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The Crowley Family

A Legacy of Skiing, Beverages, and Hard Work
By Ellen O’Connor

Ralph Crowley Sr. was much more a hockey guy than a skier, but his children convinced him one winter day to bring the brood up north. The kids were not so good on the ice ~ weak ankles, joked one of them ~- and they wanted to go skiing.

So the Crowley family, which included five children ~ Ralph Jr., Chris, Jeff, David, and Carolyn ~ all piled into the family station wagon for a ski trip. It was a great time, but it cost the dad about $100 to pay for the lift tickets and whatever else was necessary for his children to spend the day on the mountain. And this was back in the late 1960s, when a hundred dollars was, well, a lot of money to shell out for a day of family fun.

Ralph Sr., an astute businessman who was running Polar Beverage Corporation along with his three brothers, got to thinking: anybody who can get a hundred bucks out of Ralph Crowley is doing something right.

And the idea of Wachusett Mountain was born.

For years, the state had been running the ski operation at Wachusett Mountain and it was losing money hand over fist, as much as $80,000 a year. So, the Commonwealth wanted out, and decided that leasing the mountain to a member of the private sector was the best solution. The year was 1969 and Ralph Sr. put his bid in the mix, but not without first consulting his kids.

“These were sealed bids because it was the state,” remembered David Crowley, who is the general manager and chief operating officer of the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area. At the time, David was about 10 years old. “He [Ralph Sr.] had no real idea how much others would bid for the lease … but he solicited our input.”

Ralph Sr. was planning on bidding $16,000 for the five-year lease. One of the kids suggested $16,001, so that they would best somebody else who had bid $16,000 even. Someone else took it a step further. Anybody can figure out that bidders might add a single dollar, so why not add two dollars? Crowley’s final bid was $16,002.

“It was such a kid’s idea,” laughed David.

Ralph Sr. won the bid and the Crowley family was in business. But the going wasn’t always smooth. It took time, hard work, and a lot of hope and luck for the ski mountain to become the well-oiled operation it is today.

“It was totally nip and tuck, trying to keep the place going,” says Carolyn Stimpson Crowley, who is vice president of resort services. “People look at it now and say, ‘This is a lay-up.’

But it was nothing of the sort.

When times were tough, Carolyn would bring back her waitressing tips from a summer job at the Cape to help pay the electric bills. Getting a $14 million loan for an expansion in the early ‘80s was no walk in the park, either. The bank pulled out, despite the best efforts of Ralph Sr., and the Crowleys had to turn elsewhere for the capital.

“People thought we were nuts. Nobody believed in [the mountain] except for my dad,” said Carolyn. “He was a pretty smart guy that way ~ being able to believe in yourself and your dreams and swinging for it. We believed in it and we believed in him.”

The family got the money it needed for the expansion and the investment paid off in spades. Wachusett Mountain is a Massachusetts destination, a ski area that has absolutely flourished while other small mountain ski businesses have withered and died.

The current Crowley business empire can trace its roots back to the beverage industry and the turn of the 20th century. Dennis Crowley, a second generation American whose father and mother had emigrated from Ireland to escape the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, became the first Crowley in what would become a long, long line of Crowleys who would run the Polar Beverage Company. Crowley is a name that is synonymous with liquid refreshment, at least for people who live in these parts.

Dennis founded D. M. Crowley & Company in 1901, a wholesale and retail liquor business. Fifteen years later, he bought the J. G. Bieberbach Company, which bottled seltzers, ginger ale and imported mineral water. It also was a wholesaler of alcoholic beverages. Two years after that, Dennis made yet another acquisition, this one being the Leicester Polar Spring Company, which came with its own spring from which the beverages were made.

Prohibition put a stop to the alcohol end of the business, but Dennis never re-entered it when the country-wide ban on beer, wine and liquor was lifted. His focus remained solely on soft drinks. The Polar era had begun.

All of the current Crowley generation, which is the fourth generation to run Polar Beverage (a well-known Worcester landmark located on Southbridge Street) honed their business chops at the plant, getting a taste of the working life before settling on their career path. Some of the Crowleys stayed at Polar; others decided on life at the mountain. Ralph Jr. and Chris run the soft drink company. Jeff, David and Carolyn run the ski area and the Wachusett Village Inn & Conference Center. All are equal shareholders in the businesses. There is no line of demarcation separating the soft drink business from the ski business. Each of siblings is involved in some aspect of their business ventures, no matter if it is the business on Southbridge Street or the one in Princeton.

“I worked the third shift at Polar back in the day, back in the ’70s,” said Jeff, who is now the president of the ski area. He worked there for a few summers, deciding that life at the ski mountain had more appeal for him.

“I said, ‘Dad, I’d like to get more involved in the ski area,’” recalled Jeff, who went to work at other mountains, learning the ins and outs of their ski operations. He worked up north at Mount Snow on the ski lift crew and then for a company that installed ski lifts. He spent some time out west, including at Mount Bachelor in Oregon. “It gave me a better understanding of the business. And it was nice to be outside during the day.”

Working at the plant was “a good experience,” he said. “It was a tough but important lesson for anyone coming into a family business to work in these positions, to understand the idea of working your ass off. It makes me appreciate what I’ve got now.”

David did the Polar thing as well, working there at night just like his brother and during the summers while he was still in school. So did Carolyn and so did Chris.

Chris worked on the floor on the night shift, back when he pretty much had the place to himself.

“Back then, the night shift was pretty pitiful,” says Chris, who worked that shift for 11 years. “We couldn’t produce a whole lot of product. But eventually we made a 180 and the night shift outperformed the day shift.” At that time, the plant was not a safe place to work, he said, but those problems were cured over time. “It is a different plant now.”

