Q Empire: The man behind the Northeast Kingdom's biggest plan - VTDigger

Q Empire: The man behind the Northeast Kingdom’s biggest plan

Ariel Quiros whispers to Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Ariel Quiros whispers to Gov. Peter Shumlin during a press conference at Jay Peak’s Stateside Hotel and Baselodge. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Ariel Quiros is the entrepreneurial force behind Jay Peak ski resort and the $600 million Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative – one of the largest development projects ever attempted in Vermont.

Though the project is high profile, Quiros is not. The international tycoon, though sometimes seen, is seldom heard.

The first generation American stands out at press conferences for his mystique: When he’s not got the ear of the governor, Quiros is most often seen standing uncomfortably before a crowd with pursed lips, staring silently and expressionless, at nothing in particular, through ice blue eyes.

Quiros quietly presides over an integrated set of projects that together constitute the largest private investment Vermont has ever seen: expansions at Jay Peak, development of the newly renamed Q Burke Mountain ski area, the mixed use Renaissance Block planned for downtown Newport, the future site of a biotech firm in the same town, and the promise of a new and improved Newport State Airport in Coventry.

“I make the vision,” he says quietly, a touch of gravel in his voice after 20-plus years of smoking.

His accent, clearly from New York, is also infused with the Puerto Rican and Venezuelan accents of his mother and father, respectively. He speaks three languages and his English borrows sometimes a tense from Spanish or a cadence from Korean, his wife’s native tongue.

He just sees things, Quiros says. He gets a vision for what can be, ignores all obstacles, and surrounds himself with people who can make it happen.

And they do, which is why Quiros likes to keep to himself. Business risk is thrilling, but trust is a precious commodity for a millionaire. Quiros is generous with friends, but says he hasn’t fought for all he’s built to give it away, much less have it taken.

His trusted partners include Bill Stenger, Jay Peak’s president and partial owner, and a longtime friend to Quiros. Bill Kelly, a sailing buddy from Florida, serves as Quiros’ legal counsel and sidekick in virtually all his business ventures — of which there are many.

Quiros has melded street smarts from New York, military sensibilities from the Korean Demilitarized Zone and a love of adventure into a business empire that spans the globe, starting with international trade from Korea in the early 1980s.

As his holdings continue to grow and Quiros grows older — he’s 57 now — he increasingly looks to his children, Ary and Nicole, to step into the family trade. From New York, Nicole applies her master’s degree in accounting. From the Northeast Kingdom, Ary, the eldest son, consults on aviation matters at the Newport State Airport and most recently stepped into management at Q Burke Mountain.

What is EB-5?

The federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor program allows would-be immigrants to get a fast track to green cards in exchange for investments of $1 million — or $500,000 in rural areas such as most of Vermont. If 10 jobs worth of economic activity can be attributed to the investment, the immigrant’s conditional visa turns into a green card.

The family’s path in Vermont has been paved by three governors and one U.S. senator — Democrat Patrick Leahy — all of whom are champions of the federal Immigrant Investor Program. EB-5, a special investor program that fast-tracks green cards for foreign nationals who invest in American businesses, is the unconventional funding mechanism Quiros and Stenger are using to finance what they say will be a transformation of the state’s poorest and most rural region.

Yet many in the state who do business with Quiros have never met the man, and most Vermonters may not even know his name.

Quiros would just as soon keep it that way. He has, by design, remained behind the scenes.

The Quiros Family

Quiros’ path as an entrepreneur began long ago, as a boy selling Chiclets chewing gum to classmates for double his cost from a locker at the Catholic Good Shepherd School in New York City. He sold Christmas cards door-to-door, newspapers, even blue jeans from the subway station at 125th Street in Harlem.

“When you have to survive, that’s when you become an entrepreneur,” Quiros says.

As a child, he didn’t have so much a vision for his future as a love for living on the edge. He didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. He just knew it would be “against the grain,” he says.

Quiros is one of six children whose father worked in a chocolate factory in New York City to support the family. With the help of his eldest brother Luis, Ariel Quiros graduated from the prestigious Trinity-Pawling private school in New York. But instead of pursuing his education at Norwich University or The Citadel — both schools where he was accepted — Quiros joined the Army.

As the family legend goes, Ary and his little sister, Nicole, were born in Germany during the time Ariel Quiros guarded Adolf Hitler’s deputy and Nazi party leader, Rudolf Hess. They joke that Ary was born in Cell Block 3.

“It was boring. A lot of paperwork,” Ariel Quiros says of his time at Spandau Prison. Nonetheless, it remains a point of pride. When he wasn’t with Hess, Quiros took turns with British, French and Soviet military personnel guarding the Berlin Wall at Checkpoints Charlie, Alpha, Delta and Bravo.

