The Energy Around Us
PROFILE Les Otten – MARCH 2008
By Candace Karu
Photography Darren Setlow
An Entrepeneur Captures the Power of the Maine Forest
Les Oten has spent a lifetime managing energy. Though he is often described with words such as “smart,” “driven,” and “successful,” the word “energetic” is the one used most frequently to characterize Otten’s almost palpable aura of dynamism. His unrelenting schedule would exhaust many men half his age, but his capacity for work and play seems boundless. This ability to harness and direct his energies has served him well as an entrepreneur, and has fueled a life of remarkable accomplishment.
As a teenager, Otten found out he was dyslexic. “The only test I ever passed in school was the one I took to see if I had dyslexia,” he says with a wry smile. Over time, he consciously developed a variety of coping mechanisms, and the energy he put into compensating for his learning disability brought about profound changes in his life. He became a creative thinker, exploring new paths and finding innovative solutions to problems. Eventually, challenging the existing paradigms became second nature for
The son of a German immigrant father and an American mother, Otten was born in Manhattan and grew up in suburban New Jersey. “Twelve miles from Times Square,” he adds, downplaying the Jersey influence. After graduating from the Ithaca College School of Business in 1971, Otten went to work for the Killington and Sunday River ski resorts. Asked when he moved to Maine, Otten replies without hesitation, “November 5, 1972.” He has lived in Bethel ever since.
His steady rise to prominence in the ski industry is well known to many Mainers. He got his start as an assistant manager of Sunday River in 1972, and eight short years later purchased the resort outright. The American Skiing Company, founded and led by Otten, went on to acquire ski resorts throughout New England, and later in the West. In 2001, Otten resigned his position as CEO of the company; it had grown exponentially and the management team could not agree on how to move forward. “Leaving the American Skiing Company felt great. It was a good parting of the ways,” says Otten. “I was ready to finally be able to enjoy skiing and follow other pursuits.”
That same year, Otten put together a group—which included John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino—to buy the Boston Red Sox and save Fenway Park. The former New York Yankees fan served as vice chairman of the organization during what was arguably the most exciting period in Red Sox history; it included two World Series wins, the first of which was 86 years in the making. In 2007, he sold his share of the team to pursue other interests in Maine.
After leaving the Red Sox organization, Otten considered getting back into the ski industry, but he wasn’t able to forge the right deal. “I found myself with time, energy, and money, and a great love for the state of Maine,” he says. Out of these considerable personal resources, his newest business was born. “I like to bring really bright people together to solve problems,” he says, explaining the basic strategy that guides his fledgling business. Two of those really bright people are Otten’s long-time friend, Dutch Dresser, a former associate headmaster and chief information officer at Gould Academy, and William Strauss, an economist and university professor from Albany, Maine. Together they formed Maine Energy Systems, a company that produces compressed wood-fiber pellets that are used as fuel. Maine is a state with abundant wood-based resources, much of them underdeveloped or underused. The company’s goal is to change the energy paradigm in Maine by creating a new market for wood energy, one that will satisfy Maine’s enormous energy demands with local alternatives and reduce the state’s dependence on foreign oil.
According to Otten and Dresser, wood-fiber pellets burn cleaner and cost significantly less than the foreign oil currently being used to heat more than 450,000 homes in Maine. “If we were to convert 10 percent of homes in Maine now using oil to wood pellets, we’ll be injecting somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million into the Maine economy annually,” Otten says. Dresser goes on to explain further: “It’s probably more like $400 million when you consider dollars not spent on foreign oil, jobs created to manufacture wood-fiber pellets and pellet-fired boilers, and the sale of pellets for heating homes and businesses.”
Otten is also passionate about finding other ways to move Maine toward energy independence. Pelletized wood is at the top of a list that includes solar, wind, and tidal energy. Otten believes that alternative-energy solutions could transform Maine into a player in the global economy. “Maine is in a unique position, blessed with abundant natural resources, to lead the way,” he says.
This passion has not gone unrecognized. During his State of the State Address in January, Governor John Baldacci announced his appointment of Otten to head the Wood-to-Energy Initiative. The task force has an impressive roster of figures from the public and private sectors, including academics, land owners, economic advisors, and government and business leaders, all of whom are charged with bringing Maine-made sources of energy to homes and businesses in the state. Patrick McGowan, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation, is excited to be working with Otten. “Les is working on the private side in this effort and we’re working right behind him on the public side,” says McGowen. “We’re happy to be a part of creating Maine solutions for Maine people from the Maine woods.”
In addition to his work with Maine Energy Systems, Otten maintains ties to Sunday River as a real estate developer. He is currently building on more than 130 acres just off Sunday River Road. Sitting in a model home, with falling snow beginning to obscure the view of the mountain, he talks about the three things that make a great idea work. “It takes tenacity,” he says, before pausing to think. Laughing, he concludes: “I guess it’s just tenacity, tenacity, tenacity.”