only have made their mark; they’ve done it for 40-plus years.
Forty years ago this month, a monumental feat in civil engineering bolstered Colorado’s ski industry in relation to the state’s biggest city and transportation hub. In March 1973, the drive from Denver to Aspen was shortened by 10 miles, saving drivers up to an hour, as the first 40-foot-wide bore of the Eisenhower Tunnel opened to motorists, 1,000 feet below the snaking crest of Loveland Pass. Already, Aspen was getting its Glitter Gulch notoriety, but it still had that rough-n-tumble look of the mining town where silver barons once cavorted with roustabouts.
As ColoradoBiz – then Colorado Business magazine – published its first edition, Aspen Skiing Co. had been in business 27 years. Walter Paepcke, founder of Aspen Skiing Co., as well as The Aspen Institute, set a cultural stage in an otherwise small mountain town – one of many actors whose vision had a hand in transforming the state.
On to Something …
Childhood friends Ira Rothgerber and Walter Appel grew up in Denver in the 1890s, attending East High School and later venturing to the University of Colorado. In school they shared a single room with no indoor plumbing. After bonding in close quarters, with schooling and practical experience under their belts, the two felt prepared to join forces, opening their own law firm in 1903.
Just the two-man shop for the first 30 years, when the desire for expansion surged to the point of action, Ira Rothgerber Jr. and Bill Johnson stepped up to the plate.
In the late 1960s, Johnson successfully challenged banking standards, pioneering the “one bank holding company” structure. Such regulations allowed bank holding companies to become vehicles for efficient debt management, introducing a new structure for community bank ownership still widely used today.
In 1971, the firm hired Jim Lyons, one of the most respected trial lawyers in the region – ultimately forming Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons.
“Our fundamental internal relationships are in many ways like a family,” Lyons said.
And the family extends beyond its legal ties.
The law firm founders were also involved in establishing FirstBank in 1963. The Colorado-based bank was one of few financial institutions to experience consistent growth during the recent recession.
“(Our connections) provide a platform for all of us to be successful,” Lyons said.
Stepping in our time machine and going as far back in history as our 40 At 40 takes us, we arrive in 1873, where Boosterism – a uniquely American combination of faith in the future and strident promotion – defined a company’s destiny and a decade of growth in the fluid Colorado society.
That year, German brewing apprentices Adolph Coors and Jacob Schueler stowed away on a trans-Atlantic ship with determination to fashion their own brew. Once hitting land, they journeyed westward into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in search of a necessary water supply – stumbling into Golden, where springs near Clear Creek provided crisp water from snow-capped mountains.
Lucky for Coors, Colorado miners were willing to spend their hard-earned gold dust on beer.
Craft brews have developed into the cat’s meow by today’s standards, especially in the Centennial State, yet today, more than a century after its origination, the Golden Brewery (part of the Miller Coors joint venture) is the largest single-site brewery worldwide, and the birthplace of Coors Brewing Co., which merged with Molson in 2005.
“Coors is a great example of longevity and institutionalism that spans generations in one city, under one banner, providing connectivity to our region, city, state … it’s incomparable,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
Roughly three years after Coors’ debut, family business Everist Materials planted its roots in Summit County, utilizing local resources and recognizing its strategic space to provide multiple Colorado communities construction materials and services.
“The small mountain communities of the North Central Rocky Mountains have successfully developed, which stimulates construction activity,” said Greg Norwick, Everist’s current president.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Denver Pacific Railway stabilized Colorado’s economy, bringing residents, tourists, trade, manufacturing, agriculture and ranching.
“[Colorado] knew we would not be relevant unless we connected … and industries came out of that,” Hancock observed.
Frontier entrepreneurs worked collectively as community builders and leaders. Today, the same spirit still holds true as “public and private partnerships” advance our state, according to Buz Koelbel, president of longtime developer Koelbel and Co.
As illustrated historically, the ability to connect the complex landscape of the state has opened countless opportunities for Colorado businesses.
