From early December through March, boardroom regular and high-flying executive Mario Concha spends almost every day on the slopes. But don’t think that the former president of Georgia Pacific Corporation’s Chemical Division is on vacation—he’s hard at work as a bilingual private ski instructor in Vail, Colorado.
After speaking with Concha, one gets the sense that he doesn’t do anything half-throttle. The businessman, who spent his illustrious career with companies like Occidental Chemicals and Union Carbide Corporation, never intended to be a ski instructor. Concha was on a vacation in Vail in 2008, when he heard about a position with the mountain.
“I had no inkling when I went on the trip, that my life would take a turn,” says Concha, who said he took the interview on a whim. “By the end of the trip, I was hired for the next ski season.”
With a laugh, Concha points out that “it was the only time in my life I’ve been interviewed on the snow. They wanted to see both my skiing ability and my people skills.”
Spending over six hours a day on the mountain, Concha teaches private adult ski classes, mostly to Spanish speakers. The language is his mother tongue, and Concha enjoys meeting international guests.
“The majority are from Mexico, but I have also taught people from Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and other Latin American countries,” Concha says.
Applied Minerals Inc., Chairman of the Board
The Atlanta Opera, Board of Directors
The Plaza Group, Former Board of Directors (2005–2011)
One of the reasons Concha enjoys working for Vail is their commitment to safety. In addition to classroom and snow training, instructors must be certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, and keep up to date every year on safety issues. “You really bond with people with whom you spend the entire ski day. You talk about lots more than skiing,” Concha says.
His forty-plus years of managerial experience helped him transition to instructor. As he points out, people skills and leadership skills are applicable in all fields.
“People learn differently from one another. Some people are more visual, more cognitive, or more auditory,” Concha says. “You have to talk to different people differently. That’s something you learn in business—people perceive the world in different ways.”
Concha first learned to ski in Switzerland during the 1970s. He was working for Union Carbide and living in Geneva. He has skied every year since then.
Even with his ski instructor gig, Concha is still very active in the business world, serving as the chairman of the board of Applied Minerals. When he first started working at Vail, he worked full time, in addition to his boardroom obligations.
“After three years, I decided maybe part-time would be better,” Concha says. “With a full-time schedule, when my friends or my kids came out, I couldn’t ski with them. When my girlfriend came, she had to go to ski school with someone else. I needed to make a change.”
The part-time schedule also allows him to travel to New York at least once a month for his work with Allied Minerals. The company mines halloysite clay, a white mineral with a unique molecular structure, that shows a lot of promise as a natural bicompatible nanomaterial that does no harm to the environment.
“The company is mining and marketing really high-tech stuff,” Concha says. Applied Minerals markets the clay for use in petroleum cracking catalysts, molecular sieves, and as flame retardant in electrical cables.
When the conversation goes molecular, Concha’s education as a chemical engineer shines. He says that the degree “teaches you to think a certain way, which is important if you are going into an industry with technology. It helps you understand what the business is all about.”
“Emotionally, I’m a millennial,” Concha says of himself, referring to his need to be constantly plugged-in and on-the-go. He considers himself a digital nomad. In addition to being based part-time in Vail, he travels to Atlanta and New York at least once a month.
“I consider myself a citizen of the world. I’ve done business in Canada, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia,” Concha says. “I feel comfortable in different parts of the world. Having a Hispanic background certainly helped that, and helps me in each of my roles today.”
In the Director’s Seat With Esther Aguilera
Esther Aguilera: Your decision to become a ski instructor is unique for a corporate board director! Are there any skills you’ve acquired on the slopes that you feel have helped you in the boardroom?
Mario Concha: The key skill that is common to both the boardroom and to teaching skiing is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely. Also, the realization that communication is more than about what you say. It is really about how people perceive what you say. A good communicator regularly checks for understanding.
EA: How would you describe the diversity of the board of directors of Applied Minerals in terms of skill sets and areas of expertise? Can you give an example of when diverse viewpoints benefited such a highly technical company?
MC: The board of directors of Applied Minerals brings together diverse skills. In addition to our CEO, who brings product and market knowledge, we have board members with technical expertise and experience in commercializing specialty products. We also have board members with financial backgrounds and corporate governance expertise.