By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BIG SKY – Barb Rooney is at her desk in the Summit Hotel at Big Sky. She talks fast. She has to, because she won’t be there long. She supervises hundreds of employees and is always on the go.
Without office windows, she can’t see the Ramcharger chairlift, just steps away from the Summit at Big Sky, the ski-in, ski-out hotel she helped create in 2000. Her desk is busy, covered with papers. A bright painting on the wall depicts a tiny frog inside a sea of red flowers.
“I first came [to Big Sky] on a ski vacation over j-term in college,” said Rooney, referring to a five-week optional January term while attending the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
Rooney continued to visit Big Sky during summer and winter breaks for three years, working intermittently at the Big Sky Golf Course and waiting tables at Chet’s Bar and Grill and Whiskey Jack’s.
In 1991, after earning a degree in marketing management and a minor in sociology, Rooney accepted a full-time position in reservations with the resort. Her work in family businesses from age 11, including a hardware store, sporting goods store and rental center back home in Alexandria, Minn. prepared her for the job.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Rooney, pushing a blond lock of hair behind her ear. “Big Sky tends to promote from within and I was given large opportunities early.”
These opportunities included one taking over lodging for Big Sky Resort in 1996 as hotel manager, in charge of the resort’s 400 units at the time. Her office then was in the Huntley Lodge and the position involved some growing pains.
“It was a lot of learning,” Rooney recalled. “And trial by error. It was long hours and long days working hard, trying to earn respect. At the same time I was trying to be the best mom I could be.”
Rooney had her first son, Eddie in 1998, and her second four years later, Frankie. They’ve kept their mother on her toes and she now says the 14- and 10-year-old, respectively, remain her first priority as a single mother.
“As you’re developing your career, your children come first,” said Rooney, who spends what free time she has skiing her favorite run, Congo, with her boys in winter and hiking and camping with them in summer.
In 2000, Rooney helped develop and open the Summit Hotel. It was a large undertaking for someone fairly new to the world of resorts and lodging, but the right people took notice.
“It’s the most sophisticated lodging our community has ever seen,” said Taylor Middleton, Big Sky Resort’s general manager. “And Barb took it from paper to where it is now.”
The 10-story, roughly 230-room hotel sees high-end clients and celebrities, and in August 2009 the Summit hosted President Obama after he spent the day fly-fishing on the Madison River. The First Family spent time rafting the Gallatin and taking in Yellowstone Park.
“It was surreal,” Rooney said, of meeting the president. “It was raining and cold and he had just spent the day fishing, but he was very warm and cordial.”
The next year, Vice-President Joe Biden stayed at the Summit, after hiking Beehive Basin and jumping off the green bridge.
“Taylor [Middleton] gave him a piece of petrified wood and Biden gave Taylor a coin and said if he ever stopped by the house with the coin, he’d be invited in for a drink.”
“Most hoteliers spend their whole careers and don’t have the opportunity to host a sitting president,” Middleton said. “And Barb hosted [Obama and Biden] in two years.”
Rooney keeps busy, both at the resort and in the community, and Big Sky’s many boards allow her to stay involved. She’s a member of the Big Sky Owners Association; the Finance and Audit Committee and Big Brothers, Big Sisters; and is Chair of the Big Sky Community Corporation. Rooney feels a strong connection to the area. The community in turn, feels the connection to her.
“Barb does a lot in the community,” said BSCC Executive Director Jessie Wiese. “I don’t know how she finds the time to do it all. Everybody is passionate in the organization and she’s a really great example of that.”
Katie Coleman, BSCC’s Camp Big Sky director, has a particularly close relationship with Rooney.
“I’ve known Barb since ’99,” Coleman said. “And I’ve been nannying the boys since Frankie was four.”
Coleman recognizes Rooney’s contributions to both local organizations and the people in her life.“She’s such a strong, independent woman and a great role model for her children. She’s on top of it all the time.”
And she needed to be over the past few weeks. From Dec. 28 – 30, Big Sky Resort lodging was at capacity, Rooney said. The resort set a record for single-day skier visits on Dec. 29. The next week, skier numbers surpassed forecasted visitor amounts.
“One of Barb’s biggest assets is her business sense,” Middleton said. “She understands what the big picture is and is fabulous at setting goals for herself and others and knows what it takes to accomplish them. She’s not an exceptional manager by accident.”
Much has changed in the Gallatin Valley since Barb Rooney started working for Big Sky Resort in 1988.
The Big Sky Chapel didn’t exist, nor did much else in the meadow, other than the post office, golf course and Country Market. Bozeman’s 19th Avenue was not yet a road and the area below the Hidden Village community en route to Big Sky Resort was a trailer park.
From living in the Hill condominiums when she first moved to Big Sky and working as a waitress, to becoming the driving force behind the resort’s nearly 900 lodging units, Rooney has watched the community grow, along with her children. She’s learned much during her tenure here and can say one thing for certain: she’s here to stay.