On the mend …
Between 1870 and 1890, manufacturing output skyrocketed from $600,000 to $40 million, and Denver’s population grew twentyfold.
Thereafter, with willingness to innovate, yet faithful to its core business and niche market, the Denver Machine Shop blazed a trail for many leaders in the budding sustainability market.
Founded in 1916, Fred A. White’s business has been passed down four generations to substitute a ‘dispose-and-replace’ mentality in exchange for extending equipment life with a repair, rebuild and reuse paradigm.
“We still maintain the core of our business, supplying and repairing parts for a variety of industries. Sustainability goes back to the heart of craftsmanship,” said Scott White, who currently owns the repair shop with his twin brother, Eric.
Likewise, Colorado Demolition & Deconstruction has emphasized environmental diversity by enabling materials for recycling and re-purposing since 1973.
Schacht Spindle Co. has demonstrated similar devotion to craftsmanship for more than 40 years, with continued community interest in hand-woven work.
White says a major challenge in manufacturing has been finding new talent to bring onboard.
“Most modern parents dream of their kids going to college. With manufacturing, they picture smoke stacks and dirt under fingernails, so we’ve lost a generation,” White says.
Additionally, MWH Global, a Denver-based leader in wet infrastructure and water engineering, has sought opportunities from the obstacles of their own impending workforce shortages.
While manufacturing and engineering has experienced its own set of challenges, content “manufacturers” have endured tumultuous times, as fast-food style communication has evolved throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
“There are many complicated components at play in the equation that result in the longevity of a business,” said The Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis, who partially attributes the bookstore’s success since 1971 to the ability to adapt to changing market conditions.
In spite of the ongoing “death of the written word” discourse, Josh Awtry, executive editor of the 140-year-old Fort Collins newspaper, The Coloradoan, contends that, “contrary to popular opinion, the news business is doing anything but dying … despite changes in technology, lifestyle and generational shifts.”
Or, as White puts it: “The trick has been reminding people that anything can be fixed.”
With comparable optimism in a return to craftsmanship, sustainable practices and traditional values, Loveland’s Porter Industries has delivered service with a “can-do” attitude and attempted to squelch the stereotype that cleaning crews “are mindless automatons,” since the 1960s. As Larimer County developed from railroad stop to metropolitan, Porter found its niche with full-service cleaning and facilities management.
Though the economic boom of the ’80s and ’90s made for prosperous times for Porter, downturns have resulted in corporate contract cuts.
“That can be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach,” said Steve Hendrickson, Porter’s vice president and chief business development officer. “Over time, a well-executed, high-performance cleaning program can … have an impact on indoor air quality. … We’ve always been optimistic about Colorado doing better than the national economic picture.”
And Ball Corp.’s director of communications and engagement tends to agree.
“Colorado is a good place to base a multinational company like ours,” said Ball’s Scott McCarty.
Rather than stick to the adage, “if it ain’t broke…” in 1969, Ball acquired an aluminum can plant based in Golden at a time when the majority of beverages were housed in steel cans. In a refusal to conform to confining standards, the company built the largest recyclable aluminum beverage can business to date.
Several years following, Broomfield acquired 118 year-old Ball Corp.’s headquarters, embracing its “We can!” methodology.
“The combination of this amazing setting, which draws smart and innovative people and the respect for new ideas has been beneficial for Ball,” McCarty said.
On the rise …
With the people and supplies necessary to solidify dominance in the region, the stage was set in post-World War II Colorado for major expansion with a premonition the state could become a major global player.
“Our firm’s longevity and continuity can be attributed to its adaptability in the face of an ever-changing economy,” said H. Joshua Gould, chairman and CEO of architecture, design and engineering firm RNL.
Other companies that have executed essential infrastructural elements and design to develop Colorado’s cities and beyond include Hensel Phelps Construction Co., PCL Construction Enterprises Inc., SLATERPAULL Architects, H+L Architecture, Koelbel & Co., Oz Architects, Brothers Redevelopment Inc., Merrick & Co., and Intermountain Electric, a subsidiary of Quanta Service Inc.
