TAOS – The name was known to only a few around Taos Ski Valley before November. Now it’s known to practically all.
When hedge-fund billionaire Louis Moore Bacon bought New Mexico’s premier ski resort from the family who founded it 60 years ago, the news echoed around the valley like an explosive charge set in an avalanche chute.
Executives at the venerable resort, started by the late patriarch Ernie Blake, said they needed the infusion of cash that the man reported to be worth $1.4 billion can offer in order to move ahead with improvements, including expensive new ski lifts.
Bacon, 57, is often referred to in news accounts as reclusive or secretive. Attempts to reach him directly through his New York office for this story were unsuccessful.
But recent interviews with others and past articles from around the world offer some insight into Taos Ski Valley’s new owner – one of the country’s wealthiest individuals with homes around the globe, an avid bow-hunter and a diehard conservationist.
Bacon spends his time in New York, London’s posh Knightsbridge district and Scotland, among other spots, including a sprawling ranch in Colorado and ski trips to Taos.
But Bacon doesn’t necessarily fit into all of the stereotypes of a full-fledged member of the “1 percent” (he was number 347 on the Forbes magazine list of 400 richest Americans in 2012 before slipping to 371 in 2013).
He does make numerous and large political contributions. In 2012, he gave at least $500,000 to a “super PAC” supporting Mitt Romney and has also provided financial support to other prominent Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, former Hewlitt-Packard CEO and California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
He’s also sprinkled campaign money on Democrats, including U.S. senators and cousins Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But he’s best known for – besides being rich and a successful, prescient hedge-fund manager with his Moore Capital Management – his dedication to conservationist causes. Through the Moore Charitable Foundation, Bacon gives to organizations that support the outdoor values he was imbued with from his North Carolina youth.
So much so that in 2013 he was awarded the Audubon Medal given by the National Audubon Society “in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of conservation and environmental protection.” Environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. said in 2010 that Bacon was the “single largest supporter” of Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance.
The mission of Bacon’s foundation “is to help preserve and protect natural resources for future generations,” said Ann Colley, vice president of the foundation, in an emailed response to questions from the Journal.
“We also support local community groups, educational and emergency services in our geographic priority areas.”
Bacon, whose good looks have earned him descriptions such as “hedge hunk” and “handsome in the manner of an Eddie Bauer catalog model,” sometimes makes international headlines with his personal life, as well. He had a well-publicized spat with a billionaire neighbor in the Bahamas a few years ago in which he was accused of using giant speakers as “sound cannons” to counter-balance the neighbor’s loud music.
But he also camps out with a rough-hewn outdoorsman in the Taos area.
Bacon bonded and has camped with longtime ski valley local Al “Big Al” Johnson, who is originally from Texas, apparently over a shared interest in skiing and hunting. Johnson said recently he could not “at this time” do any interviews about his friend.
Former U.S. senator, Colorado attorney general and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has known Bacon personally for several years. Salazar met Bacon at the annual meeting of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Fund when he was the Obama administration’s first Interior chief.
In a recent interview, Salazar said they see each other several times a year and worked together on the Sangre de Cristo National Conservation Area. For that project, Bacon put 167,000 acres from his southern Colorado ranch holdings into a permanent conservation easement, the largest ever given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That doesn’t mean public access for the land, but protects it from development. Similarly, an 8,500-acre North Carolina plantation he purchased in 2010 and is restoring is closed to the public.
Bacon purchased the 172,000 Blanca Trinchera Ranch, in the San Luis Valley not far from the New Mexico border, from the Malcolm Forbes family in 2007 for $175 million, reported at the time to be the country’s most expensive residential sale ever. A few years later, Bacon spent millions to fight off efforts by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to build a power line across the ranch, home of Mount Blanca, Colorado’s third-highest peak.
That was a high-profile win for Bacon and conservationists, although the power line path also had support from some solar power advocates and at least one environmental policy group (and the conservation easement, by the way, provided Bacon with a tax break).
But now Tri-State is eyeing the possibility of running the line from Alamosa, Colo., south to a site somewhere west of Taos – and through the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, where opposition again would be expected.
“He’s a conservationist at heart,” said Salazar of Bacon. “He’s a very nice man. He understands the importance of wildlife and sustainability.”
Salazar and Bacon are now putting their political muscle and shared conservation credentials into a political action committee, America’s Conservation Action Committee. “That’s going to be an effort to support candidates who have an interest in conservation, preservation and outdoor recreation, ” Salazar said.
Salazar said Bacon’s purchase of Taos Ski Valley bodes well for northern New Mexico. “I think he has shown his good neighbor relationship in the San Luis Valley. He and the (Trinchera) ranch have become a good part of the community.”
A Bacon representative recently met with a group of about 10 conservation-minded Taos-area residents. Some local environmentalists, such as the Amigos Bravos group, have previously raised concerns about the ski valley expansion that Bacon’s money now will help fund.
