2023 Industry Impact Award: Bo Adams, Premium Partner in Protection
By: Heather B. Fried
There was no way Bo Adams was going to work in the insurance business. His hometown was near Hartford, Conn., known as the insurance capital of the world for the number of major insurance companies that established headquarters there, but Bo was much more interested in carrying on his ski lineage. His dad had helped build Satan’s Ridge, now Ski Sundown, Conn., and his grandfather, along with two friends from Dartmouth, was the first to ascend and descend Mount Washington, N.H., on skis in 1913.
Growing up with the sport in his blood, Bo went on to captain and later coach his college ski team while working in retail and rentals. It would seem that he was destined for a career in the ski biz. But, thanks to an insurance salesman who moved in across the street, it wasn’t in the way he had imagined.
Most everyone in the ski industry knows the punchline to this story. Bo has been with MountainGuard Insurance Program through its various iterations going on 45 years now, serving as senior vice president for the last 34 or so. Set to retire at the start of June, his Gone Fishin‘ auto response is at the ready.
“When the suggested [retirement date] of June 1st was presented, they haven’t invented the machine that’s capable of measuring the speed at which I said ‘OK!’ because that is the opening date of tuna fishing season,” Bo laughed.
Before sliding “out the back door,” as he put it, NSAA Journal caught up with Bo and a few of his friends to reflect on the impactful work that got done between pranks, months on the road and memorable days on the mountain.
Passion & Commitment
Dick Williams of Barringer and Williams — an insurance outfit that formed in 1962 as “the NSAA insurance plan manager,” according to Bo — was the cool neighbor on the block. Williams taught ski school at Mohawk Mountain on weekends and would take Bo skiing and out on dirt bikes. While attending Nasson College in Maine, Bo kept in touch with Williams, who wound up nearby after partnering with Kendall Insurance and moving the program there.
“Dick approached me and said, ‘We always wanted to hire a kid out of college, what do you think?’” remembered Bo, whose response went something like, “Thanks, but no thanks. Fast forward, and I got done with my summer job digging fence post holes.”
Williams was keeping tabs on Bo and his unsuccessful initial job search, finally convincing him to give insurance a try.
“That was November 1978, and I've been there ever since,” said Bo. “[I] fell in love with the program and the job because of all the amazing people that I started getting to know and befriending early on in my career.”
One of those people is dear friend and former colleague Mark Petrozzi, president of AlpenRisk Safety Advisors. In Petrozzi’s view, Bo’s impact stems from two attributes: passion and commitment.
“He's got a passion and a commitment for not just the industry, but for the sport, and the people that participate because of his love for the sport,” Petrozzi said. “He had to always protect the insurer because that's his job, but it was really to protect the ski area operators, to protect the sport and protect the individuals.”
Adams’ Apple: A Learning Legacy
Passion and commitment were evident when, just a couple years into his tenure, Bo got involved in making ski safety movies. Though he had no film experience, Bo had plenty of ideas — one being that ski instructors have a captive audience with their students and ought to be “imparting the tenets of what was then called the Skiers Responsibility Code as part of the lesson, instead of just teaching people how to turn left and right,” he said.
As a result, he directed “The Other Curriculum,” a 23-minute risk management film that educated ski schools on the importance of skier safety. His next movie project was precipitated by what Bo described as an industry in uproar during the winter of 1983–84 with the advent of longer skis, more grooming and faster skiing.
“A lot of people were skiing recklessly [and] getting hurt,” he explained. “The industry was looking for some help — What can we do to get the message out to the skiing public about how important it is to ski within your ability?”
With that question in mind, Bo made his usual winter rounds, picking brains until he landed at Gunstock, N.H. The ski area had recently lost a member of its racing team, Tony Buttinger, who suffered a fatal collision with a tree while skiing around with friends between race runs. Bo was so moved by the plaque and poem displayed in Buttinger’s honor near the scene of the incident, he created and directed “Tony’s Flight.”
“That was really the first major nationwide initiative on skier safety I think ever undertaken, at least in the United States,” said Petrozzi of the film he starred in as himself, Gunstock’s patrol director at the time.
The film’s tragedy turned tribute and cautionary tale was well received, according to Bo. He played it for the entire industry, with Tony’s parents in the audience, at NSAA’s 1986 National Convention in Nashville.
