Generations of Gillett: sons team with Colorado business titan.

Author:Taylor, Mike
Position:George Gillett
 
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George Gillett III is sitting with Mel Coleman Jr. at the BC Natural Foods headquarters in Golden, talking about the previous day when Gillett stopped with his wife at a hotdog-and-burger joint in Denver called Mustard's Last Stand. * "Guess who's making their hamburgers?" Gillett says with exaggerated smugness. * Both men are dressed like a couple of guys who would fit in at an eatery by that name--Coleman in jeans ("yeah, but they're pressed jeans," he emphasizes) and shirt opened at the collar, and Gillett in casual white slacks and short-sleeve shirt.

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Coleman leans back and smiles. He already knows the answer to Gillett's half-question, half-proclamation.

Yep, Mustard's Last Stand, just off the University of Denver campus, uses Coleman's Natural Meats for its burgers. Mustard's Last Stand, Good Times burger restaurants, and for their burritos, some Chipotle restaurants. Add to that 1,600 grocery stores where Coleman's Natural Meats are sold and you begin to understand Gillett's look of satisfaction.

BC Natural Foods, consisting of six natural or organic meat companies under one roof, is just one of many businesses under the umbrella of 66-year-old George Gillett Jr.'s privately held Booth Creek Management Corp.

Also sharing space under that crowded umbrella are two car dealerships in Silverthorne, six regional ski resorts (none in Colorado), an organic landscape-supply company, the giant Swift & Co. meat operation in Greeley, a Seattle-to-Alaska tug-and-barge operation, and the NHL Montreal Canadiens--Canada's version of the New York Yankees.

The patriarch George Gillett Jr. oversees them all from Vail, but calling the day-to-day shots under him is a Booth Creek Management Corp. team that includes three of his four sons--Geordie, 34; Alex, 31: and Foster, 28--plus Jim Skidmore and longtime business associate Jeff Joyce, who works out of Atlanta. Foster's twin, Andrew, is the only Gillett son not in the family enterprise.

Of all the businesses, BC (for Booth Creek) Natural Foods, directed by President George Chivari, might be the most exciting. Sales for the first half of 2004 were up 32 percent over a year ago, and BC Natural Foods projects revenues between $350 million and $375 million this year.

"If you look at all natural meats right now in terms of an animal-raising practice, we're probably 1 1/2 percent of the whole deal," Mel Coleman Jr. says. "But I do think that reaching 5 to 10 percent is a totally doable deal."

With Coleman Natural Meats securing an agreement last year to supply beef for Good Times restaurants--a natural-sector first with any burger chain--and with BC Natural Foods a partial supplier for burrito giant Chipotle, the biggest challenge for BC Natural Foods has been not with landing customers, but with meeting demand. In fact, BC Natural Foods cannot even meet the supply demands to be Chipotle's sole supplier, and the nation's natural-meat supply as a whole is hard-pressed to accommodate Chipotle's decision to go natural.

Even the rosiest projections for Coleman Meats, the decided golden child under the BC Natural Foods' six-company banner, have been exceeded by 116 percent this year. It's a good problem to have, but not as ideal as it seems.

Unlike conventional meat processors, BC Natural Foods and Coleman can't simply order up more cattle. Meeting natural and/or organic standards means finding ranchers willing to raise the animals without using antibiotics or growth hormones and feeding them only vegetarian food. Forging those agreements with ranchers takes time.

Other than that, times are good for the nation's leading natural-meat line, and seemingly so for its parent company, Booth Creek Management Corp.

Not that it's easy to decipher what exactly Booth Creek Management Corp. consists of.

George Gillett III--or Geordie, as he's known--declines to even add up the total companies in the Gillett family business fold today, a testament to the astonishing force with which George Jr. has come back from a bankruptcy 12 years ago that cost him his beloved Vail ski resort, which he bought in 1985 and transformed into one of the world's top ski destinations.

"We look at them more as platforms," says Geordie Gillett of Booth Creek's approach to acquiring and developing businesses.

Gillett III himself oversees the landscape-supply company Sierra Organics, the Grand Targhee ski resort in Wyoming (a Gillett family holding, not a Booth Creek Management property), and BC Natural Foods. Among the younger brothers, Alex oversees the two Silverthorne car dealerships, although he works out of Booth Creek's Atlanta satellite office, while Foster works directly under Montreal Canadiens and Molson Centre President Pierre Boivin, living in Canada most of the year.

