Tag Archives: Lorne Borgal

Trying Out Jobs on Whistler

Last week we took a look at the response to Blackcomb Mountain’s first traffic jam, when Lorne Borgal, Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine ended up directing traffic on Highway 99 in the dark and snow.  When moving over to Whistler Mountian in 1983, Borgal brought this idea that performing duties outside of your own job description could have valuable benefits and made it into policy.

The idea was that everyone at any level of management at Whistler Mountain had to spent at least one day a month during the winter season working a shift on the frontlines (apparently many considered grooming the best assignment).  Mike Hurst, the vice president of marketing, described the initiative this way: “So Lorne would have to be up at Pika’s cooking breakfast, or he’d have to be in the car park, or he’d have to be a liftie for a day, and, boy, did that ever change the mentality of the management people.”

During a Speaker Series in 2015, Hurst recalled his own experience working on the phones at the beginning of December when he received a call from a person from Ontario planning to come ski at Whistler.  Their question was, “We’re coming in February, we’re all booked and everything, so what’s the weather gonna be like?”  Hurst took a moment and looked around, and then replied, “Okay, I’ve got the farmer’s almanac here, and what week is that?  The 7th to, okay, yeah, that looks pretty good.  It’s gonna be a little colder than normal, but just the week prior to that there’s a whole dump of snow so there’ll be beautiful fresh snow.  It’ll be wonderful, yup, but listen, don’t forget, we’re on the coast.  So make sure you bring various changes of clothes just in case, but it looks like a sunny week and it looks great, so you’re gonna have a great time.”  The customer was satisfied with the answer, which seemed to cover any eventualities, though Hurst did not recall whether that week in February was as great as he had promised it would be.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, usually sold Whistler through ad campaigns and the like, not necessarily one-on-one over the phone.  Whistler Question Collection.

While Hurst may have used his marketing skills to sell Whistler Mountain on the phones, the experiences of others helped identify problems and gave management a clear idea of what conditions were like for frontline employees.  One such experience was the day that Whistler Mountain’s CFO David Balfour spent loading the old Whistler gondola.

The role of CFO was described by Borgal as “don’t spend money,” at least not money that hadn’t been budgeted already.  A shift loading gondolas involved loading the freight up in the morning, loading people all day, bringing the garbage down at the end of the day, and putting all the cars away.  All of this was done manually as the gondola.

Balfour worked the gondola shift from beginning to end and, as Borgal remembered, was exhausted.  Borgal said, “I couldn’t stop him talking at me about what we had to change, because this was not humane.”  Balfour wanted to make changes to make the job easier for those who did it full time, even if it did mean spending some money.

For years loading the gondola included physically moving the gondolas and pushing them out of the barn.  Whistler Question Collection.

Balfour’s experience reportedly demonstrated the value of having managers work a frontline position.  It created bonds between staff who might not have otherwise interacted much and made it easier to demonstrate the need for operational changes.  According to Borgal, “If you had to do that frontline job, you really learned fast about what was going on.”

Directing Ski Traffic

As many people who have worked at small or relatively new organizations (and even some larger, more established ones) know, it is not unusual for one’s job to include many duties that would not necessarily be found in the job description.  Sill, you generally wouldn’t expect to see a company’s president and administrative manage, along with another organization’s general manager, out directing traffic in the dark.  That, however, is exactly what happened in 1980 when Blackcomb Mountain experienced its first traffic jam.

Go-carts and formula cars demonstrate the turns of a freshly paved Blackcomb Way, which experienced solid lines of traffic on Blackcomb’s first busy weekend.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s administrative manager, the issue occurred when Blackcomb had one of its first “big weekend days.”  Skiers spent the day on the snow, had a great time, and then all tried to leave.  While in his office at Base II about 4 o’clock, he realized that it had been a while since a car had left the parking lot.  They were all lined up, idling and waiting to go, but traffic was not moving.

Borgal, Blackcomb’s president Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine (then the general manager of the Whistler Resort Association) jumped in a pickup truck and drove the wrong way down Blackcomb Way to find the source of the gridlock.  Unfortunately, some of the cars saw this and followed them down, creating two lines of cars and no way back up the road.

The location of the administrative offices provided a great view of the parking lot and Blackcomb Way. Greg Griffith Collection.

The problem, they discovered, was that the northbound traffic on the highway form the Whistler Mountain gondola base was not allowing any car to leave the Village area.  At the time, there was no traffic light and only one entrance onto the highway, controlled by a stop sign.  It was also dark and snowing.

Smythe, Raine and Borgal began directing traffic.  As Borgal recalled, “We had all the parking lots in the valley merging onto the one little road out… There was no flashing lights or anything, there was just the little glow there, […] and I was the idiot who stood out on the road.  You’re out in the road, in the dark, flashing a little flashlight, trying to get these guys to stop to get some people out of the valley.”  The fact that gondola traffic had never had to stop before didn’t make the situation any easier.

Traffic attempts to merge onto Highway 99 from Village Gate in the snow, still a problem spot at times. Whistler Question Collection.

At one point, the local RCMP did come by, putting on his lights and asking what was going on.  When told about the problem, however, he decided that the Blackcomb staff had it in hand and left.  Directing traffic became another of the many “amazing things to do” that marked the early operations of Blackcomb Mountain.

Though this season has certainly been different, it has not been uncommon in past years to see lines of cars backed up through the Village at the end of a good snow day, much as they would have been forty years ago.  Directing traffic, however, in included in job descriptions now and those who do it get proper lights and signage.  Next week, we’ll be taking another look at mountain employees (temporarily) taking on duties outside their given roles, this time on Whistler Mountain.

