The Mountain Man Returns
by Joshua Bodwell Photography Irvin Serrano
The visionary behind Sugarloaf turns his gaze on Saddleback
On an afternoon in early November, Saddleback Mountain looms like a shadow behind a ghostly shroud of fog. The silent chairlifts creak in the wind, and the bare trails snake down the mountain awaiting the promise of winter snow.
Yet the very air above this western Maine ski resort seems charged with excited anticipation. At Saddleback, this charge is even more palpable than usual, due in large part to the presence of Warren Cook, the mountain’s new general manager and chief executive officer.
Dressed in Carhartt jeans, a button-up Patagonia shirt, and Keen sneakers, the sturdy 63-year-old Cook doesn’t look like your average CEO. And he’s not.
Cook built his reputation in the 1980s with the resurrection of the Sugarloaf ski resort. He guided the struggling slopes out of bankruptcy and into prosperity, becoming co-owner and president along the way. Now, at a time in his life when many are considering where to settle down for retirement, Cook has trained his talents on making Saddleback Maine’s newest four-season destination.
Born and raised in western Massachusetts, Cook made regular skiing treks to Maine throughout his childhood. His mother’s family has deep ties to Skowhegan, where Cook’s uncle, in 1946, donated the land and farmstead that became the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Cook eventually grew a successful Teflon manufacturing company, but sold the business in 1986 and took the year off to consider his options. At the time, his uncle, King Cummings, asked him to move to Maine for three months and help the ailing Sugarloaf. By 1989, Cook was a co-owner of the revered ski resort. When the American Skiing Company bought the mountain in 1997, Cook presided over the sale and acted as chief operating officer for several years.
On his journey to becoming a ski-mountain mogul, Cook also became seriously engaged with philanthropy. He served on the board of directors for the Franklin Memorial Hospital, where he eventually became chairman, and then later at Carrabassett Valley Academy. From 1989 to 1999, Cook also served on the board of the Maine Community Foundation.
All together, Cook has been a member of more than a dozen boards since arriving in Maine, and he even cofounded two nonprofits himself: Common Good Ventures, a consulting firm that utilizes the expertise of business professionals to help nonprofit organizations, and Maine Network Partners, which brings together nonprofits, businesses, and government entities with aligned missions. “I have become really interested in these collaborative efforts, and how organizations with similar missions can network,” says Cook. His business background influenced the idea. “Mergers often happen in order to get a job done better. The top-down approach gets flattened,” he says, “and I was interested in how to make that work in the nonprofit world.”
After leaving Sugarloaf and the American Skiing Company in 1999, Cook led Jackson Laboratory’s for-profit department that bred and sold genetically engineered mice for use in research. He eventually became senior vice president for government relations and special projects, but he resigned in 2003 when local news outlets revealed that there were several discrepancies on his resume.
This was, admittedly, a difficult period for Cook. “It was a serious mistake,” he says, “but I dealt with it head on.” Cook credits a several-month-long pilgrimage to Spain with helping him come to terms with the upheaval and move on from it. “After a mistake like that, you feel like focusing on where your strengths are,” he says. True to that mission, Cook founded Sugarloaf Global Partners in early 2004, a ski-industry consulting firm that took him across the country, as well as to China and Japan.
And then Saddleback came knocking this past September.
Founded in 1959, the mountain had been floundering for many years; lack of advertising, few modern upgrades, and a close proximity to the much larger Sugarloaf weren’t helping. But the new millennium brought changes when the Berry family from nearby Farmington purchased Saddleback in 2003 and began an extensive $25 million renovation of the mountain. Upgrades have included a 2,400-square-foot base lodge, new chairlifts and grooming equipment, a 40 percent increase in skiable terrain, and enhanced snowmaking equipment that can now cover 85 percent of the mountain. With 8,000 acres to work with, more than double the area of Sugarloaf, Cook will oversee an ambitious ten-year development plan that includes building five additional lifts to service new trails and terrain, more base facilities, and a four-season resort village.
With the many draws of the Rangeley Lakes region spreading out from the base of the mountain, Cook likens Saddleback’s potential to Lake Tahoe. In addition to the obvious—skiing—he mentions the area’s renowned hiking, fishing, hunting, and golf.
“If we do a good job doing what we do,” says Cook, glancing at an oversized trail map on the wall, “then people will come to Rangeley and do other things, too.” He believes that the Saddleback expansion will spur economic growth in the region, which will in turn create more opportunities for both the mountain and the town. It’s a belief that informs the work of his Maine Network Partners. “In rural areas, everything is connected and dependent,” he says. “No one restaurant can be the draw to an area, no one store, and no one Saddleback, but together, then there’s something to it.”
Optimism abounds at Saddleback in the days just before the snow begins to fly. Still, Cook admits that he is always nervous before the snow falls and the ski lifts whir to life. “I have some anxious, sleepless nights this time of year,” he confesses.
Cook commutes to work each day from his farmhouse in Kingfield. A nearly fifty-mile drive through lush farmland, primeval forests, and crisscrossing bends in the Sandy River, the ride provides plenty of time for reflection, and perhaps it has helped Cook adopt his Zen-like outlook: “I feel like a farmer some days…you do all the work, and then you watch and wait.”