Milton G. Kuolt, II The Father of Membership Camping

By Rosalie E. Leposky

When you fly on a Boeing 737 airplane, thank Milton "Milt" G. Kuolt II. He spent almost two decades with Boeing Corporation, from 1950 to 1969, and worked as business planning manager for the 737. That's where he learned the entrepreneurial skills that led him to pioneer a totally new concept in leisure-lodging accommodations -- the private membership-campground industry.

Kuolt established Thousand Trails to sell campsites in membership camp-resorts. Many of his colleagues in that venture applied what they learned at Thousand Trails to the timeshare industry at Trendwest Resorts, Inc., a Bellevue, Washington, firm that created the first purely point-based vacation club.

"Milt Kuolt is the most creative individual I know," says William F. Peare, Trendwest's chief executive officer.

Milton "Milt" G. Kuolt II

"Once Milt gets a vision, he sticks to it," says Bobby C. "Bob" Pappas, senior vice president of Trendwest's southern California region and former director of marketing and sales for Thousand Trails. "He is one of the most driven people I have ever known. He has the ability to look down the road quite a distance and calculate what needs to be done between now and as far as he can see. Milt uses others to help bring his ideas to fruition. He knows how to listen, and when he is told what needs to be modified, he gives people the accountability and responsibility to reach their goals."

The Road To Thousand Trails

In the mid-1950s, Kuolt started buying and selling small pieces of land as real-estate investments for his own account. "Real estate was an easy way to make a few dollars on top of my Boeing salary," he says. "Most of the 1950s were 'up' times at Boeing and I had a chance to learn on the job all the management and planning disciplines. I never was big on school. I still read only business publications, never for fun. I would rather be doing a deal, working on a company or with my employees, than reading a book."

A former boss once told Kuolt, "Show me by your actions what you want." Kuolt took that advice to heart. He doesn't like to tell people what to do, but would rather show them. "At Thousand Trails, my brother Milt led by example when he site-visited throughout our system," says John R. Kuolt, a Thousand Trails division manager. "He would call the sales office's attention to missed details. He expected the bathrooms to be impeccable. When they were not, he was known to clean them himself, as an example to his employees."

"I bought 648 acres in a remote location near Chehalis, Washington, midway between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle Washington, without a clear idea of what I was going to do with it," admits Kuolt. "I had to figure out what to do with it, so I came up with the idea of Thousand Trails. In remote areas, recreation lot sales did well. I had the idea that we could sell memberships for less than the lot, and offer the same benefits. With a bigger customer base and a dues revenue stream, I figured we could do a better job of property maintenance. In 1970 and 1971 I studied the concept, and in 1972 I decided to launch Thousand Trails."

Kuolt formed Thousand Trails with the help of three investors:

David Adams, a Washington rancher.

John Philip "Phil" Weyerhaeuser III (1925-1992), then an executive of the Weyerhaeuser Company in Tacoma, Washington.

Bruce R. McCaw, then a partner with three brothers in Twin City Cablevision, in Centralia, Washington. In 1987 the McCaw family sold Twin City Cablevision to financier Jack Kent Cook. Bruce and his brothers founded McCaw Cellular, which they sold to AT&T in a $12 billion stock swap in September of 1994. He is now chief executive officer of PacWest Racing Group.

Kuolt owned 90 percent of Thousand Trails and his partners owned ten percent.
Accountant Ralph F. Sites, C.P.A (1921-1987), helped Kuolt set up Thousand Trails' original books and user rates.

"When we met Kuolt," says Pappas, "he had 76 campsites with water, a clubhouse and swimming pool, and about 600 owners. Ninety percent of them were motorcyclists. The name Thousand Trails comes from the design concept that gave bikers the opportunity to ride off-road."