“When it was over, you could have heard a pin drop,” he said. “There was not a dry eye in the house.”
Anything But Your Typical Insurance Sales Guy
In taking stock of the last 40 plus years, it’s not landing the big, exciting accounts that Bo is most proud of, but “Helping people solve their problems, helping resorts prevent the problems from occurring in the first place, having the expertise as a program to provide assistance, to provide counsel, to be a resource,” he said.
A big part of becoming such a trusted resource came through developing a curriculum they could share around the country. What was originally the “Kendall Risk Management Seminar,” evolved into the Fall Education Seminar series that MountainGuard presents each year in partnership with NSAA.
Since 1997, Bo has also lent his expertise to the New England Ski Museum — a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of skiing in the New England region and beyond — as a member of the board. Jeff Leich, executive director emeritus, joined the organization about the same time and thought Bo, a ski history buff, was well suited to lead the board given his stature in skiing and pioneering family background. Bo was named president in 2007 and plans to continue serving as such into retirement.
“He's been a key part of the success of the organization,” said Leich, who called Bo a great fund raiser, boss and networker (without any of the negative connotations that go along with that last one). “People will take his calls, and he’s a very friendly and welcoming presence to anyone that's connected with the Ski Museum.”
Whenever Leich and team were trying out a new exhibit and needed an accompanying article for their member journal, they could count on Bo to know the players and have a story to share. As is the case with all of Bo’s colleagues, Leich appreciated both the hard worker and hilarious jokester sides of his board president.
“Somehow he's gotten a maritime horn installed on his pickup truck,” reported Leich. “When he goes by your house, sometimes you'll think that there's a shipping lane right [outside].”
It goes without saying that these endeavors fall outside the realm of your typical ski insurance sales guy — Bo is anything but, which has served him well in navigating a tricky and changing landscape. Early on, safety was all about chairlifts, according to Bo, who’s proud of how far skiing has come to make the sport as safe as possible. Part of that huge shift in focus toward all-around safety and education came about during the mid-1980s, a tough era that saw insurance costs go through the roof with a plaintiffs’ bar “running amok,” remembered Bo.
“The liability insurance rates went up 40% in 1985, 120% in 1986, and another 20% in 1987,” he explained. “That was the time when people said, ‘What can we do to control some of this cost?’ and we went from 10% of ski areas having a deductible on their liability insurance to 10% not having a deductible.”
With a lot more skin in the game, ski areas began to rethink how they managed potential liability exposure on the hill — what Bo considered a silver lining. In particular, he recalled big discussions around padding, with some clients at the time using old tractor tires, hay bales and sheets of plywood as tower pads. Grooming and running snowmobiles during operating hours also came under scrutiny.
“Now all of a sudden, if you're on the hook for the first $25,000, you start looking at things a lot differently,” he said. “That momentum, those best practices, just continued to evolve and improve and [be] embraced by everybody.”
Though it’s critically important to reduce the number of incidents for the sake of fewer claims — keeping deductible dollars in pocket and liability premiums in check — Bo has also been able to help his clients connect the dots between safety and growth. Someone who’s injured while out on their first day, or even first season, is not coming back.
“To me, that's the most compelling reason is to get people in the sport, keep them in the sport,” said Bo of injury prevention. “People are gonna get hurt, but if we do everything we can, then everybody's a winner.”
As Petrozzi hinted at, it’s this kind of priority that he, and everybody else, appreciates about Bo — a genuine caring for people, customer or not, that’s evident across all of his relationships.
Bo Knows … Everyone
In March, a group of Bo’s colleagues and friends gathered on a Zoom to surprise him with the news of his forthcoming NSAA Industry Impact Award. Bo, who was out on his farewell tour of the industry, found himself at Showdown Montana that day, experiencing the best kind of “technical difficulties”: camera off, out skiing. Even though he couldn’t see them, Bo was able to name every person on that call by voice, a testament to his masterful relationship building.
On the call, Tim Barnhorst, senior vice president and program manager at MountainGuard, shared how Bo was not only good at selling insurance, but at selling the idea of selling insurance. Barnhorst, who had been making ski boots for Strolz, was just as skeptical as Bo was originally about joining the insurance world. But he was willing to hear him out over a happy hour 13 years ago. Having worked together ever since, Barnhorst puts Bo on the level of single-name celebrity status akin to Cher, Oprah or Prince.
