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March 21, 2011 | last updated December 15, 2011 3:54 pm
2011 Business Leaders of the Year

Ski lift | Andy Shepard brings the biathlon world and its millions to Aroostook County

Tim Greenway
Tim Greenway
Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center

VIEW: Business Leaders of the Year 2011: Andy Shepard

VIEW: See more Andy Shepard and the Maine Winter Sports Center

ANDY SHEPARD

Age: 53

Favorite place outside work: Any place with his family

Leadership icon: Teddy Roosevelt, who had an "indefatigable personality and would not take no for an answer if he believed his cause was just and fair. And he thought big."

Maine's biggest challenge: Its size. "Infrastructure ... is too expensive for our level of productivity."

Maine's biggest opportunity: Leveraging our sense of place and the unique and generous personality of Maine people.

Best business advice: "Have a mission that will change the world. Be passionate about it and relentless in finding people who will share your passion."

Andy Shepard once harbored dreams of becoming a cross-country skiing champion. In 1978, he left his forestry engineering degree program at the University of Maine in Orono for Colorado to train. "I thought I would make the U.S. ski team in 1980," Shepard remembers. "I had everything going for me, except I wasn't fast."

He didn't finish his degree (although in 2006 UMaine conferred an honorary doctorate upon him), and he didn't make the ski team. But 34 years later, he is running a remarkable nonprofit based on cross-country skiing that is pouring millions into northern Maine, one of the state's most economically challenged regions.

Imagining that he can do what many others deem quixotic or implausible is a pattern that has persisted throughout Shepard's life. Small- and medium-sized visions are not enough; he likes them super-sized. Who could imagine, after all, that it was possible to create a world-class cross-country ski center in Aroostook County that hosts international, widely televised sporting events and became a model for rural economic development? Or that biathlon races in Fort Kent and Presque Isle would be broadcast to more than 120 million viewers in Europe, captivated not just by the sport but by the region hosting it?

In early February, Shepard's nonprofit, Maine Winter Sports Center, hosted two Biathlon World Cup events at its two ski facilities: the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. About 140 athletes from around the world competed, drawing between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors to the two northern towns and generating as much as $10 million for the area.

Since 2003, the centers have hosted many races, including world championships, national championships, Olympic trials, a previous World Cup biathlon and junior Olympic championships. While the accumulated economic gain is hard to calculate, Shepard says cross-country skiing has helped buoy the local economy when the other major winter moneymaker up there, snowmobiling, has failed.

But when Shepard first started talking in the late 1990s about his idea of using cross-country skiing to help enrich northern Maine, many people scoffed. They asked, "Why would you want to spend millions in infrastructure in northern Maine?'" he recalls.

His answer: Aroostook County needed it. The county's traditional industries of potato farming and lumber could no longer sustain the region. But the county had things going for it: its ski heritage, natural resources, long winters with early snows and people. "The incredible warmth and generosity of the people there lends itself to a tourism-based economy," Shepard says.

Not everyone rejected Shepard's idea. Owen Wells, the head of Libra Foundation, a Portland-based philanthropic organization worth $114 million in 2009, "got it right away," Shepard says. "I invited him to breakfast at Down-East [Village] Restaurant in Yarmouth. So there ought to be a plaque there with, 'Birthplace of the Maine Winter Sports Center'."

By the end of that same day, Wells had booked a flight north for himself, Shepard, two members of the International Biathlon Union and Gov. Angus King to start planning the project. Shepard says Wells pushed him to reach for lofty goals. "One of the most profound comments from him was that we weren't thinking big enough, and I had always thought of myself as a person capable of thinking big enough. So that set the tone for more serious thinking about the project."

The Maine Winter Sports Center opened in 1999, thanks to about $25 million from the Libra Foundation, which continues to support the center's $1.3 million annual budget.

A grander vision

Shepard looks straight at you as he talks. His tousled, graying hair and gentle demeanor mask his intense determination. Born in Anchorage in 1957, he traveled a lot as a child because his father was in the Navy. The family settled in Maine when Shepard was in the seventh grade and he met his wife, Betsy, when they were in high school in Yarmouth. They raised three children, one of whom, Walt, was on the U.S. Biathlon team.

Prior to leading the Maine Winter Sports Center, Shepard worked at L.L.Bean for 16 years as a product and merchandise manager. He says he developed his commitment to community service there, because the company encourages volunteerism. That's also when he joined the U.S. Biathlon Association, courtesy of L.L.Bean's sponsorship.

Volunteerism remains a central tenent in Shepard's life. Volunteers contributed millions of dollars' worth of labor and materials to build the center and operate the races. Without this help, Shepard says his idea would never have gone anywhere.

His hope for Maine is that it hosts the World Cup every two years. One advantage of its eastern location is viewers in Europe can watch the races live. He says European audiences are fascinated by the northern Maine culture, with its old ties to Europe, its natural environment and the people "who go against the grain of what Europeans perceive as the ugly American."

But biathlon fever shouldn't just be confined to Maine, says Shepard. He'd like to see more community ski centers replicated across the country, with many new biathlon training programs for children. In Maine, the center has set up a statewide program called Healthy Hometowns to encourage more children to ski by providing equipment, designing trails and helping build dedicated volunteer committees to run the program. So far about 100 communities and more than 6,500 kids are participating.

Shepard says ski programs for the young shouldn't just focus on physical fitness, but incorporate lessons about commitment to excellence, accountability and self-sacrifice. "They would develop athletes for success in life as well as sport," he says.

Sports, after all, is really just a metaphor for Shepard. "Sport for us is a means to the end. It is about developing a generation of healthy, centered young men and women."

Maine Winter Sports Center
552 Main St., Caribou
Founded: 1999
Employees: 10 full time, 40 part time
Budget: $1.3 million
Contact: 492-1440
www.mainewsc.org

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