Sometimes the prize is in the process

January 1, 2015

CEI_NEALL_ALDEN_STORYBANNER

Entrepreneur. Workaholic. Wicked sense of adventure.

Neall Alden makes his living by marketing some of the best skiing and snowboarding on the planet. Building a tour business may seem like a boarder’s dream come true (you can find him on just about every kind of board out there—snow, surf, long and wake), but today Neall is standing on a precipice.

“If you’d asked me five or six years ago, I would have said that I loved my business because it was connected to skiing and snowboarding,” says the managing partner of Backside Tours. “I’m still an avid boarder—being on top of a mountain and experiencing the flow of water and snow, the soft spaces, and the wind in the trees— that’s heaven.”

But after 13 years growing his business, Neall says that now he realizes that his real passion is actually business itself—not necessarily its connection to snowboarding.


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To understand, we need to rewind a few years. Back in 2001, after dabbling in teaching, modelling and computer science, Neall found himself reinventing his career in MacEwan University’s Public Relations program. Around the same time, a friend mentioned that he was starting a ski tour business, so Neall added leading tours to his other two part-time jobs.

“I love the mountains and care about the environment, so I really liked the concept. I ended up hosting one of the first trips Backside ever did,” says Neall. “When we started talking about integrated marketing communications in class, I found myself immediately applying the ideas to Backside and ended up getting more involved with the company as a result.”

“ Business is about learning, and learning is like treading water—if you stop, you sink. ” Neall Alden

At first, Backside was an extra commitment. Neall worked at his full-time public relations job during the week, then hopped on a bus every Friday afternoon to take groups of 50 to 250 people out to the mountains, returning home in the wee hours of Sunday morning before heading into the office on Monday.

It was hard work, but it was worth it. “In the jobs I had before, I was always looking for the next best thing, but when I found Backside there was so much to tear into and room to grow that I finally felt like I was home.”

Eventually, Neall decided it was time to make his side business his full-time job.

“In the beginning, I ran Backside Tour’s Edmonton office out of the living room in my condo—working with 60 or 70 suppliers, negotiating rates, developing best practices, training staff, creating marketing plans and sponsorship packages,” says Neall. “People look at this industry and think it’s so cool—and it is—but it’s also an incredible amount of work. It’s logistics-heavy and has low margins. If you slip up once, you’re in trouble.”

So Neall focused on working hard and making sure that he and his staff didn’t slip up. By the time he was marking his third year with Backside Tours, he had three staff members working alongside him in his living room.

“It was crazy, but it was also the happiest year of my life. I wasn’t making much money, but I was working with brilliant and passionate people, and I had so much freedom.”

Thirteen years later, his paycheque is bigger, his weekends are his own and his passion is still there. But he finds himself thinking about what comes next. Because even after accomplishing so much, Neall feels there’s still room to do more.

“We’ve been very successful—we constantly hear that we’re the smoothest and easiest company to deal with—and Backside Tours has grown into the largest ski tour operator in Western Canada. It’s my baby. I still love it and I want it to do well, but I’m also ready for my baby to go away to university and get out of the house.”

While Neall doesn’t see himself ever fully walking away from Backside, he is starting to prepare his exit strategy. Not because he doesn’t care about his company, but because he’s interested in seeing what else he can create.

“For me, it’s not really about the destination,” says Neall. “It’s about building something great along the way.”

But does that something need to be a product or service he loves? Or could he be just as passionate about marketing widgets as he is about marketing the mountains?

“I could definitely work with widgets. It’s about looking at the potential a business has, building marketing strategies and analyzing the results. I see a whole bunch of new opportunities out there and I’m excited because business is about learning, and learning is like treading water—if you stop, you sink.”


Neall Alden is an alumnus of the Public Relations program. Learn more about the program at www.MacEwan.ca/PR.

 
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