Living the Dream: Gunther Jochl, the maestro of Southern skiing and community
Justin Grimes / (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In addition to our ongoing Southern Snow Scene column, which is penned by The Avery Journal-Times’ Editor Sam Calhoun and chronicles the happenings on area slopes, this season we have added a new column by Justin Grimes, an avid long-time skier, instructor and former director of ski schools. His column will focus on intimate looks at the people in the High Country ski industry and tips for skiers, riders, beginners and visitors to the area.
We hope you enjoy this inaugural column, “Gunther Jochl, maestro of Southern skiing and community.” Be sure to look for next week’s column titled “Take a Lesson.”
It may take a village to sustain a community. This is an abbreviated story of a son taking his mother’s advice and by consequence saving one, Sugar Mountain.
As visions of snow covered Austria scrolled on the computer screen in a welcoming office brimming with piles of file folders dutifully spread about the room waiting for imminent perusal, I sat down with Sugar Mountain Resort President Gunther Jochl, the maestro of Southern skiing and community.
“That’s mother,” he said pointing to the screen.
Speaking with the disarming, warming confidence of a person, an optimist, accustomed to overcoming obstacles and adversity, Jochl shared with me intimacies of his migration to America and his fateful arrival to the High Country in 1976.
Why maestro? Because Jochl orchestrated enduring changes that initially stood the ski industry on its head. He opened the resort on Nov. 5, 1976 — more than a month earlier than usual — groomed the slopes twice a day and doubled the previous record of skier visits his first year.
“They thought I was insane when I first came here,” Jochl said. “No one groomed. We changed the philosophy and by the time they figured out what we were doing, we had money in the bank.”
At the time, many Southern and Mid-Atlantic ski resorts were in dire financial straights, including Sugar Mountain Resort, which was in bankruptcy when Jochl took the helm.
“The area wasn’t developed like today. Between here and Banner Elk, there was a motel and lumberyard. The roads on Sugar weren’t paved and the property owners association was having a hard time maintaining the infrastructure,” Jochl recalled.
A bankrupt resort and struggling community weren’t the only obstacles standing in the young Austrian’s way. “Thirty-five years ago, I didn’t speak English as well as I do today and the language of Avery County, which I have become fond of, stumped me at times,” Jochl said as he shared one amusing example.
“I called the snowmaker’s office early in that first season and asked for a particular employee. The employee who answered said, ‘He took the thing-a-ma-jig over yonder; he’ll be back, right now, in a minute.’”
Not understanding, Jochl said that he thought it best that he just hang up the phone. “I got myself promptly educated.”
Many locals have worked for Jochl for more than 30 years. In fact, many department heads have been on his team for years, too.
While sharing his thoughts about the longevity of his employees, glimpses of Jochl’s successful, leadership philosophy came through. “We want our workforce to come from here. That strengthens everyone’s feeling about the place. This is an effort we are all proud of; we have a great team, making decisions together, we are family.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can improve. We are not satisfied if 98 percent of our customers are happy. We concentrate on what we can do to make the two percent happy, too. This guides our thinking; providing the best customer experience, the best product; to do it better somehow.
“We are never at the end of learning. We give it our all,” Jochl said. “This is a passion to me more than anything.”
Jochl is known locally for giving it his all on the racecourse, too. He is a certified race coach, very competitive and a strong advocate and supporter of High Country Junior Race Series. He has been quoted as saying that racing builds character.
His commitment to community goes beyond the day-to-day challenges of overseeing the resort. Jochl is mayor pro tem of the Village of Sugar Mountain, having served on the town council for almost 20 years.
“It was a mess when I first came here. The community association was a tough way to do it; incorporation was the only way to finance the community’s needs. Even though it meant that our resort would become and is the largest taxpayer, we don’t mind,” Jochl said. “Today, all the roads are paved, we have a golf course, tennis courts, a savvy town manager and the village is in a good financial position. We’ve got a pretty nice town.
“A friend told me that Sugar Mountain is the perfect example of how a private business and municipality can work together to make things better.”
In keeping with its tradition of involving locals in snowsports, this season Sugar is partnering with Avery County’s YMCA with a new program tailored for kids. The mountain has offered snow-day special prices for High Country school children for years.
Changing the subject, I had to ask, “which weather source do you use, Gunther?” He replied, “Ray Russell is good and besides, when Ray’s wrong at least we have someone we know to yell at.”
Actually, he refers to several weather resources saying that after all these years he sees patterns that help guide his snowmaking.
Another pattern that Jochl has noticed is that the economy doesn’t impact skiing and riding as much as the weather does.
“We are not honest with ourselves if we don’t go through every financial report in detail, but in the end in this industry, it’s the weather, dummy,” Jochl said with a laugh. “When snowflakes fall in Atlanta, the Piedmont, people go skiing and riding.”
“What’s next,” I asked. “Are there plans to expand the terrain?”
Jochl smiled demurely and said, “We’ve just finished refurbishing all the lifts, which took several years.” Then came the good news, “Yes, we have plans for expansion.”
Making Sugar sweeter ran through my thoughts as my focus wandered back to the rolling photo display of Gunther’s home, the small town on the Austrian and German border. I was reminded of how simple wishes and intent drive destiny at times.
In the early years of the ski industry in America, Austrians and other experienced Europeans were recruited to teach skiing; possessing a German teaching certification in skiing made Jochl a perfect candidate.
Wanting the best for her children is a mother’s forte and I must admit that when I think about it, I’m moved by the bittersweet and unselfish advise that Gunther Jochl’s mother gave him. “If you want to have a successful career as an engineer, you need to learn English, and teaching skiing in America will be a good way to learn,” she told him.
He took his first position in America teaching skiing at Bryce Resort in Virginia, moving to a resort in Pennsylvania before the allure of a challenge and in his words, the Southern hospitality of the people in Avery attracted him to Sugar Mountain.
Metaphorically, Gunther speaks many languages today including reading Mother Nature’s frozen ways. He’s at work, earlier than most, grooming, hiking up the mountain or skiing down, seeing the sunrise over Grandfather and thinking of home.