David Shapiro has been working with Vail Resorts for more than a year now, but from the moment he first walked through the office doors in Broomfield, Colorado, he knew it would be a perfect fit. Shapiro is executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Vail Resorts, a premier mountain resort company that focuses on high-altitude activities, lodging, and real estate.
The company’s operations span twelve mountains, including its namesake Vail Mountain, and three other locations in Colorado; Park City, Utah; Lake Tahoe; several Midwestern locations; Perisher in Australia; and lodging and concessionaire operations in the Grand Tetons.
Shapiro’s duties arch across three different areas: legal, public affairs, and sustainability. On the legal front, he works with a team of attorneys to oversee all legal matters for the company such as corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, and litigation. The public affairs portion of his job covers local, state, and federal government relations, and the laws and regulations that may impact Vail Resorts’ operations. From a sustainability standpoint, Vail Resorts gives back to the community by building hiking trails in Colorado and helping to raise grant money in order to assist employees in need.
It could have been the role or responsibilities that some assume attracted Shapiro to Vail Resorts, but it was something else entirely that caught his attention—the company’s culture. His first interview with the CEO was a ninety-minute discussion about whether Vail Resorts’ culture and leadership was a good fit for him. In fact, legal issues and negotiations didn’t come up at all during the conversation.
As he met with more members of the executive team, Shapiro noticed all conversations were geared toward the company’s emphasis on culture. “I found [the emphasis on culture] to be unique, interesting, and engaging,” Shapiro says. “There’s a deliberate, thoughtful, authentic commitment to developing a culture for an organization that people want to be a part of. The fact that they focused on that was very attractive to me.”
Vail Resorts’ emphasis on culture drew Shapiro in, but it’s the company’s follow through on these commitments that have kept him around. There are signs all around that remind employees how the business is run in a manner consistent with that environment, as well as with awards and recognitions to those who live the culture in extraordinary ways. All decisions are driven by this perception. The company’s top executives meet every other week to give one another feedback on what’s working and what isn’t (modeling an authentic and candid culture), and to discuss how to create “experiences of a lifetime” for their customers and employees.
“It’s not window dressing. The people who talk about the culture, they live the culture every day,” Shapiro explains. “To be a high-functioning team, we have to trust each other. There has to be candor, vulnerability, and self-awareness of what your strengths and weaknesses are. It speaks to me on multiple levels that a group of nine senior leaders can sit in a room and candidly give each other meaningful feedback on where they are succeeding and where they aren’t.”
One may be surprised to see how well an in-house counsel position suits Shapiro. He’s been a lawyer for nearly twenty years, but his legal experience includes tenures with the government and in private practice. He worked in Washington, DC, as a trial attorney at the US Department of Justice in the civil fraud section. The opportunity to handle healthcare and other government fraud cases proved to be an amazing experience for Shapiro, and the mission-driven work he was doing was the perfect launching pad to an in-house counsel position.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking to go in-house. In fact, when the opportunity came up, I thought it was more about enhancing my experience and ultimately making me a better lawyer to go back to being outside counsel,” he admits. “What I ultimately found was how much I loved it and what an impact you could have in-house—being part of the decision-making process and shaping the course of initiatives and work that the company does.”
Part of the reason why Shapiro made such a successful transition to in-house counsel was the outstanding collaboration he had with his team. But there were some initial challenges of course as Shapiro was brand new and had to learn the ropes. There was also the process of everyone getting to know each other, establishing trust, and building solid lines of communication on a team where people not only had different functions, but were in different locations.
Despite these early challenges, Shapiro and the team have come together after they defined their purpose and everyone embodied that commitment. “For me and the team now, it’s never enough to say, ‘Job well done,’” he says. “We always debrief afterwards and say, ‘Okay, that was great, we got to the finish line, let’s talk about how we’re going to do it better next time.’ That commitment to continuous improvement is essential.”
The cohesion of Shapiro and the legal team at Vail Resorts could not have come at a better time. The company is in the middle of a number of initiatives that require their involvement. For example, Vail Resorts is launching a summer program called Epic Discovery on its mountains that has been a decade-long project. This program is set to include zip lines, rope challenge courses, a mountain coaster, and educational nature walks. Shapiro refers to it as a “shining example” of what can be accomplished when a private and public partnership commits to a common vision.
The legal and public affairs team worked for years to secure permits and approvals from state and federal government agencies. “A lot of people have invested a lot of time, and I’m super excited to get up there,” Shapiro says. “Epic Discovery will let tens of thousands of people experience the mountain in a whole new way.”
It’s easy to see how this job keeps Shapiro busy, but somehow he still manages to find time to give back to the community. He serves on the board of directors for Children’s Hospital Colorado, a position he’s held for the last couple of years and finds quite rewarding. “I have the honor and privilege of being a small part of the many large miracles that this fine group performs every day. I leave that place every time with this amazing feeling of hope, accomplishment, and heroism by what’s going on there,” Shapiro says. “I get to give back to the community, help one of our most vulnerable community populations, and feel like I’m making a meaningful impact.”