February 06, 1989 12:00 PM

On the frigid north face of Vail Mountain, an inexperienced skier stands petrified atop a frighteningly steep trail. Suddenly, a middle-age Samaritan in a ski-patrol parka approaches. “Can I help you down the mountain?” he asks. The novice skier, marooned on the expert slope after boarding the wrong lift, nods in gratitude, and the rescuer patiently guides him in a slow descent, giving him pointers all the way. Safely down, the relieved novice offers to pay for the lesson. “That won’t be necessary,” says George Gillett Jr., 50, extending a gloved hand. “I own the mountain.”

In the three years since he bought Vail (actually, the government owns the mountain, but he picked up the lifts, ski school, restaurants, lodges and just about everything else that nature didn’t put there), Gillett has inspired dozens of such stories. After paying $130 million for the resort set high in the Rockies, he set out to make Vail “totally user friendly,” and, as self-appointed director of quality control, he personally patrols the slopes to make sure skiers are finding happy trails. His attention to detail and the more than $52 million he has spent doubling the size of the resort (now America’s largest) to nearly 4,000 acres are showing impressive returns. This year, while revenues are flat on many other peaks, Gillett’s playground is having its busiest winter ever.

Gillett’s face-lift will be getting its closest scrutiny yet during the next two weeks, as Vail plays host to the 43 teams competing in the World Alpine Ski Championships, the first time they have been held in America since 1950. To prepare for the event, Gillett moved to Vail for the winter, forsaking his home in Nashville, his retreat in Pebble Beach, his jet and his 1.2-million-acre Oregon ranch. He has even enrolled three of his four sons in a slopeside prep school (the oldest is a college freshman) and is considering permanent relocation to Vail. But he has hardly narrowed his field of vision to this picturesque little town (pop. 5,000). His far-flung business empire, which consists of a dozen TV stations, meat-packing plants and extensive agricultural operations, grosses more than $1 billion a year. Gillett, who won’t say how much he is worth (“I didn’t take my company private for nothing”), negotiates $100 million deals from his kitchen table as casually as if he were ordering out for pizza. Nor does business, however pressing, seem to deter him from a chance to hunt, fish or play golf. He flew to England last year to caddie for his friend, two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, figuring, “I’d never get there any other way.” The lark earned him four days of sore shoulders and the ultimate indignity for a man of Gillett’s wealth: In his caddie uniform, he was refused entry to the clubhouse.

Gillett isn’t used to having doors closed on him. The son of a wealthy Racine, Wis., surgeon, he says he began looking for a business to buy when he was still in high school. By leaving the “Jr.” off his name and doing business over the phone, he sometimes gave prospective contacts the impression they were speaking to his father. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, and George enrolled at Amherst as a premed student. Trouble was, he says, “I wasn’t just at the bottom of my class—I was the bottom of my class.” He was suspended after three years there, and his father refused to support him any longer.

Gillett paid his way through Dominican College in Racine by working the graveyard shift as an American Motors inspector. He graduated into a job as a paper salesman, helped start a computer firm and moved into management consulting. But then, he says, he remembered his father telling him, “There’s no reason why you can’t spend your life doing something fun.”

At age 27, Gillett called National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle on a flier “to see if there were any teams for sale.” In 1967 he ended up paying $1 million plus for a 22 percent stake in the Miami Dolphins, with some financial backing by a friend from Racine. Less than a year later, Gillett sold his interest in the Dolphins and bought the Harlem Globetrotters for $3.7 million. He sold the Globetrotters in 1975 and went on to buy the Packerland meat-packing company, a chain of Midwestern newspapers and, eventually, the TV stations.

Not surprisingly, Gillett is a heavy borrower, some say too heavy, as in the case of his acquisition of six TV stations from Storer Communications for $1.3 billion in 1987. However, he is now in the process of selling off at least four of the stations. Ever the entrepreneur, last month Gillett purchased Peck Foods, which makes lunch meats, from Sara Lee. He won’t say how much he paid for it, but the company grosses a reported $500 million a year. According to one investment analyst, Gillett “operates with so much leverage, it’s scary.” Says Gillett: “Nothing is ever accomplished without risk.”

Gillett insists everything is going according to plan, and he certainly doesn’t have the look of a worried man. Although he wakes up at 5:30 A.M. to tackle his reading, he is as likely to begin a new Tom Clancy novel as he is to pore over the financial documents faxed in during the night. “George is the most unstructured person I have ever met,” says Ed Karrels, the president of Gillett’s Nashville-based Gillett Holdings. “Sometimes I lose important papers,” Gillett admits, but what he lacks in organization, he makes up for in cheek. Calling himself “a frustrated linebacker,” he explains his financial aggressiveness this way: “I’m 5’8″, 185 lbs., but I think I’m 6’2″, 250.”

Gillett first visited Vail in 1963; since then, he has returned winter after winter, first with Rose, his wife since 1967, and then with their four sons, because “no place else was as much fun.” Still, he says he always thought, “If I could own the place, I could make it better.” His chance came in 1985, when the Bass family of Dallas decided to sell its majority interest in Vail Associates, the company that manages the mountain. Gillett says he wasn’t planning to bid until the night before the deadline. “Rose woke me up at 2:30 A.M.,” he recalls. “It was obvious she hadn’t been sleeping. She said, ‘George, the boys and I want you to buy Vail.’ ” According to Rose, her sole reason was that having a ski resort as a home base “was a great way to keep the family together.”

There are other advantages. As owner, he gets to play host to all the Vail regulars, among them Gerry Ford, Jack Nicklaus, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey. He has made some new friends, including the chiefs of several major corporations, who drop by his relatively modest slope-side house to discuss snow conditions. And at the World Championships, the owner knows he’ll have no problem seeing the action. He plans to be at the finish line—with “three or four radios, so I can make sure everything goes smoothly.”

Lately Gillett has been spending more time on his exercise bike than on skis while recovering from recent knee surgery. But he doesn’t need to ski to love his life at Vail. As an investment, he admits, “I’ve seen better.” But he’s not inviting offers. “This is one asset,” he says of the resort, “that is definitely not for sale.”

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