Mike Livak MBA 98 Thrives on Tahoe’s Snowy Slopes
A lifelong ski enthusiast, Mike Livak spent six years as a ski instructor before entering the UC Davis MBA program. Upon graduation in 1998, he explored other options, but quickly returned to the industry he loves. Today Livak is a senior vice president at the Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, a fascinating and diverse job that keeps him busy—most recently assisting in Squaw’s merger with neighboring Alpine Meadows. The deal combined two of Tahoe’s oldest resorts to create North America’s largest mountain resort.
When not working, Livak, his wife, Kirsten, and their two young children enjoy the outdoors life in Truckee, Calif., in the heart of the Sierra Nevada.
What drives you in your work?
Change and improvement! Since I accepted the position of senior vice president at the Squaw Valley resort in 2009, things have moved quickly. Learning the new job; acquiring the Village at Squaw Valley condo-hotel management business and commercial space from Intrawest; welcoming and assisting our new CEO, Andy Wirth; the sale of the company to KSL Capital Partners; embarking on a $50M capital improvement effort; and now combining the forces of Squaw Valley and the neighboring Alpine Meadows resort—it’s been a busy two years!
Where has your career taken you, and where is it headed?
I enjoyed being a ski instructor and, later, a staff trainer at the Squaw Valley ski school for six years following college. I explored several career options while pursing the MBA program. None were as fascinating as the ski industry, but Squaw Valley founder Alex Cushing interviewed me seven times before he offered me a job as the director of administration and marketing. I later had the opportunity to manage many business and functional units in the resort, including strategic planning, commercial leasing, risk management, litigation defense, real estate, environmental permitting, retail, rental, security, employee housing, and food and beverage services. Along the way I served as a director and officer of the company for more than a decade.
I departed the employ of Squaw in 2005—but remained on the board—in order to serve as the project manager for Royal Gorge, a 1,000-unit residential, mixed-use subdivision and recreation development-concept near Donner Summit. We operated North America’s largest cross country ski resort, two hotels and a water company while preparing the financial analysis, environmental science and regulatory applications necessary for the real estate project. I left Royal Gorge right before the real-estate downturn, for a position back with Squaw Valley as senior vice president. In addition to my former duties, I’ve learned more about operational elements, including lift and vehicle maintenance, ski patrol, snow safety, grooming and building services. We really have the infrastructure of a small town at the resort. Professionally, I’d like to continue helping people to enjoy recreation, physical activity and the outdoors, and to continue participating in an advisory capacity for other organizations, whether through board membership or otherwise.
How has your UC Davis MBA experience helped shape your success?
I had majored in English during college, and hadn’t taken a math class since junior year of high school. I started reading the Wall Street Journal, pop-economics books and studying really hard for the GMAT. When I was accepted at UC Davis and went to orientation, my peers were engineers, accountants, finance specialists, chemists, doctors, all sorts of quantitative-analysts—and I was a ski instructor. Succeeding in the MBA program was probably harder for me than most, and it opened the realization that I could do things, and solve problems, that I had never imagined. The UC Davis MBA experience taught me the hard skills to compete and perform in the business world, but more importantly, granted the confidence to work for and with some very smart people. The exceptional faculty, staff and students at the GSM made the MBA education incredibly valuable for me.
What is the most amazing or interesting thing that’s happened to you since graduating?
Becoming a father. My son is 11 and my daughter is six. One’s own kids are the most amazing, interesting beings in the universe.
Your favorite GSM memory?
During second year, as vice president and director of student affairs for the Associated Students of Management, welcoming the incoming class with a camping trip at Rollins Lake. I was responsible for the fire, the hot dogs, the refreshments and the marshmallows. It took me back to a skill set that hadn’t formerly been applicable at the GSM! It was a fun adventure and a great way to greet the new students. I particularly enjoyed learning statistics from Professor Tsai, finance from Professor Barber and linear programming from Professor Bunch.
How do you support and participate in the GSM now?
I’m active in alumni and student networking, and support the school financially as well. I keep up-to-date with the happenings at the School through the Innovator, the monthly alumni e-newsletter and the various announcements and e-vites that I receive from the School.