Roberta Salazar, director of Rivers and Birds in Taos, said a topic of conversation was federal legislation to create a Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area above the ski valley in the Carson National Forest. “Louis Bacon is very interested in the Columbine Hondo campaign,” Roberta Salazar said.
“I just think he has a demonstrated conservation track record that looks very good,” she added. “… He has a reputation for listening to the local community. That’s a really good sign.”
She’s not worried about which politicians Bacon has supported with campaign money. “All I look at is his on-the-ground conservation record,” she said. “He is progressive in that way and cares about the land.”
Bacon has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservation groups and other nonprofits in southern Colorado. “We look forward to learning more about northern New Mexico and discovering how best to further the foundation’s mission in the area,”said Colley.
Bacon has been one of the most successful hedge-fund traders of the past two decades, managing a reported $15 billion in assets in 2012. Numerous news stories have predicted he will downsize under federal Dodd-Frank legislation that requires large hedge funds to register with the Securities & Exchange Commission and provide details about their risk management, trading, and disciplinary records.
The success has not been without some controversies.
Last year, Moore Capital Management agreed to pay $48.4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit asserting that the hedge fund manipulated platinum and palladium prices. In 2010, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission had fined Moore Capital $25 million for similar activity. Moore Capital issued a statement at the time saying it had cooperated with the investigation, that the trades in question were by someone who’d left the firm and that none of its principals or management was involved.
Moore is also a funder of a Connecticut not-for-profit intended to promote “best practices” in the investment world.
Stephen McMenamin, a University of New Mexico graduate, is the executive director of that organization, Greenwich Roundtable. When he read about the Taos deal, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic,’ ” said McMenamin. “A guy like him is not necessarily out to be economic, make a profit. … A guy like him recognizes that Taos is a special place, but I have no idea what he is thinking. I just know Louis by his deeds.”
“They (Moore Capital) helped us fund a best practices series of white papers for our members,” McMenamin said.
“He’s one of the good guys … he’s very generous,” said McMenamin. “He’s a philanthropist and he’s very much concerned about his community, both the professional and personal community.”
Bacon’s money generator, the global hedge fund market, is not for your average investor – it’s only for individuals with deep pockets and institutions.
“He’s one of the original global macro traders,” McMenamin said. “It means they literally scour the world for investments and they don’t limit themselves to a particular asset class like bonds, stocks, currencies or commodities. They use all of those instruments to build a portfolio.”
Bacon famously foresaw the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which sparked the first Gulf War, and how it would affect oil prices, and he invested accordingly. He had started his first fund shortly before that with a $25,000 inheritance from his mother.
He’d previously begun a career on Wall Street after attending some of the top schools in the East, receiving a bachelor’s degree in American literature from Middlebury College in Vermont and an MBA in finance from the Colombia Business School.
Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zukerman covers the hedge fund market. “He’s one of the most successful and respected hedge fund managers out there,” said Zukerman. “He is well known for taking a more macro prospective – not so much just specific stocks. … He’s definitely one of the major players.”
In 2012, Bacon returned $2 billion to his investors after the European financial crisis hit traders like him hard and fund returns were down. In a letter to investors, Bacon wrote, “I am more comfortable taking down the size of the fund than increasing the size of the positions in order to give clients an adequate return given the fees they are paying.”
Invested in Taos Ski Valley
Bacon also invested in Taos Ski Valley before he bought it, through his Belvedere Property Management company, and has worked with the ski valley for about five years on the real estate side, Chris Stagg, the ski valley’s vice president of marketing, said in November.
Bacon, who’s married twice and has six children, owns land in the valley across from the Thunderbird Lodge and the Kachina Village. He saw the ski valley deal “as a unique, and once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Peter Talty, vice president of Belvedere Property Management, via email.
The U.S. Forest Service approved the valley’s master plan in 2012 for an expansion, adding lifts to increase the lift-served, skiable terrain by 60 percent and to improve base-area amenities. The base area plan calls for replacing the old building that houses the rental shop and ticket office. New condos in the valley are also in the works.
“This purchase … brings investment to the table and allows us to go forward with development,” Stagg said.
In January, the ski valley announced a key part of the expansion, the $3 million installation of the Kachina Peak Lift. That will open up territory that was previously accessible only by a high-altitude, 40-minute hike.
Some Taos residents had mixed feelings in November when they found out that the local ownership of the ski valley had vanished into history. “We’ve had this private enclave, and it’s all going to change,” said local bar manager Evan Blish.
Chef Steve White said he cooked for a Bacon camping outing years ago. “He seemed like a really nice guy,” White said.
In any case, if you are looking for Bacon on the slopes, his staff’s responses to the Journal said he rates himself an “advanced” skier, and “his favorite run is whatever gives the most challenge and exhilaration.”