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|The History of Yanek Kunczynski
|The Rise, Fall and Return of a Ski-Lift Entrepreneur
By Alex Markels
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
Yanek Kunczynski just won't quit.
Over the past 25 years, the inventor's "Yan" ski lifts were involved in accidents that caused five fatalities
and more than 70 injuries -- the worst record of any ski-lift maker operating in North America. With his
equipment under scrutiny by state safety officials after a fatal accident in 1995, Mr. Kunczynski's Lift
Engineering & Construction Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July.
But now, the 60-year-old entrepreneur has a new venture and a $22 million contract with Stephen
Wynn, owner of Mirage Resorts Inc. in Las Vegas, to build two automated trains. Currently under
construction, the trains will carry visitors between the Bellagio, Mirage and Monte Carlo hotels on an
The story of Mr. Kunczynski's rise, fall and rebirth shows the power a charismatic salesman can have
even in an industry highly conscious of its safety record. Personal relationships have been "just as
important as the quality of the equipment" in the ski industry's buying, says William Jensen, chief
executive of Booth Creek Ski Holdings Inc., which owns 10 resorts.
Mr. Kunczynski, a former ski racer, began building relationships in the industry when he arrived from his
native Poland in 1962. As an engineer for a French chair-lift maker, he helped design and build lifts at
California's Squaw Valley ski resort. He also married the daughter of the resort's founder, who
purchased some of the first lifts from Mr. Kunczynski's company, started in 1965.
During the 1970s and early '80s, Lift Engineering grew fast. Sharing his visions over apres-ski meals, the
well-spoken Mr. Kunczynski wooed resort owners with sleek designs drawn on cocktail napkins. "He
was the first to bring aesthetics into lift design," says Henry Lunde, who purchased Yan lifts for
Vermont's Killington and Mount Snow resorts as president of S-K-I Ltd., which owned the New
England resorts. "He painted them and arranged the [lift] towers with a sense of beauty. That appealed
to resort owners."
So did the young immigrant's status as one of very few U.S.-based lift suppliers and his
up-by-his-bootstraps life story an attractive quality in an industry full of zealous entrepreneurs. But
perhaps most appealing was Mr. Kunczynski's ability to rapidly transform ideas into reality. "As soon as
the idea came off the napkin, it was in that afternoon's production schedule," says Lawrence R. Smith,
supervisory engineer with Colorado's Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which oversees ski-equipment
Passionate about reducing construction and maintenance costs, Mr. Kunczynski says he substituted
aluminum tower parts for steel ones and swapped rubber springs for steel coils. He also replaced
electric motors with locomotive engines.
But Mr. Kunczynski's innovations raised worries among some state safety officials. Rather than
prefabricating components in a factory, Mr. Kunczynski routinely sent raw steel to be welded on site in
ski-area parking lots, says Colorado regulator Mr. Smith, an assertion that Mr. Kunczynski confirms.
"It's difficult to maintain and test [welding] quality in the field," Mr. Smith says.
Mr. Kunczynski acknowledges that his eagerness to see his designs realized sometimes undermined
quality. "I've learned that you simply have to take more time for development," he says, "and more
However, when Jonathan R. Carrick, who sat on Colorado's tramway safety board in the 1980s,
expressed concerns to Mr. Kunczynski and ski-resort owners about Mr. Kunczynski's installation and
welding practices between 1983 and 1985, "I was blasted by the ski industry," Mr. Carrick says.
Problems with Lift equipment soon arose. In 1985, faulty welds in a Yan lift at Colorado's Keystone ski
resort caused a malfunction that threw 49 people to the ground, resulting in two deaths and 47 serious
injuries. Lift settled 11 suits involving 20 plaintiffs, including a wrongful-death suit, for about $7.5 million,
says James Challat, a lawyer who represented some of the injured people. "There was an error in
machining," says Mr. Kunczynski, who confirms there was a settlement.
However, with loyal customers interested in his innovations, Mr. Kunczynski raced into a new market:
the detachable chairlift. European companies had pioneered the high-speed lift, whose chairs could be
released from a fast-moving cable as skiers got on and off. While most makers had spent about four
years developing their lifts, Mr. Kunczynski installed his first after only a year.