Kuolt and his family of six children had been regular visitors to local and state campgrounds. "I saw the need for better recreation for children and adults, campground security, individual privacy, and a better all-around level of property maintenance," he says. "Public campground rangers had difficulty maintaining control. A private campground could be set up like a private club, with established, enforced rules. Early on we discovered the owners liked our rules. Private capital needs to protect its investment and serve its client members to be profitable and grow its company.

"Thousand Trails spun off from an industry of private campsite-selling campgrounds. If you bought a campsite, it sat empty when you were away. We sold right-to-use memberships so we could shift people throughout the campground and better utilize our facilities."

Fewer than 20 people worked for Thousand Trails when Bill Peare joined the firm and turned it around. "We started with a very simple product by today's standards. When I joined Kuolt, he had two very rustic locations in Washington State: a 50-site campground in Chehalis and a 75 site campground in Leavenworth."

Cutting the Grass

"We were developing primitive campsites by hand," Kuolt recalls. "We figured there would be less landscaping and landscape management if we kept it primitive. Gardeners were costly. Bill disagreed. He came to work with a lawnmower in the back of his car, and cut the knee-high grass and weeds about an half an acre or more around the clubhouse. Bill told me you have to have something better looking than what we had if you intend to sell something."

In addition to mowing the grass, Peare enhanced the appearance of the campgrounds by setting up picnic areas and horseshoe pits. He brought electricity, water, and sewage lines to the campsites, built tennis courts and clubhouses, and offered organized activities.

"Bill also brought with him an experienced lot-sales staff," Kuolt says. "They came to work and started selling. At Thousand Trails I wanted a good sales organization that would sell more than just the wilderness. Bill and I were in lockstep. Everyone was there to service the customer or someone who was servicing the customer. They understood the principle of how to handle customers. I've always felt that service was the highest calling in life. We were always careful to hire people with good attitudes, who liked what they would be doing. Money was never great. We believed if we worked hard and did a superb job, our customers would be happy and would return."

Kuolt took Thousand Trails public in 1979, and sold his interest to James Jensen in mid-1981. When Peare left Thousand Trails in 1982, it had 23 campgrounds and 1,500 employees.

In 1990, when Thousand Trails fell on hard times, Kuolt formed a group -- Delta Campground Management -- that made an unsuccessful effort to buy it back.
Today Thousand Trails and an affiliated firm, National American Corporation (NACO), have a total of 53 membership-based campground locations in 17 states and British Columbia, and Thousand Trails also manages 165 public campgrounds for the U.S. Forest Service.

On the Horizon

In 1981, Kuolt started Horizon Air, which began service with one route between Seattle and Yakima, Washington. "Bruce R. McCaw and Joe Clark, chief executive officer and founder of Aviation Partners in Seattle, provided capital to help me launch Horizon Air," says Kuolt. "Joe helped with sales and service and the marketing side of Horizon's business. Bruce is a pilot. He helped with the technical development of pilots, airplane selection, and maintenance. He served as a director and vice president until 1987. In November of 1994, he became a board member of Alaska Air Group." On January 25, 1984, Horizon Air issued an 750,000 initial public offering." In January of 1987, Kuolt sold his interest in the company to Alaska Air Group, a holding company that also acquired Jet American Airlines of Long Beach, California. In October of 1987, Alaska Air Group changed its name to Alaska Airlines.

"The five years I owned Horizon Air were a wild ride," says Kuolt. "When I started Horizon I delisted and changed my phone number and have never relisted. I did not want passengers calling me at home wanting to know where was their lost baggage."

"At Horizon Air my brother Milt continued his practice of showing employees by example," recalls John R. Kuolt, who was the airline's vice president of marketing and sales. "Many times Milt would go out on the tarmac and help the baggage handlers load baggage onto the planes. He always worked in the front lines with his employees."

In 1984, Kuolt purchased Elkhorn Resort, an all-seasons resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, with which to reward Horizon's frequent fliers. Elkhorn's amenities included golf and skiing. Kuolt kept Elkhorn Resort when he sold Horizon Air. "In retrospect, it was probably a mistake not to sell Elkhorn," he recalls. "Over time the hotel has had several different hospitality-management companies, none of whom made a profit. Before selling the resort in 1997, I refurbished the golf course, hotel rooms, and shopping plaza.

