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Look for Opportunity When It Comes, Says WSB Alumnus Michael Shannon

by Jane Burns Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A curious mind might veer off a planned course, but if you’re like Michael Shannon (BBA ’80) and take the new path offered, success can follow.

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Michael Shannon, the 2015 Wisconsin School of Business's Distinguished Alumni Award winner, shares his experiences in the travel and leisure businesses. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

Drink containers, banking, night school, spas, private equity, and even a European duke who died in a tragic ski accident have all been part of the career journey for Shannon, co-founder of KSL Capital Partners, LLC. His company, which launched in 2004, has raised more than $7 billion in equity capital commitments and invests exclusively in travel and leisure businesses.

“Lots of people look at jobs in different ways,” Shannon says.  “Do I look at the highest paying job or the best opportunity?  I would always go for the best opportunity.”

Shannon shared his experiences with Wisconsin MBA students and Wisconsin School of Business faculty and staff as part of the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series. He spoke of the importance of creating social and professional networks and how they can pay off down the road, recognizing opportunity, and of the importance of team building to ensure an organization’s success.

“The average person in the United States changes jobs every five years so don’t think of yourself in your current job. Think of yourself in what you want to become,” says Shannon, a recipient of the 2016 Horatio Alger Award, the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, and the 2010 Wisconsin School of Business Distinguished Business Alumni Award.

Success has put Shannon in a position to be generous to his alma mater, and he was one of the Wisconsin School of Business’s original naming partners in 2007. But it didn’t come easily, he says.

Shannon began his business path while an undergrad, selling stadium-friendly drink containers to raise money for a charity. With his Wisconsin degree in marketing and finance, Shannon headed for Chicago and took a job with First National Bank of Chicago, riding the train from Arlington Heights to Chicago every day. There were long days that also included graduate school at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, which his employer paid for as part of his management training program.

Building a large personal network

At the bank, Shannon worked on loans to media and entertainment companies, and then got involved with mergers and acquisitions in that industry. That led to his next step, away from a bank and into a whole new realm.

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François Ortalo-Magné, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, and Michael Shannon (BBA '80) share a laugh during Shannon's visit to campus. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

“I think there’s one lesson you learn in life, and that is to build your own personal social network,” he says. “Get to know everybody, be terminally curious, and sooner or later, good people know other good people and will come back to help you. “

A client suggested that Shannon work for him in television in Nashville, and he made the bold move to leave the bank. “My mom never understood why I gave up the job at the bank, with the free lunch every day, to go to work for a television station. But we saw an opportunity,” Shannon recalls.

He lived in his employer’s basement for a while until his wife, Mary Sue Goodspeed Shannon (B.S. ’81), could sell their Chicago-area home. The business began acquiring television and radio stations when the owner, who loved to ski, bought Vail Associates and its Colorado ski resorts.

“My boss says, ‘I don’t like the new president of the company we just bought. I think you ought to do it,’” Shannon says.

Shannon was 27 years old and became president and CEO of Vail Associates. He was nervous about it but determined to make it work and knows others could do the same in a similar situation.

“Go in, be grateful for the opportunity and take it, and see where it goes and then become an expert,” he says. “Try to learn everything you can and just ask questions. For two years, I basically went from pillar and post—learning how to drive snow cats and doing what we needed—to be the number one mountain resort in America and in the world.”

Combining work and passion

It wasn’t always perfect. Shannon got a big lesson in crisis management when a European duke took a run on a Beaver Creek Mountain course that was closed in preparation for the world championships. The duke headed down the closed course, hit a cable for a finish-line banner and was decapitated. Despite his company being cleared of any responsibility, Shannon and his staff saw what should have been a public relations moment in the sun turn into a P.R. nightmare.

“You’ll find that in life, sometimes you fail. You can do all sorts of great stuff, you can do everything, but it doesn’t always work,” he says.

From there opportunity awaited for Shannon in founding KSL Recreation Group and then his current private equity firm, KSL Capital Partners. His work has gone from owning and managing recreational spots to investing in businesses within the recreational industry.

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Michael Shannon demonstrates the product from his first business venture—a drink container that could be carried into stadiums. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

“The idea was basically combine your avocation with your vocation and make a business out of what everybody else considers not to be a business, like golf or skiing,” he says. “They’re businesses that people are passionate about.”

Working together

Finding those passionate people is easier when you’re well-connected, and Shannon suggested reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell to learn more about curiosity and building a network.

According to Shannon, one of the best ways to build a network and develop teams is by giving talented, ambitious people the chance to share in the success of the company.

“Winning does matter but sharing matters more,” says Shannon. “We look for people that are curious, and we look for people that eventually have that entrepreneurial bent that want to own a piece of it. We were the first people in the history of skiing to basically put ownership into the hands of a very wide group, and we became the number one ski resort in the world.

“You get the reputation for sharing, and it really works. If you share, everybody wants to come work with you.”  

Shannon says one of the most important skills he developed while at the Wisconsin School of Business—and a key to his success—is the ability to work effectively in a team.

“What you find out is that your innate skills that you learned in school in terms of communicating with people, not being pompous about it, being able to relate to people that you get at the University of Wisconsin, separates you from many other business schools with sharp elbows,” he says. “It’s really, really important because after a while everybody is smart, everybody is going to these business schools. It really comes down to ‘Can you work in a team?’”