A wildly successful business and sports mogul imbues his Montana guest ranch with a conservationist cowboy’s spirit.
Montana’s Paradise Valley was surely named in October. Beneath a moody sky, paper-white aspen trunks are crowned in a gold shimmer. At the foot of snow-dusted Emigrant Peak, the Yellowstone River runs inky-black. Within this quiet expanse of pine forest and cattle pastures, Arthur Blank finds himself at his Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. From the main highway, a dirt road winds 4½ miles along tumbling Big Creek, leading to a main guest complex, cozily tucked beneath towering pines.
Blank purchased the ranch, where he and his family had often visited as guests, in 2002. Nearly 15 years later, it’s still a sacred spot for him and his wife, Angie, who together have nine children, five grandchildren, and four dogs. And it’s also a special place for their guests. Family defines the core of the Mountain Sky experience.
“Often you go away on vacation and everyone arrives, unpacks, and goes their separate ways. A lot of what we do here brings families together,” Blank says. “All my children come here and love it. My family and our guests go on rides, hikes, fishing, and play golf. Everyone can do things separately too. But bringing people together in a unique setting, seeing them come back year after year, that speaks for itself. There are guests who have been coming back longer than I’ve been here.”
Mountain Sky began as a cattle camp in 1866 and eventually became Ox Yoke Ranch. The working ranch opened to guests in 1929 to supplement its income during the Great Depression and has offered visitors the chance to share in its rustic elegance since.
A historic chinked log cabin now serves as a retail shop. Bison and elk skulls festoon the original weathered boards of the corral outbuildings. Sepia photos of the Livingston Roundup Rodeo hang from the saloon walls in the main lodge. The same honky-tonk band, Western Skies, has played for guests every weekend for the last 17 years. In spite of strong adherence to Western tradition, the ranch is outfitted with luxury amenities, including a spa, an outdoor swimming pool, yoga classes, tennis and basketball courts, fine dining, and a new golf course.
Sprawling across 10,000 acres adjacent to Gallatin National Forest and a mere 30-minute drive away from Yellowstone National Park, the ranch presents guests with exceptional hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and other wilderness experiences. Staff tailor programs to suit all levels of outdoor recreation abilities through unique programs such as weekly fly-fishing lessons, an elaborate ropes course, a sophisticated kids’ program, tours of Yellowstone, and a results-oriented equine program that steers away from complacent nose-to-tail trail riding.
“I’ve worked at a few ranches, and I’m here because of the riding program,” assistant wrangler Julie Tate says. “We’re going to challenge you. We keep riders comfortable but interested. The ranch is backed up to national forest, and there’s lots of trail variety, so you can never get bored.”
It’s this commitment to unique experiences and guest satisfaction that garnered Mountain Sky recognition by The Signature Ranch Awards, and it’s the reason Blank and his team received the 2015 Gene Kilgore World’s Best Ranches Award, a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, and a AAA Four Diamond Award. Success comes naturally to Blank, perhaps best known as cofounder of The Home Depot and owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Blank radiates a distinct old-fashioned gentility and quiet self-possession. Raised in a Jewish family in Queens, he speaks calmly, with a mild New York accent. He demonstrates a Southern predisposition for hospitality and ease, reflecting his years in Georgia. He’s someone who effortlessly and genuinely fits into any environment in which he finds himself, whether in a three-piece Italian suit on the sidelines or in a pearl-snap and boots on horseback. But in spite of his elegant presence, Blank is someone who knows how to focus and power through the gritty work required to build something of monumental significance.
His management philosophy hasn’t changed much since opening the first Home Depot store. Mountain Sky and the home improvement retailer hold more in common than one would think.
“Our philosophy was unique in the ’70s and ’80s. It still is today. It’s about how to make the right decisions for the customer. It’s based on forming a relationship between us and the people we’re serving,” Blank explains. “We find that, long-term, if we do the right thing for the right reason — and not because things are measured financially — we achieve an important connection and loyalty. Here, at Mountain Sky, the orientation is exactly the same. We’re about serving guests, connecting them with themselves, with their families, with the outdoors — it’s called living our values.”
Blank retired from his role as co-chairman of the superstore chain in 2001, at which time the company had become a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
But “retirement” is loosely interpreted in Blank’s vocabulary. In 2002, he purchased the Falcons, the same year he acquired Mountain Sky.
“If I were a scratch golfer, I still wouldn’t golf every day. I enjoy it when I get a chance to play, but I love adding value to life, making a difference for people. There’s a poster I got years ago from Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. It reads, ‘There is no finish line.’ I was an avid runner for 45 years, averaged 35 miles per week. Now I walk. Bad knee,” he says with a shrug. “But that line can be applied to my life.”
A slightly troublesome knee has hardly impeded Blank, who at age 74 is blessed with the constitution of a man of 54 years, according to his physiologist. Today, the Blank Family of Businesses includes not only the Falcons and Mountain Sky, but also Mercedes-Benz Stadium, soccer franchise Atlanta United FC, PGA Tour Superstore, AMB Group LLC, and The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, a nonprofit entity.
