THE MAKING OF BMA: The Third Chapter (2000-2016)

by Kirk Dwyer (BMA Head of School 2000-2016)

On June 12-14, 2020, BMA will celebrate 50 years since its inception. As we prepare for this exciting milestone, we present to you a monthly series dedicated to exploring the academy’s rich history. Tune in to learn more about “The Making of BMA” and discover the people, places, and moments that have defined North America’s first sports and ski racing academy.

Since its beginning in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,178 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA prides itself on having seen the majority of its graduates enroll in university or college programs. 

To learn more about BMA’s celebratory reunion, CLICK HERE.

This month, we share with you an inside look from Kirk Dwyer on his tenure as the academy’s third Head of School from 2000 to 2016. This story follows Warren Witherell’s account of the academy’s foundation and Finn Gundersen’s account of the establishment of BMA’s campus.

BMA: The Third Chapter (2000-2016)

We arrived at BMA following the 30th Celebration in June of 2000. There had been two previous headmasters in Warren and Finn, and two fairly distinct periods for BMA. 

Kirk, Robin and Chase in 2000

Warren’s era was all about the founding of the first sports and ski academy, enjoying a virtual monopoly and resulting in national dominance. And, it being the early seventies, BMA also enjoyed relative freedom in terms of academic structure and expectations of what a school “should be.” It was powered by high idealism and a youthful creative energy led, as Warren would often say, “by the kids.” 

Finn’s time included an extended period when BMA continued to be the dominant ski academy nationally, even internationally. This was accompanied by a significant growth in the school population and a maturation of the ski academy model to a honed “Burke Way.” At the same time, there was a proliferation of full-time and winter-term academies nationally, and corresponding increased competition, as athletes could choose to stay closer to home rather than make the trek to East Burke. There was a one-year interim between Finn’s departure and my arrival.

In 2000, BMA faced significant challenges. Enrollment had declined from a high of approximately 115 in the late nineties to 74 students. Burke Mountain Ski Area was in bankruptcy. I reported to the board that on a performance basis, we were fourth in Vermont with other programs in the eastern region still stronger. There were widespread questions whether Burke needed to add other snow sports such as snowboarding and intensive soul searching about whether BMA could hope to be the best once again. We had an aging campus in need of revitalization with competitors who had made significant capital improvements and were enjoying significant momentum as a result.

It’s not unusual for great businesses or sports teams to enjoy periods of relative dominance followed by a plateau and subsequent slow decline. Often this is difficult to discern for those most closely involved. Not only was there a proliferation of ski academies during the late ’90s and early 2000’s but also a number of the top prep schools aggressively strengthened their ski programs and effectively competed with the ski academies.

During the interview process, it was apparent that there was support by the board of trustees to declare the vision for BMA to be the best ski academy in the United States once again. I have had the good fortune to be involved with three great ski programs and believe to achieve such success you need to aspire to be the best and openly state that intent. 

Vital to our relative confidence was the declared support of the Graham family to provide support for key strategic initiatives central to our plan. The Grahams had backed an existing capital campaign with a match and although the campaign had not gained traction, they agreed to advance their match in support of key initiatives of our turnaround effort. 

Boards generally are composed of trustees who provide support in the areas of wealth, wisdom, or work. Multiple members of the Graham family actively were involved in all three areas. Most notably Don Graham, the patriarch of the family, effectively led our initiative to buy Burke Mountain Ski Area out of bankruptcy and operate the ski area for five years. In this time of need, the board provided great support and was a true working board. Warren was on the board at this time and very actively involved. He never made real suggestions but rather served as a sounding board and openly voiced his full support for the tough decisions being made.

Associated with the decline in student enrollment was a corresponding operating deficit. The staff size had remained the same as when the enrollment was 115 students. Based on the vision to regain our position as the top ski academy in the United States, we advanced a strategic initiative of “sizing to quality” and decided to reduce the student body to approximately 65 with a staff number appropriate. This decision effectively created a scarcity of open places for enrollment and was critical to fast-track our effort to regain competitive strength. 

The commitment from the Graham family allowed us to invest in our program at the same time we were taking the necessary steps to achieve financial stability. We proactively renovated virtually every building on campus with the objective to leverage the Vermont farmhouse and close-knit community nature in contrast to the brand new buildings of our close competitors. Above all, we prioritized the vision of being the best ski academy in the US with a focus on our identity as the true ski academy – a school with a focus on skiing and academics with differentiation based on our trust-based Honor Code. We were able to attract Wolfgang Frandl (who had formerly served a stint with the Austrian men’s ski team after time at both GMVS and SMS) who lent credibility to our ski program and was a true partner in realizing our central strategic points of emphasis.