But his detachable lifts had problems almost from the beginning. Shortly after the first one was installed
at Mammoth, "some of the chairs collided," recalls Dave McCoy, founder of California's Mammoth
Mountain resort, who notes that no one was injured. "There were a lot of quality-control problems,"
says Tom Trulock, mountain manager at Idaho's Schweitzer Mountain resort, which installed a
detachable Yan lift in 1990. Mr. Kunczynski notes that some resorts with detachable lifts, like Sun
Valley, had no major accidents.
Indeed, Mr. Kunczynski?s chief engineer, Les Okreglak, quit during the development of the detachable
lift, citing safety concerns. He is now an expert witness in continuing litigation against Lift Engineering.
Without Mr. Okreglak to test Mr. Kunczynski's ideas, "a lot of things fell through the cracks," says
James Fletcher, president of engineering concern Jenlynn International Inc., who has worked closely
with Lift Engineering for 15 years.
Wary of Mr. Kunczynski's products, Mr. Carrick of the Colorado safety board lobbied to prevent Yan
detachable lifts from being installed in Colorado. But few buyers balked. In all, Mr. Kunczynski sold 31
detachable lifts in the U.S. between 1987 and 1995.
In 1993, a nine-year-old boy was killed after bolts came loose and caused a collision on a detachable
lift at California's Sierra-at-Tahoe resort. Lift and Sierra-at-Tahoe settled a wrongful-death suit in 1995
for $1.9 million, with the cause of the accident in dispute. Then, in December 1995, a malfunction on a
Yan detachable lift at Canada's Whistler ski area led to an accident that resulted in two deaths and eight
serious injuries. A November report by British Columbian government investigators found that portions
of the lift didn't meet industry manufacturing standards.
After the Whistler accident, safety inspections revealed problems with other Yan detachable lifts, and ski
areas throughout North America began replacing them; 26 of the lifts have been replaced or retrofitted
since the accident. Five more in New England are under scrutiny by safety officials. Last summer, Lift
Engineering sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection in the District of Nevada.
Mr. Kunczynski says he deeply regrets accidents involving his equipment. "I have to live with that for the
rest of my life and pay the debts," he says. "But I don't believe you can point the finger only at the
designer and builder. You certainly have to look at the industry that serviced my lifts."
Meanwhile, some resort owners continue to defend him. Mr. McCoy of Mammoth Mountain notes that
his resort has had no injuries related to Yan lifts, and he blames accidents at other resorts on poor
maintenance. "Some of the people who operate lifts today aren't mechanically minded," he says.
Mr. Kunczynski established a separate company, YanTrak Co., in the early 1990s to build "people
movers," automated trains used in some airports. He received financing from Vernon Sprock, former
owner of California's Sierra-at-Tahoe resort, and built a prototype in 1994 for Mr. McCoy at
Mammoth Mountain. The prototype had various glitches, including a collision and another accident that
required a public evacuation. "In any new installation, there will be glitches, and there was no risk to
passengers," Mr. Kunczynski says.
In 1995, Mr. Kunczynski approached Mirage's Mr. Wynn to build a similar train. The innovative twist:
Unlike conventional movers, which are propelled by large, expensive motors, his would be propelled by
small motors along a track. It was a unique and less costly solution. While Mr. Wynn had doubts about
using an untried system, Mr. Kunczynski offered to build it on speculation. As a further incentive, he
priced it 60% below competitors' systems.
Mr. Wynn signed a $22 million contract in July to complete the system. To ensure its safety, he says he
has "an army of people" scrutinizing the project. Though he was unaware until recently of the prototype's
glitches, Mr. Wynn says, "The fact that someone tries something new and it doesn't work at first is
perfectly natural. Yan's not reckless. He's enthusiastic and emotional. And so am I."
As for Mr. Kunczynski, he says he is determined to learn from his mistakes and succeed again. He has
turned over financial control of YanTrak to a new chief executive and quality control to other engineers.
"It isn't easy for the king of the mountain all his life to give that much authority away," he says. "But if you
don't adapt, you die. And I'm not ready to give up yet."
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