"Usually we won't just get into a totally new industry with one business," Geordie Gillett explains. "There's a plan there--either there's a really good management team in place and we leverage that management team by adding on companies, or there's a geographic-expansion opportunity or product-line expansion opportunities."

BC Natural Foods saw those very qualities in Coleman Natural Meats, and that's why BC acquired the company in October 2002. Among other things, BC inherited the most established natural-meat entity in the industry and the knowledge of Mel Coleman Jr., a cattleman/businessman who knows as much about the natural-beef sector as anyone alive and who now serves as chairman of the Coleman line. The acquisition of California-based Petaluma Poultry around the same time gave BC a similarly lofty name in the poultry segment to round out a six-company group--the whole enterprise largely, though not solely, under the direction of young George Gillett III, one of Booth Creek's managing partners.

THE LIFE OF GEORDIE

A distant aunt decided sometime during a Fourth of July party that 5-year-old George III needed a name that would distinguish him from his father and his grandfather. The younger Gillett isn't quite sure where "Geordie" came from, but he's fairly sure his aunt's determination to affix that name to him was encouraged by a few adult beverages.

If that sounds like a typical middle-America childhood memory, other aspects of Geordie's upbringing are the stuff of fantasy--at least for any boy captivated by larger-than-life sports figures. In 1967, three years before Geordie was born, his father and two partners bought the bankrupt Harlem Globetrotters from the estate of the famous clowning basketball team's deceased founder, Abe Saperstein. To this day, Geordie still sounds astonished when he recalls watching the Globetrotters' Saturday morning cartoon show on TV--the program his dad came up with in 1970 as a way of repopulating the team's aging fan base with young followers. And then, days later, finding himself hanging out with the real-life Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and Twiggy Sanders during halftimes when the towering players would shuffle into the lockerroom, plop down on a bench and light up cigarettes.

Sometimes, between dates at Chicago Stadium or Madison Square Garden, the whole Globetrotter team would pull into tiny Wausau, Wis., and sit down to dinner with the Gillett family. Under Gillett Jr., the Globetrotters were the world's No. 1 traveling show, playing in more than 100 countries--in Africa, Europe, even once on an aircraft carrier.

According to Geordie, his father still recalls that during his 10-year ownership reign, the Globetrotters compiled a record of more than 3,000 victories and one loss. Staged games or no, that's an impressive run, and George Gillett Jr. isn't shy about saying so.

As Geordie relates, "My dad still is like: 'Red Aeurbach (the Boston Celtics fabled coach and general manager), he's got nothing. I'm the most successful basketball general manager in history.'"

(Gillett Jr. did not want to be inverviewed for this story, and Booth Creek Management declined to be listed in the ColoradoBiz private companies ranking that accompanies this article.)

Selling the Globetrotters in 1976, George Jr. used some of those proceeds in 1978 to buy the sagging meatpacking plant Packerland, in Green Bay, Wis. Interestingly, Gillett applied the same principle in getting Packerland back on its feet that he had used to reel in young potential Globetrotter fans by dramatizing the players' lives on the cartoon TV show.

George Jr. was a consultant with Chicago-based McKinsey & Co. when he was summoned by the Wisconsin governor to figure out what was ailing Green Bay's largest employer, Packerland. After studying the matter, Gillett reported back that Packerland's chief problem was the cattle. They were mostly dairy cattle and thus poorly marbled (and even worse-marbled if they'd ever been milked) and the meat was unacceptably lean by grocers' standards.

And yet in 1978 Gillett bought the company. Then, rather than jettison the indigenous inventory, Gillett did just as he had done with the Globe-trotters: He didn't change the product; he changed the customers. Instead of running from the beef's qualities, he embraced them, creating a marketing campaign around "lean beef," a category that didn't exist in the '70s.

Lean is no inferior meat at all, so Gillett's message went, but rather healthier and just as tasty--the best choice in the meat section. Packerland came back, and Gillett's reputation in the meat industry was cemented.

Bold, yes. But Gillett's penchant for boldness was established before his meat experience. As a 27-year old with McKinsey, he phoned NFL commissioner Pete Roselle in the mid-60s and asked if there were any ownership opportunities in the league. Roselle, believing the young caller was from the Gillette razor empire, talked at length with Gillett and ultimately gave him a lead on a new American Football League expansion franchise, the Miami Dolphins.

Gillett wound up with a 22-percent share in the new team. Although he'd sold that interest by the time the Dolphins...

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