Lessons I learned from this period, prior to and since, are, first, you need to state boldly and openly what your vision is, and then predicate every decision on whether it is aligned. Secondly, change is really hard and especially so at a program with a rich history and traditions. However, when you see where you need to go – you need to act immediately. Enacting significant change becomes increasingly difficult with subsequent years. Relentless innovation became one of our most important mantras.

Kirk with athletes in 2009

Regaining competitive strength actually occurred very rapidly. We soon again had the most athletes named to the US Ski Team and our ownership of Burke Mountain greatly enhanced the reputation of it as the ski racer’s mountain. Our smaller school population led to a differentiation and clarity of vision relative to other programs. Under the leadership of Matt Whitcomb our relatively small Nordic team steadily grew and became very strong. Revitalizing the culture of Burke’s trust-based Honor Code took more time. 

While some elements of our efforts to be the best occurred relatively quickly and could be led by a few, it took about five years to really enact the hoped-for engagement in culture, as this requires the commitment of virtually all. We did have numerous disciplinary issues at first, which stood in contrast with our last nine years when we didn’t have any major issues regarding alcohol or drugs. Over time, leadership increasingly came from our students, and the principles of “There are no leaders – we are all leaders” and, “No single person is more important than any other,” took root. I have been told by many of our graduates of the pride they took in our trust-based community and the remarkable lack of disciplinary issues. They said that no one wanted to be the person to let down this record. While we were again the dominant ski academy and program in the US for many of these years, I know most of us involved take greater pride in the work ethic, culture, and community based on trust which was built through the daily efforts of every single community member: teachers, coaches, staff, and students. 

The five-year ownership of Burke Mountain Ski Area proved to be a watershed for BMA. With widespread community support and enthusiasm we had break-even operation the first year and stable operation for the length of our ownership. We had two great ski area operators in Ford Hubbard and Dick Andross who led the operations with committed leadership support in Don Graham, Peter Murphy, Jake Wheeler, and board chair Bob DeVore. 

What is interesting is that the original intent, at the time of our purchase of the mountain from the group who initially bought it at auction, was just to try to operate the Training Hill. It soon became apparent that if we could significantly increase season’s pass sales there would be more viability and long-term opportunity through operation of the full mountain. Moving this forward required tremendous volunteerism and community support. It was of great significance to the larger community to keep Burke Mountain alive. We were clear that sustained ownership by BMA did not make sense. The ski area needed more significant capital investments and we were not in the business of operating a ski area long-term. Don Graham again led in exploring opportunities to sell the area to an investor who would appreciate the unique relationship between the ski area and BMA. The sale of the ski area led to the creation of the Graham endowment and was accompanied by a strong ski rights agreement between the academy and mountain ownership. Furthermore, there was a back-end payment agreement in the case of a future transfer of ownership, which indeed transpired, and is what led to the recent significant increase in the Graham endowment.

Kirk with athletes in 2008

With our “sizing to quality” initiative and excess admissions demand by qualified student-athletes, BMA was well-positioned for the economic downturn of 2008-09, in contrast to many of our competitors. Indeed, after our first two years, we had balanced annual operating budgets, and were able to eliminate debt and build a healthy cash reserve. This served to provide confidence for supporters and benefactors. The creation of a small but growing endowment was also significant in showing our families, students, teachers, staff, and long-term supporters that BMA was here to stay.

The strength of our student body closely correlated with exceptional college placement. Associated with the “sizing to quality” was limiting class size to fifteen students and the desired benchmark of all faculty having master’s degrees. We had strong leadership in academics but the real strength was in the collective, where the entire faculty felt empowered to lead our program forward and knew they were an integral part of the whole.

We left in June 2016. After sixteen years, BMA was ready for new leadership and I welcomed new challenges. It is significant to leave a great institution but much more to leave a great life. BMA can be challenging with the continual quest to be the best, making for a very competitive environment, and where resting on one’s laurels is not an option. 

With the distance of time, I can now see even better what I think makes BMA unique. The trust-based Honor Code, the deep respect held by our students for their school, and for each other, and the incredible balance between camaraderie and challenge that our faculty and coaches bring to their work with their student-athletes every day—all are points of pride I felt then and still resonate at BMA today. 

I also recall many smaller things that contributed to its unique qualities, like sitting in the dining hall at a table of students and staff together, engaged in lively discourse, sometimes serious, but often laced with a lot of humor. And I recall fondly the many times students and staff would swing into my office, just to ask a quick question, and end up staying to talk at length. I remember the happy sounds of the campus hub of Frazier, where interaction between all occurred so easily. And who can forget the ever-present and ever-changing view of the Gap, awesome, humbling, and grounding for all of us, a reminder that time moves on, things change, and we all must adjust to whatever is the new reality, and keep growing.

The Willoughby Gap

I look forward to reconnecting with many of you this June to celebrate BMA’s 50th Anniversary together, to share our stories and recollections of our time there, and to look out at that awesome view.