His experience working on the floor was invaluable, given his current position at Polar, says Chris.

“It was good to do it and be in the trenches all those years, to understand what those jobs are really like,” he said.

Of all the siblings, Ralph Jr. took the most circuitous route to the family business.

“I was kind of the odd man out,” he said. He decided he wanted to see some of the world, particularly Australia, where a portion of the Crowley clan had settled. So he went to high school down under, returning to get degrees from Bowdoin College and Clark University. He worked for the ski area for about 10 years, doing its financial work. Still, he said, he did not envision himself staying in the family business. But his father had gotten a bit sick, so he switched over to Polar to help out.

“They let me drive a truck,” he said, joking about the lack of respect the company had for his college degrees and his abilities upon his arrival. Nonetheless, he had found his future.

“Next thing I know I figured out that my blood was carbonated,” said Ralph Jr., who is the chief executive officer and chairman of Polar Beverage Corporation. His brother Chris is executive vice president and treasurer. Chris, who Ralph says has the best understanding of production and operations, works on the manufacturing side, and Ralph, who Chris says has the best understanding of sales and banking, works on the business side. Both of them rely greatly upon Mike Mulrain, chief operating officer, whom Chris described as “their boss.”

During the stewardship of this fourth generation of Crowleys, Polar has grown and flourished, just as the ski area has. It is the country’s largest independent bottler of soft drinks and it has acquired more than 20 other soft drink companies, including Adirondack Beverages, a long-time competitor, Snapple, and Venture Distributing. It has more than 1,200 employees. In short, it has transformed itself into a beverage powerhouse.

Ralph Jr. now has his sights on a company that has nothing whatsoever to do with the soft drink industry ~ the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. He and Harry Whitin, the recently retired editor of the paper, and some undisclosed partners have placed a bid for the T&G. Ralph Jr. declined to talk in detail about the business deal, saying only that his interest in buying the paper was driven by the idea that the T&G would become nothing more than a “fold in” for the Boston Globe — something he views as an unacceptable outcome for the long-time local newspaper. The New York Times, which owns both newspapers, originally planned on selling both businesses, but the Times recently changed its position.

“The New York Times decided to hang onto the Globe, so the Telegram is in a great spot.”

The working life is not an easy one, but working with family members carries its own kind of peril. The current crop of Crowleys say there are several keys to their ability to work together and succeed. One of them is keeping the work environment as loose and as upbeat as possible. It helps to be funny.

“We have that dark Irish sense of humor,” says Jeff.

He recalls one particularly difficult winter at the ski mountain, when it rained pretty much every other day. Needless to say, winter rain is not conducive to skiing. The Crowleys were at one of their regular morning meetings, having a coffee. It was raining, of course.

Observing the grim weather, David remarked, “Well, it is kind of a dry rain.”

The same sense of humor was apparent in talking with all the Crowleys, who are quick with self-deprecating jokes or with some good-natured ribbing of their siblings.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” says Chris. “You’ve got to have a good time.”

There is no doubt that the previous generation of Crowleys had some rough patches and the current generation did not miss that valuable lesson.

“We sort of learned from the last generation what not to do,” says Chris, who added that keeping the family together, whether through family vacations, meetings, golf, or dinners, is critical. “We are all very compatible. Even when we go to a big event, like a charitable fundraiser, we are sitting together. We enjoy each other’s company.”

“There were some rocky times,” says Jeff, speaking of the third Crowley generation to run the family businesses. “We kind of all agreed that was not a good path to go down. We try to do everything in our power to work together, to ski together, to play golf together.”

“The good news is that we are best friends. We are pretty fortunate in that regard,” says Jeff.

Carolyn agrees.

“We all are within a nine iron of each other down the Cape,” she said. “We take family trips together. Our kids hang out together. It is kind of neat that way.”

When they meet to discuss business, it is all open and above board – no secret agendas, says Chris. “We try to be uncomplicated, with a lot of transparency. We get together to discuss exactly where we are and what we are doing.”

There is no shortage of members of the fifth generation of Crowleys. There are 18 of them. But whether they will assume the reins of the Crowley business domain remains to be seen.

“I am watching my back now,” joked Carolyn, who managed to survive and thrive as the only female and the youngest sibling in a family of four brothers. She says she remembers counting her bruises, which once totaled more than 20. Boys will be boys.

She has four sons, for which she is thankful. “It is a good thing I don’t have a girl. I wouldn’t know how to operate one.”

If the next crop of Crowleys does decide to sign onto the family business, they will do it much the same way as their mother and fathers did before them: put in their time as a way to find their niche. Both the ski mountain and Polar have developed internship programs to help newcomers learn about all aspects of the family businesses. On the other hand, if the children don’t want to step in, no one is going to force them to do so. They are free to blaze a trail of their own.

Yet, the idea of yet another generation of Crowleys stepping up to take over is something that pleases Ralph Jr. It is also something he anticipates with a sense of excitement. He is, after all, the one who had no intention of spending his life at either Polar or the ski mountain. But he went from zero interest in the family business to seeing the family business become his life’s passion. Sometimes it isn’t easy finding your place; sometimes your place finds you. He wants to make sure the next group doesn’t miss out on what they may not realize is their true calling.

“There are great opportunities here,” he said, wondering who among the 18 has the business acumen to take to the next level what the current generation has built.

Such a changeover, however, is not in the cards yet, if indeed it does ever come. Ralph Jr. and his other siblings have no plans to hit the golf course full time. There is still plenty of work yet to be done.

“The door is open,” he said of the generation-in-waiting. “There are 18 children and nephews and nieces out there.”

And there is time enough for the next generation to step through that door, if they choose. Regardless, the Crowleys remain one of Central Massachusetts’ most respected and hard working families.

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