Blackcomb’s DIY Wiring

Today we take the ability to receive or make a call for granted, but for those preparing to open Blackcomb Mountain in 1980 it would not have been as easy as picking up the phone.

It appears that months before the mountain was set to begin operations their phone system was already under quite a bit of stress.  In the first week of March, the Whistler Question reported that “Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises were growling a lot on Saturday, when their only overworked telephone was out of action for the eighth time this year!”  For the small team working out of the Blackcomb offices in construction trailers on the Town Centre site, the phone system was operational for the summer, though Blackcomb was still having some telephone woes.

Big office… small desk! Blackcomb’s accountant Larry Osborne sits behind his temporary desk in a deserted Blackcomb trailer before moving to permanent offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

On July 17, 1980, all union work on the Town Centre site (including the operation of the liquor store) stopped as the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) set up picket lines for two days.  The dispute was over telephone lines and a power line being installed from the valley to the buildings at the top of the first lift by Blackcomb workers.  Blackcomb wanted the lines installed on a weekend, as they had to cross eleven different road crossings on their way up the mountain, which would have stalled or stopped other construction work happening during the week.  BC Tel claimed that they couldn’t supply workers to install the lines on the weekend due to a ban on overtime by the union, while the TWU claimed they were willing but that BC Tel refused to schedule overtime.  Relations between BC Tel and the TWU had remained tense since a lockout and labour dispute a few years earlier.

In 1979 BC Tel and the TWU had failed to reach an agreement on the 1980 contract and by July the TWU had begun a “Super Service” campaign where they provided customer service while working to every rule and regulation, including ones that were usually deemed non-essential, and thereby slowing down productivity.  On September 22 the TWU began selective strikes, where construction and other workers would report to work but refuse all assignments except emergency repairs.  This included the pre-wiring of communication lines in new buildings, creating a backlog of construction jobs.

Technicians at work inside the new BC Telephone Whistler office earlier in the year – the wiring looks far neater than what transpired at the Blackcomb offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

For Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises, who were meant to move to their permanent offices at the top of Lift 1 in December, this presented a problem.  They had managed to get lines laid to the building, but the ongoing labour dispute meant that they could not get TWU workers in to set up the individual office lines.  Instead, Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s Administrative Manager, got to take a crash course in phone installation.

According to Borgal, the TWU was able to install phone blocks, but they could not do the wiring.  A local phone company employee showed Borgal how it worked and he was left to wire phones for each of the offices, most of which had three separate lines.  The building had a room where all of the cables came up from the main line and then split up to the various offices and, by the time he was done, Borgal described the contents of the room as a “big mass of wire” coming out from the wall by almost a metre.  Protection was built around the mass to prevent anyone from accidentally touching it and shutting down all the phones, as the wire were thought to be liable to falling out.  Despite his inexperience (as Borgal put it, he was “not a phone guy, at all”) the phones were operational for Blackcomb Mountain’s opening.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Eventually the TWU workers were able to return to the building and install the phone lines properly, putting an end to Blackcomb’s phone problems.  When shown the room of wires, their reaction was to howl with laughter and, according to Borgal, he was laughing right along with them.

Getting Ready for Blackcomb’s First Season

This December Blackcomb Mountain will mark an impressive milestone as they open for their 40th winter of operations.  Before the mountain could welcome guests on December 4, 1980, there was a lot of work to be done, from hiring and training staff to constructing restaurants, installing lifts, and building runs.

In June 1980, the Whistler Question announced the addition of two new members to Blackcomb Skiing Enterprise.  Boyd Stuwe, who had previously worked in Squaw Valley, CA and Soda Spring, CO, joined Blackcomb Mountain as the Operations Manager while Lorne Borgal joined as its Administrative Manager fresh out of Stanford.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Borgal spent his teenage years in North Vancouver.  On weekends he volunteered as part of the Whistler Mountain volunteer ski patrol and through his years at university he taught skiing under Ornulf Johnsen at Grouse Mountain.  He spend five years in Ontario working in marketing and sales for a computer-based accounting system before deciding to pursue his MBA at Stanford.

In 1980, Borgal reached out to Aspen Ski Company, then the owners of Blackcomb, and told them who he was and that he would love to come to Whistler.  This led to a meeting that spring with Hugh Smythe, whom he had met previously through the ski patrol on Whistler Mountain.  The day after his graduation, Borgal drove up from California and started working at Blackcomb.

The Town Centre as it was in last week of October, 1980, from the north looking south. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The Whistler Village was still under construction, as were the facilities on Blackcomb Mountain, so the small Blackcomb team worked out of offices housed in construction trailers on the village site.  According to an oral history interview with Borgal from 2015, eighteen hour days, seven days a week were normal leading up to the first season.  As he put it, “it was just a crushing, overwhelming amount of stuff to do.”

This work was not made easier in September when Aspen supplied them with a brand new IBM computer and custom accounting system.  The first challenge was to find a space for the new hardware, which Borgal described as “just giant,” as the Blackcomb team was still working out of construction trailers.  They found a space to rent above the pharmacy in Village Square but then discovered some issues with the software.  The accounting system had been designed specially for Aspen Ski Company by a person living in Denver, CO.  This meant that, according to Borgal, “payroll taxes, sales taxes, you name it, anything that was unique to Canada, they’d never heard of before.”  For a company operating in Canada, the system was not very helpful.  Borgal even claimed that, “A pencil on paper would have been better.”

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Despite some setbacks (there are also stories about telephone wires and a delivery of rental skis that drove into a ditch by Brohm Lake) the hard work of the Blackcomb team paid off.  Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing on Thursday, December 4, 1980.  We will be sharing more tales from the 1980s, the Whistler Village, and Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains over the next while and we would love to hear your own stories from this time of dramatic change in the valley.