From Missiles to Mountains

Alan Wechsler

From Missiles to Mountains

Business school alum changes careers but finds military defense command and ski resorts have much in common

By Alan Wechsler

When Greg Dallas was hired two years ago to run the Sugar Bowl resort in California’s Lake Tahoe region, he brought a background unique to the ski business: The former Air Force commander used to oversee the launching and orbital control of military satellites.

But as Dallas tells it, there’s not that much difference.

“Almost every aspect of the military is operational – communications, process and accountability, goal and standards,” he says. “At Sugar Bowl, there’s explosives to shoot after a snowstorm, parking lots to clear, lifts to operate, snow grooming equipment to direct, a hotel and concessions to run. When you bring all that together, my background really helps me.”

Dallas, 49, is CEO at Sugar Bowl, a 1,650-acre resort where one of two base lodges is in a snowbound village – there are no cars; guests arrive by gondola or Sno-Cat – and which was home to California’s first chairlift. He came to the ski industry after more than a decade with the Air Force and credits UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business for easing his transition from the military to the business world.

“I was impressed with the professors there, as well as the students,” he says. “Every class I took there addressed how technology was leveraged in the business place.”

Dallas grew up in Pasadena and excelled at a sport not usually associated with Southern California: ice hockey. In ninth grade, he moved to Michigan to live with an uncle so he could compete on an American Junior A hockey team, the St. Clair Shores Falcons. Dallas played 80 games a year against some of the best teenage players in the country, taking high school classes independently so he could compete across Canada and the U.S.

He was recruited by the New York Rangers while still in high school, but Dallas had another ambition. His uncle had been a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II and spent time in a German prisoner-of-war camp before being liberated by soldiers under the command of Gen. George S. Patton. Dallas grew up enthralled by his uncle’s tales and enrolled at the Air Force Academy. His original plan was to become a pilot, but that didn’t work out.

“After I signed my life away, my eyes went bad,” he says. “So I focused on engineering.”

Upon graduating, Dallas went into the Air Force Space Command. He spent 11 years working at Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the Space & Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

His work, top-secret at the time, involved controlling satellite orbits and looking for signs of missile launches around the world, as well as overseeing satellite launches via the Titan IV-B rocket and the Space Shuttle. Dallas provided defense support during the first Gulf War and managed defense contracts worth up to $100 million.

After leaving the Air Force, he looked for a university that offered combined study in business and computer science. He found The Paul Merage School of Business at UCI, where he earned an MBA in information technology and accounting in 1999. Dallas was drawn to the campus’s strong ties to the local business community, which gave him access to industry leaders and entrepreneurs in IT, biomedical and healthcare companies.

“Because I was in a transition from the military to the business world and wanted to focus on IT and medium-sized businesses, these connections were very attractive,” he says.

Another appeal was the way courses incorporated technology and its use in business. It was the dawn of the dot-com era, and some of the classes were spent trying to figure out how companies with no revenue could sell so much stock, Dallas recalls. Then the market crashed, and they found out. “They all went belly-up,” he says. “But it was so fun to be in school and exploring the early days of e-commerce.”

After receiving his MBA and taking positions in computer consulting and finance, Dallas was offered a management position at Mammoth Mountain in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada. Mammoth – with 3,000 employees – is one of the biggest ski resorts in the nation. He worked there for 14 years, eventually becoming one of the top executives. When Sugar Bowl called, he jumped at the opportunity. “These types of jobs don’t come up very often,” Dallas says. “It was the right time.”

His first year at Sugar Bowl went smoothly, but he would soon face a trial – not by fire, but by snow. The winter of 2016-17 brought a record 26 feet of snow in January alone. Big dumps continued throughout the season – the most snow Tahoe had received in a century. It required a nonstop work to control avalanches, dig out ski equipment and groom slopes through the winter and early spring. “Unbelievably challenging,” Dallas says.

With that winter finally behind him, he is now leading efforts to grow Sugar Bowl skier visits and turn the region into a year-round attraction. The resort is near the Pacific Crest Trail, one of the most scenic pathways in the country, and Donner Summit, named for trapped pioneers who had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive during the winter of 1846-47. Yet the area had not, in Dallas’ opinion, taken advantage of its storied history and potential for recreational activities.

“Because I was in a transition from the military to the business world and wanted to focus on IT and medium-sized businesses, these connections were very attractive.”

Using his business acumen, he is collaborating with local leaders to build opportunities for visitors to learn about its history, hike or otherwise enjoy recreational access to Donner Summit during the summer months. At the same time, he has brought San Francisco chefs to the mountain to revamp the food, is growing the summer wedding business, and hopes to host events attracting athletes from the urban centers on the California coast. That includes reviving the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, which Sugar Bowl also owns, and making cross-country skiing appeal to a broader audience.

The slopes still draw Dallas, who learned to ski at age 3 at Mammoth and keeps a pair of super-wide powder skis in the corner of his office. But duty, as always, comes first.

“I don’t ski as much as I’d like,” he confesses. “There’s always something to be done.”