Auden Schendler was new at his job as vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. in the late 1990s and he had a water-conservation plan to switch out a few dozen 5-gallon flush toilets in Snowmass Village with 2.5-gallon toilets.
He was mingling at a party in Aspen back then when someone introduced him to James “Jim” Crown, the Chicago businessman who owned and managed Aspen Skiing Co.
“He said ‘Oh, Auden, welcome to the company, thanks for what you are doing. How’s your toilet program working?’” Schendler said. “I was like ‘Oh my, God, how great is it that this guy is on the board at JPMorgan and he knows about my toilet plan.’”
Over the next quarter-century, Schendler would bring “increasingly crazy ideas” to Crown, setting a path that would establish Aspen Skiing Co. as an environmental leader in sustainable operations and climate change advocacy not just in the ski resort world but in all of business. Crown signed off on the nation’s first LEED-certified resort building atop Aspen Mountain. And the first solar array to power resort operations. And a small hydropower plant. And a bigger solar array. And a $6 million methane-capture system at a dormant coal mine to power all the company’s resort and hotel operations.
“Each time, he was like ‘Well, that’s really interesting. Can you show me more information?’” Schendler said. “And we did them all. Jim let us run with some wild shit. Over the years he would describe what we were doing and what he was supporting as ‘enlightened self-interest.’ Over time it became something more than that.”
Crown died Sunday in a vehicle crash at the Aspen Motorsports Park in Woody Creek, near his part-time home in Aspen. It was his 70th birthday. His father, Lester Crown, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Crown was driving a race car and he hit a wall going around a corner.
“There never was a finer human being in every way,” Lester Crown told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was the leader of our family both intellectually and emotionally, and he looked out for everybody. He also was a great leader also for the community. It’s just a heartfelt loss. There are no words that can express it.”
The resort industry buckled with the news of Crown’s death. So did residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. And residents of Chicago. Crown and his family touched many lives with their philanthropy and businesses. The loss is widespread.
There will be many stories in the coming weeks detailing Crown’s role in the highest echelons of America, from boardrooms to the Oval Office. The Crown family’s philanthropy is legendary, starting with industrialist Henry Crown, and carrying through to his son Lester, and Lester’s seven children, including Jim.
The impact of Jim Crown’s largest contributions eclipses his work in the niche ski resort industry, but he apparently did not switch gears when moving between Chicago and Aspen. He brought the same introspection and passion to every task.
“He was this famous businessperson and philanthropist and, from my standpoint, he was an incredible partner and friend who was absolutely passionate about Aspen and skiing in the mountains. The combination of business acumen and that passion with a really detailed knowledge and experience in the ski business was just an incredible combination,” said Rusty Gregory, the veteran resort operator who joined the Crown family and KSL Capital Partners in forming Alterra Mountain Co. in 2017. “Jim was a force of nature.”
People with the money to invest in skiing don’t always have years of experience in resort operations. Crown had both. His family’s Henry Crown & Co. bought half of Aspen Skiing Co. in 1985 and bought the other half in 1993.
In the 30 years the family has owned the ski company, it has become an international leader in the resort industry.
“There can’t be a better owner in the ski business,” said John Norton, who served 11 years as chief operating officer at Aspen Skiing Co. through the 1990s. “He really believed in the product and he continued to invest.”
Norton recalls working with Crown as the Aspen Skiing Co. team proposed opening more and more terrain on the steep Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands in the 1990s. An avalanche in the bowl killed three ski patrollers in 1984 and the peak was closed for nearly a decade. Today, after methodical expansion into the avalanche-prone terrain, Highland Bowl is among Colorado’s most revered expert ski terrain.
“We had this plan for opening more terrain in there and adding a new chair. Jim said ‘OK, every other year we can do one stupid thing,’” Norton said. “He was like ‘Prove to me that Highland Bowl is really going to be great for Aspen Skiing Co. at the end of the year.’ And it worked out.”
It’s rare to find an owner who was appreciated at nearly every level of the company, Norton said. From the lift operators to the executives, Crown was embraced, he said.
“I don’t think beloved is too strong a word,” he said.
Alterra Mountain Co. was imbued with Crown’s decades of experience in Aspen. He made sure the company cultivated and maintained an appreciation and respect for each of its mountain communities, just as Aspen Skiing Co. had for its home.
“He had strong opinions about important things and he was always willing to stand up and move in and do things right for the long term,” Gregory said. “He was a consummate businessman, but he led with doing what was right. His work in climate change was a real poignant example of that. He put that first before even talking about returns on investment. And he knew from his experience in Aspen to invest heavily in housing, and Alterra has made tremendous strides there.”
Schendler ended a recent conversation about his late boss with a circle back to a previous statement. As it turns out, Crown didn’t approve every one of Schendler’s suggestions.
Not long ago Schendler thought it would be a good idea to sue energy developer ExxonMobil, arguing that the company’s persistent processing of crude oil was materially damaging Aspen Skiing Co.’s snow-dependent business by warming the climate.
“I was dead serious and I pitched it. I flew out to Chicago with the top climate lawyer in the country and we met with Jim and he brought in what was probably the most expensive lawyer in Chicago,” Schendler said. “They spent months and probably tens of thousands of dollars on the idea before they politely declined. But I think it says a lot about Jim that he didn’t laugh me out of the room. He encouraged us to think big.”
Crown is survived by his wife and four children as well as his parents.