Imagine toiling tirelessly an entire lifetime to build a successful business. Decades pass. You are now in your sixties contemplating some version of retirement. Standard operating procedure in this circumstance is to put your business on the market, see what it will sell for, and sell out to the highest offer. Most of the time, that’s how the game is played. Maximize return on investment.
However, a different model is being played out at Active Backwoods Retreats (ABR) in Ironwood Michigan. As owners Eric Anderson and Angela Santini contemplate the future they have decided to walk away from the big payday. Instead, Eric and Angela are giving away their business to a foundation they have started to keep it operating as a ski center for future generations to enjoy. Beginning April, 2025 ABR will be operated by the Anderson Bluffs and River Trail Foundation. Its mission is to preserve the trail system for cross-country skiing. Eric will stay on as chief groomer.
In the midwest, ABR is well known as the go-to destination for great grooming and reliable snow even in low snow years. Beginning in 1995 with 13 kilometers of skiing, ABR now has 100 kilometers of trails, including dedicated single track classic trails, dog trails, and snowshoeing trails. It offers more than just great conditions. Bordered by the Montreal River—the Wisconsin-Michigan border—it also offers beautiful scenery. In addition to snow activities, there’s a great wood fired sauna, overnight rustic cabins, trailside house rentals, and a full service ski shop with ski rental. Its trails are also used extensively for the SISU Ski Fest held every January.
Ironwood averages about 200 inches of snowfall annually. This bounty requires a fleet of machines and, at least at ABR, colorfully nicknamed operators (Eric’s nickname is Pig Heart—a tongue-in-cheek reference to his heart valve replacement surgery). Eric’s grooming reputation precedes him. He is well known for being incredibly meticulous, so much so that for years ABR grooming clinics were a staple for trail operators who wanted to learn the finer points of the art. The detailed daily grooming reports are a testament to his grooming dedication which usually starts pre-dawn.
The transfer of ownership to a foundation is not some symbolic gesture. ABR consists of about 800 acres of Upper Peninsula land. Eric methodically made land purchases over the years to increase the resort’s size. “I closed on the first parcel in 1991 and just kept buying as they came up for sale,” said Anderson. The property’s sale would yield a big check; a proposition which most people would find impossible to resist. Eric and Angela, however, have a different perspective.
“There’s no choice. If we sold it, we’d get a big pile of money, and then what? Anderson said. “We can sustain ourselves with our other income, but it would be a big slap in the face to our customers if we just sold it and ditched them. It’s what Angela and I have done for the majority of our lives; I would hate to see that destroyed. The foundation seems like the best way to keep it going.” Anderson said it wasn’t a hard decision to give the business away. “Though, sometimes Angela and I will look at each other and say it could have been a lot easier if we had sold it, but that’s not what we wanted.”
Anderson has had several health challenges; he realizes that he won’t be around forever, and the next operator would benefit from his level of acquired knowledge. All the nuances of knowledge of decades of work have to be formalized and somehow put into a format so that the next managers can know how to run the place. “Now we’re setting up budgets and 10 year plans,” Anderson noted. “Last month we had a three hour workshop with the full board on risk management…documenting the infrastructure isn’t fun work, but it’s necessary and time consuming.” Prior to transitioning to a foundation, Anderson said that “if I needed a piece of equipment and had the money, I would just go out and buy it.”
A pleasant surprise has been the generosity of donor support for the foundation. “It’s been eye opening,” Anderson said. “At times, a donor will hand me a sealed envelope and walk away. Inside is a thank you note with a large check. I never would have expected that.” According to Anderson most of these donations are from people outside of the local area, which speaks to the following ABR has established.
The foundation has been seeking a full time manager, which has proven challenging. “I never expected to spend so much time interviewing candidates to run the operation,” said Anderson. The foundation hasn’t made a hire yet and anyone with the qualifications and passion can contact the foundation with their information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric and Angela will remain closely tied to ABR. They plan on living at the Hilltop House which is a short walk from the main entrance, though they aren’t sure about adjusting to a hands off position. “I’ll help, but I don’t want to micromanage the new manager.” Additionally, Eric will still be doing the grooming. “My new title will be chief groomer.”
It’s hard to imagine walking away from a big payday in exchange for an abstract sense of satisfaction. But Anderson says that “the payoff is that our life’s work will continue after we’re gone.” The allure of money simply isn’t on the table for Eric and Angela. “What would a person do with all that money? Buy some assets that you don’t need? I don’t see any of that being needed. I’m decadent with buying equipment for the business, but I’ve never owned a boat or a jet ski. When I lived in Ann Arbor, you’d see those things with people working their ass off in a job they don’t want, commuting… and they’d get to the weekend and maybe they have time to take their boat out.”
There’s also a sense of family continuity which has driven the decision. Anderson’s great- grandfather arrived from Finland and homesteaded by the current ski trails. His grandmother also grew up near the trails as did his parents and him. So, it’s also a point of heritage and family history which has motivated the decision. “It’s not part of the mission or the vision,” he said. “But I think my relatives would look back fondly on what we’re doing as well.”
Anderson says that plans for the trail system is to stay pretty much as is. “There isn’t a plan for any significant changes by the foundation in the first few years.”
Saying you put your principles first is one thing; proving it by walking away from a financial windfall is quite another. It’s quite the statement being made at ABR.