“Everybody just knows Bo for Bo. He really has this aura about him when he walks in a room, and everybody knows who it is and wants to talk to him,” said Barnhorst. “It's not as much about insurance as it is his ability to understand what operators are doing, what they're going through, what they're trying to accomplish.”
Petrozzi, whom Bo also recruited to work at MountainGuard as a claims adjuster, thinks of his friend as the life of the party. The two shared a territory, countless days on the road, the honeymoon suite in an old Victorian bed-and-breakfast, and “more damn fun spreading the gospel of safety and risk management,” said Bo of his mutual regard for Petrozzi — who also had a few stories up his sleeve. From a golf bag full of baby garter snakes to hitting all 14 ski areas along Vermont’s Route 100 in one day (with Bo behind the wheel, only taking his right ski boot off to drive, and Kelly Pawlak, then Mount Snow GM, keeping the lifts open for them), they played hard, but worked even harder.
“Bo has had this protective and steady hand,” said Petrozzi, who appreciated that when Bo was serious about something, he would use his industry-wide platform to address major issues. “One of them is that of aging lifts. Bo has never worked in lift maintenance, lift operations, any of those things, but he recognized that aging lifts were a big issue. With his influence with the insurance program behind him, [he] has always pushed for those types of things.
“He's been a great leader and a great mentor to so many people,” added Petrozzi.
Petrozzi also admires Bo for being “the most quotable person in the ski industry.” Frank Freeman, Bo’s MountainGuard counterpart who co-managed the ski program from the western office for 25 years, seconded that sentiment. A couple of Freeman’s favorite Bo-isms that were fit to print include:
“Any meeting worth having is worth meeting on time.”
“That will be one dollar for interrupting the speaker.”
“Bo Adams has been the primary face and architect of the MountainGuard program for decades,” added Freeman. “He dedicated his entire career to working with and improving the ski resort industry. No one has contributed more to the culture and legacy of MountainGuard and its impact on the ski industry.”
Another of Bo’s long-time colleagues, Mary Bozack, was on the client side first and guessed that she might have even been one of Bo’s first customers while she and her husband built Silver Creek Ski Area (now part of Snowshoe).
“I think he was as nervous selling us insurance as we were new ski area operators to buy insurance,” she laughed.
Bo helped NSAA honor Bozack’s more than 20 years with MountainGuard in Nashville last year with the Safety Impact Award. She returned the favor with some kind words of her own, echoing the notion that Bo’s impact comes down to his passion for the sport and industry.
“It's all about insurance in our world, but he really cares about it all,” said Bozack. “Whether it's environmental [matters] — what Sierra-at-Tahoe is doing with their forest fires — or the people that move around the industry, Bo’s like the constant that's always there.”
Bozack also spoke to his play-hard side, recounting an ASDA conference where she busted him hand-signaling across the room to lure her new hire, Tim Hendrickson, out skiing with him.
“He's all about having fun,” said Bozack, joking about having to reel him in at the cocktail party later that day. Hendrickson, now a senior vice president and program manager for MountainGuard, also fondly recalled that first time skiing with Bo almost 20 years ago.
“We loaded the gondola with a couple young men in their early 20s,” he said. “We struck up a conversation, and they let us know they scrapped together all their pennies and drove all night long from Minnesota and arrived on fumes to finally get a chance to ski Big Sky. Bo reached into his pocket and pulled out a crisp $20 and said, ‘Go get a case of beer on me fellas, and have a great trip.’
“This is when I immediately realized the character of Bo and that we would become great friends,” added Hendrickson, who was part of the group that managed to convince some locals that Bo was David Letterman at the bar that night.
Hundreds of Bo’s closest friends will have the occasion to exchange stories like these in Savannah, what he called his “last soiree.” Afterwards, Bo — the man who’s been so influential to the culture of snowsports safety — will be able to stack his 2023 NSAA Industry Impact Award next to his 2010 Senator Ronald Stafford Award, presented by the Ski Areas of New York, and his 2017 H.H. Bill Whitney Award from Ski New Hampshire.
But for him, it’s never been about the recognition or even making the sale, but a shared love for the outdoors and protecting “the greatest sport on Earth” and the “amazing bonds over the decades” that this sport has afforded him.