“I recently hired a great CEO. He’s running all of our for-profit businesses and doing a wonderful job. It lets me focus on my personal life,” Blank says. “But it also gives me time to do the things for our for-profit businesses that I really enjoy doing, that is, spending time with our guests, our sponsors, our fans, associates, being an ambassador in ways that are meaningful.”
Community building is part of the ranch experience, within the staff, between staff and guests, and between the ranch and Paradise Valley. Blank emphasizes this connection: “At some guest ranches, there is a bright line between guests and staff. Here, we encourage staff to mix and mingle with the guests, in activities, at the bar. A lot of interesting people come here and they enjoy exchanging views with one another. You can see that camaraderie at the dinner table every night.”
The feeling of belonging to an extended family shows with the guests. Most sign up for their next trip on the last day of their first. Among those returning are country music celebrity Zac Brown and his family.
“Mountain Sky provided some of the best family quality time that we’ve ever experienced. The beautiful setting and relaxing atmosphere is something we look forward to every year,” Brown says. “Getting to know Arthur and his family has truly been a blessing. I admire his entrepreneurial spirit, how much he genuinely values people and wants to create opportunities for them.”
Guest reviews are consistently glowing, but that hasn’t coaxed Blank and his team into complacency. As the owner of America’s largest golf retailer, PGA Tour Superstore, Blank knew he wanted a world-class course at Mountain Sky. With a $12 million budget and the expertise of Johnny Miller, a 25-time PGA Tour champion and renowned golf course designer, the ranch now features a unique nine-hole course, driving range, clubhouse, indoor hitting bays, and even Callaway clubs for guests to borrow. The course will soon expand to 18 holes.
“The land really spoke to me here. I tried to make the course look as natural as possible. We didn’t have to move much earth. We fit it to the landscape and got the scale correct. It’s a fun course, and it’s very playable,” Miller says. He also shared how much he enjoyed working with Blank: “There’s something about Arthur. ... You can feel his natural leadership and his love of that ranch. I was kind of out of the design business when he reached out. It’s an extreme compliment that he would ask me to do it. I’m excited about completing the next nine.”
While Blank loves to golf or head into the mountains on his favorite mare — a buckskin named Trinity, outfitted with a saddle studded with silver Falcons
conchos — he’s spent the bulk of this ranch visit interviewing candidates for the position of land and agriculture manager.
“This manager has a year-round relationship with people here in the valley. We encourage being a good neighbor in every sense of the word. That means how we treat livestock, what we decide to grow here,” Blank says. The ranch runs 200 head of cattle, which largely supply the kitchen with grass-fed beef, and guests can participate in a weekly cattle drive. Hay sales are also taken very seriously.
The ranch’s location in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem means it provides critical habitat for the charismatic species for which the region is known, from elk to grizzly bears. Mountain Sky boasts one of the most successful native cutthroat trout restoration projects in the area in its creeks, which flow into the Yellowstone River. Blank adheres to a forward-thinking conservation management philosophy: “In order for us to be active in the conservation community, we have to ensure we’re doing it right on our own ranch. We don’t want people to say, ‘You don’t deserve a seat at the table because frankly, your own ranch is not well-run.’ ”
Blank is a signatory of The Giving Pledge. With that, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has given more than $300 million to diverse causes, from the wilds of Montana to the Westside of Atlanta, demonstrating that any business in a locale can gracefully integrate into the fabric of any local community. Ultimately, Blank follows what has heart and meaning for him and his family.
“Ninety-five percent of my estate will end up in our family foundation. One thing that gives my associates joy in their work is that they know the value they’re producing is going to end up recycled back in society in some way,” he says.
Unknown to most, Blank created the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch Fund, which has granted more than $3.7 million in the Montana counties of Park and Gallatin. The fund is managed by ranch staff, who review applications and select recipients.
“A very high percentage of the profitability of the ranch is contributed back through the guest fund. It’s about being a good neighbor and giving back,” Blank says. “We don’t think the best decisions for Park and Gallatin counties can be made in Atlanta, Georgia. We think they need to be made locally. And we think our staff is tuned in to what the needs are of these communities.”
Additionally, the ranch makes its amenities available to about 90 different local nonprofit groups, including Outward Bound and Heroes and Horses, an equine wilderness therapy program for combat veterans suffering from PTSD. The local Future Farmers of America chapter is invited to use the property as an educational site, and first-time youth hunters who have completed safety courses are permitted to hunt certain sections.
In many a man’s heart, he wants to be a cowboy, an experience often craved in the fast world in which we live. How does that translate for Blank, from growing up in Queens to living in Atlanta to moving into this Western space? He reaches toward the coffee table and presents a book given to him by his daughter, Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn From the Code of the West.
“For me, the cowboy aspect of it is not really about being a great rider, but about a simple way of life, getting in touch with the things that are most meaningful — the world we live in, the connection between ourselves and the ground we walk upon, family, friends, and neighbors,” Blank says. “It has to do with the work ethic, integrity, and principles. Cowboys shake hands, and that’s the only agreement you need.”
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch is open May through October. Guests may fly into Bozeman International Airport and arrange a shuttle with the ranch. For inquiries and reservations, call 800.548.3392 or visit them online.
From the February/March 2017 issue.