Kuolt's more recent entrepreneurial activities include participation as an investor or board member for two start-up airlines: AirPortland, Inc. now known as The Coast Airlines, in Portland, Oregon; and National Airlines, in Las Vegas, Nevada. He also has served as board chairman of GlobeNet, a computer-software company; and Los Flamingos Villas, an executive golfing retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Now 72, he lives in Seattle.

"At both of my companies, Thousand Trails and Horizon Air, I attribute my success to my understanding service to others and to my 1,000 employees," Kuolt says.

Passage From India

Milton G. "Milt" Kuolt II was born and raised in a little village between Madras and Bangalore, India. He is one of four children of The Rev. Milton G. "Milt" Kuolt Sr., a Missouri Synod Lutheran missionary minister, and Martha C. Kuolt. Both are now deceased.

"In 1940, when I was 13, we moved from India to St. Louis County, Missouri, first Webster Groves and then Maplewood. In late 1941 or early 1942, Dad joined the Navy Chaplain Corps and we moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After World War II, The Rev. Kuolt stayed in the Navy until he retired.

"I was supposed to graduate from high school in 1945, but instead I joined the Navy. I was not doing well, and the school officials told me if I joined the Navy I could receive my diploma in the service. My teachers were happy when I enlisted. I have always been lazy when it comes to studies, but driven when it comes to business."
Kuolt spent his military service assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. Discharged at the end of 1946, he attended the Bartlett School of Tree Surgery in Stanford, Connecticut. Then he and a high-school classmate started their own tree-surgery company, Gunther & Kuolt Tree Experts.

"My father kept telling me that without college I never would amount to anything. At age 19, I sold my interest in the business to my partner and went west to San Diego, where I had heard about a college scholarship for wrestling. To prepare for the scholarship, I took a job working in the woods for Weyerhaeuser Corporation. My first week in the woods, a log hit my leg.

"A friend told me about Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Figuring that I would be on crutches for awhile, I decided to go to college."

Starting at the Bottom

Kuolt never was a good student. He hated to study, and squeaked through in 1950 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He was married, had a small son, and needed a job, so he took an entry-level janitor position with Boeing and for the next 19 years worked his way up through the ranks.

That son, Milton G. "Damian" Kuolt III, now 48, became one of Thousand Trails' early salespersons at the age of 21. "We were using phone rooms to generate leads and in-home appointments," Damian recalls. "My first day, after a couple of no-show appointments, I saw a house with a 30-foot motor home in the driveway." Damian walked over to this home and its owner set up an evening appointment with five of his friends. "Dad was nervous, so he came along. Just as I was getting ready to close, one of the men, with his arms crossed over his chest, asked what were the guarantees that what I promised would happen. Dad jumped up from his seat in the rear of the room and answered, 'There is no guarantee! It is going to happen because I am telling you I am going to do it.'"

In 1992, Damian Kuolt and Glen Rawlins founded GlobeNet Software in Mexico City. Today GlobeNet's corporate office is in Tempe, Arizona. GlobeNet is a premier provider of enterprise-management software for the direct-selling industry. "Dad is chairman of the board of directors of GlobeNet," says Damian. "Three of my family members work with me. My uncle, John R. Kuolt, 63, is director of marketing. One of my sisters, Sandra C Kuolt, 39, is a receptionist. The other, Suzanne L. Kuolt, 45, is business coordinator for administration." Milt Kuolt divorced in 1976. In 1981 he married Kathy L. Anderson. Widowed in November of 1998, he lives in Seattle with their eight-year old daughter, Jamie Milagro.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

Copyright 1999 Ampersand Communications
All Rights Reserved
Published in The Resort Trades, August 1999

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