Like Aspen’s Paepcke had in the mountains only 20 years prior, David Neenan envisioned “improving the human condition” with his work in 1966. After losing seven times his net worth on a failed construction project in Casper, Wyo., his firm, The Neenan Co., developed a collaborative approach to business, dubbed “Archistructure.” By connecting design, construction and project finance, he improved tense interactions between “divide and conquer-style” project management – reducing time and expense.
Shortly thereafter, in 1973, “The ground started to swell … when 37,900 new jobs appeared in Colorado,” Colorado Business reported in its October 1983 anniversary issue.
To fill the homes of newly developed neighborhoods Colorado-wide, real estate companies such as RE/MAX International – established the same year – began building “a reputation of innovation,” according to Dave Liniger, co-founder and chairman of the company.
As the appeal of Colorado spread, 150-year-old Johns Manville, a manufacturer and marketer of construction supplies, relocated from New York in 1972.
In its early days, JM stepped up to the plate, as industries demanded asbestos insulation for pipes, high-temperature blast furnaces and boilers. However, later studies indicated the health risks associated with use of asbestos; consequently, JM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
With strategic repositioning and promotion of its brand – reminiscent of Boosterism in the state’s early history – JM recovered. The company continued to supply its niche market with construction materials, yet explored emerging technology to meet the demands of customers concerned with indoor air quality.
Whether inside or outside, “the ability to have natural, recreational amenities within an hour or two changes your mindset,” Koelbel said.
Since 1952, Koelbel has capitalized on revolutionary changes brought about by the expanding highway system and ubiquity of the automobile in American households. With projects such as The Preserve at Greenwood Village, Koelbel married a longstanding respect for nature with the people who benefit from its development, successfully introducing risks and rewards to Colorado community members.
“By adding infrastructural improvement, we complement the natural ingredients and quality of life we already have in the state,” said Koelbel.
On the Move …
The world outside our four walls, including 54 mountain peaks more than 14,000 feet, makes for picturesque yet challenging terrain to travers – and led to one notable business aimed at helping others pursue their lifestyle-driven destinies.
In 1952, Asher “Dick” Kelty began producing the first backpacks with hand-welded aluminum frames, hip belts made from recycled seatbelts and sleeping bags to appeal to the growing population of in-staters and visitors interested in adventuring. Such innovations made it possible for backpackers to move comfortably and efficiently, once again unlocking available resources for recreation in new and exciting ways.
“Being close to the Rocky Mountains both inspires us and allows us to test, evaluate and modify our designs, helping us to create some of the best outdoor gear available,” said the brand’s PR manager, Scott Kaier.
The 1930s and ’40s saw the introduction of the ski industry in Colorado, with the establishment of resorts such as Arapahoe Basin. When Aspen Skiing Co. was developed by Chicago industrialist Paepcke in 1946, he envisioned a comprehensive metamorphosis of “mind, body and spirit,” according to director of public relations at Aspen Skiing Co., Jeff Hanle.
Aspen has recently embraced sustainability – approving a $5.4 million project to capture methane waste from the Oxbow Elk Creek Mine in nearby Somerset and convert it into electricity. The project will keep nearly 96,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and simultaneously generate roughly three megawatts of power each year – four times the amount used by the Aspen/Snowmass resorts.
“If we take care of the product – which in our case is the snow and the wide open space outdoors – we can stay in business forever,” said Hanle.
Vail Associates began its operations in 1962; 10 years later, Telluride Ski Resort installed its first ski lift and has since amplified the sophistication of the ski bum scene with a heavy emphasis on culture and fine dining.
For skiing closer to major populations on the Front Range, Eldora Mountain Resort has provided powder hounds with its piece of paradise for the last 50 years. The resort’s marketing photographer, John Wahl – who, at just 10 years old skied Eldora on its opening day – attributes the resort’s success to its investment in state-of-the-art snow making technology, a lack of ego among management, staff and skiers alike and authentic love of the mountain.
Antique hubs for passers-by throughout the state include Fort Collins’ family-run, boutique style Armstrong Hotel, where guests have hung their hats for nearly nine decades; and 47-year-old tourist attraction Ellis Ranch, which takes advantage of the Centennial State’s natural beauty.
Still, more historical than most, Henry H. “Shorty Scout” Zietz – a member of the hard-riding, straight-shooting band of cowboys that included Buffalo Bill – founded The Buckhorn Exchange in 1893, providing hearty meals to cattlemen, miners, railroad builders and silver barons. While culinary trends may come and go and the restaurant business tends to be a risky venture, The Buckhorn remains in its original premises, proudly displaying its post-Prohibition Colorado Liquor License No. 1.
“It’s authentic. The decorations and the theme make it a genuine destination,” said Sid Levin, a managing partner of the restaurant’s ownership group for the last 35 years.
Carnivores are surrounded by a collection of taxidermy affixed to the walls and enjoy a wide variety of available game, many dishes of which have been featured on The Food Network.
In light of the hijinks and contrived contests that have replaced the careful ingredient lists and attention to detail of former food stars such as Julia Child, “TV cooking shows [have emphasized] home entertainment, broadening the awareness of our products,” said Jim Hewitt, a part owner of Fort Collins’ The Cupboard, which opened in 1972.
Regardless of restaurants or home kitchens, Colorado’s available culinary fare has come leaps and bounds from its origins – when mining took precedence and some doubted the possibility of salvageable agriculture in the state.
“Colorado has fostered a successful food and beverage industry…” said Steve Carley, chief executive officer with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. Since relocating from Washington State, the 44-year-old franchised burger biz has called Greenwood Village home. Carley spoke of the centralized setting, educated workforce and diversified economy – attractive attributes that encouraged the Robin to fly the coup in 1996. Of the company’s four core values, promoting “fun” and “energy” seem to aptly align with the state’s “recreational atmosphere,” accordingly to Carley.
Considering the countless advances in farming and agriculture that have made the food business what we’ve come to recognize today, government regulations have substantially impacted the production of products that fill grocery store shelves and restaurant tables. Since 1953, Henderson-based Birko has delivered its food safety savvy for use in federally inspected meat plants, becoming a leader in the industry. With a willingness to adopt new technologies, the company has cut costs and continually increased its service capabilities.
Amid ever-changing food trends and Coloradans’ health-conscious tendencies, Canino’s Sausage Co. Inc., has proudly provided its natural products for more than 85 years.
“At the turn of the century, when many Italian immigrants were settling in Denver, Old World family recipes were treasured heirlooms,” said the company’s current owner, Diana Payne.
“Ideas and innovations that are embraced by forward-thinking Colorado consumers quickly spread and are adopted by consumers nationwide,” added Jennifer Stolte, senior director of marketing for Boulder-based Celestial Seasonings.
On the Horizon …
Sometimes we roll our eyes at old-timers, dismissing their wisdom as no longer relevant. As the pace of change has accelerated, we often look to the lead of confident and youthful risk-takers, hanging on their charisma, rather than time-tested experience.
Over the last decade, Colorado has been likened to California, with its influx of tech-savvy start-ups. The inherent optimism of this newness is romanticized, and sometimes rightfully so. Yet, what if we build an inclusive community of industry veterans and young entrepreneurs willing to keep our state’s economic system moving, looking forward while recalling what got us here in the first place?
“By nurturing our ecosystem of startups and longstanding businesses, we have the ability to capitalize, to compete nationally and globally,” said Hancock.
What is exceptional about Colorado is its confluence of people and geography, which creates a lifestyle-driven location to both live and work.
“We will not be relevant unless we connect,” Hancock said.
And as history indicates, connections have revolutionized Colorado.
Rising from the Wild West, the people and institutions of our state have been galvanized by the prospect of gold and the backdrop of the Rockies. With 40 candles glistening back at us, we wish for ColoradoBiz and the businesses of Colorado to strike a balance between wisdom and innovation, risk and caution, continuity and originality, creation and recreation – to strike gold in the Centennial State.