Ariel and his wife, Okcha, later returned to Korea to raise their family. They had met there when Ariel, as a soldier in the late 1970s, accidentally bumped her with a pool stick one day in an Army recreation center.

Ariel Quiros stood briefly after the opening of Jay Peak Resort's Stateside Hotel to announce he had purchased the company bringing light plane manufacturing to the state-owned Newport State Airport. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Ariel Quiros stood briefly after the opening of Jay Peak Resort’s Stateside Hotel to announce he had purchased the company bringing light plane manufacturing to the state-owned Newport State Airport. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

“She was so small, and so cute,” Quiros says. Though his voice can boom at times, he more often whispers and leans in when he talks. “She became to like me,” he says. A year later, they were wed.

When Quiros asked Okcha to marry him, he didn’t orchestrate an elaborate proposal. “Wanna marry me?” he asked. They’ve been together 38 years.

“When I gotta speak, I gotta speak,” Quiros says. “My mind is very fast. I can’t hold it down,” he admits. “I get into trouble all the time.”

He often laughs when he talks, especially when he talks about himself. People try to tell him what he can and can’t say, how he should dress, “all that stuff,” he says. “I can’t even sit right at a table.”

But he gets the work done, he says. Give him a task, and he’ll do it.

“The problem is, I make the task!” he laughs.

Quiros’ Vermont connection

Quiros says he came to Vermont as a boy with his family to visit Island Pond, Jay and Burke in the summers. He would return with his own family to vacation decades later.

Ary Quiros recalls road trips north from Miami when they’d trailer their Hummer and come for adventure — creating a risk-taking dynamic Ariel Quiros says he deliberately fostered as a way of keeping family bonds strong.

To this day, father, son and daughter Nicole all ride motorcycles, sail and scuba dive. Nicole, like her brother Ary, is a pilot.

For years, Quiros brought his family to Jay Peak for vacations. Stenger, who has been in charge of the resort since 1985, says he and Quiros struck up a friendship, and Quiros posed a question one day: If you were going to build yourself a second home here, where would it be? Stenger showed Quiros some townhouses under development at the time. But where exactly would you put your house? Quiros wanted to know.

“Well, there’s one particular building and if I were gonna build a second home, I’d put it here,” Stenger says, standing at what he considered the best site on the mountain. “He said, ‘I’d like this unit,'” Stenger recalls. They shook on it, even though Stenger had no way of knowing how much it would cost at the time, he says.

Whether the house took four months or two years to build, and whether Quiros paid up front or when he got the keys depends on which one of the two you ask.

“He trusted me to build something he wanted, and I trusted him that when it came time to pay, he’d give me the money,” Stenger says.

Bill Stenger, owner of Jay Peak and Burke Mountain resorts, shows lawmakers plans for development in the Northeast Kingdom on Feb. 5, 2013,at Jay Peak. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Bill Stenger, owner of Jay Peak and Burke Mountain resorts, shows lawmakers plans for development in the Northeast Kingdom last February at Jay Peak. File photo by Nat Rudarakanchana/VTDigger

Stenger returned to that trust — and financial capacity — in 2006 when Jay Peak’s ownership structure shifted after the death of Jacques Hebert. Stenger and others approached Quiros with a pitch to purchase the resort.

“They said, ‘Quiros, you’re the only guy who loves camping and all the stuff up here, and you have the whereabouts [sic] to do it with banks and everything,'” Quiros recounts in a typically imprecise manner. “And I said, ‘OK.'”

Stenger says he had previously talked about his development plans for the mountain with Quiros, whom Stenger describes as a “quick study.” Within three months of serious discussions, they sealed a buyout plan.

“We’re both pretty short stories when it comes to making decisions,” Stenger says. “When you’ve got someone who understands quickly and agrees with the objective, that’s a pretty good formula.”

So good, in fact, that their partnership has grown to channel even more of the federal Immigrant Investor program’s financing capacity into Jay Peak and the region.

Family footsteps

Ariel Quiros says he raised Ary more as a friend than a son.

“I wanted him to see me as his brother,” Quiros says. They would go on adventures together and push the limits, he says. To this day, the two can’t get in a car without getting stuck.

“We can’t get in a sailboat together. They’ll be a big wind and some dramatic shit’s going to happen, that’s just the way it is,” Quiros says, beaming. “He wants to show he’s tougher than I am, I wanna show I know better than him. And whoop!” With his right hand, Quiros makes a flipping motion. “Done.”

Ariel Quiros describes his own character as very “military.” And Ary Quiros recounts a traditional Korean upbringing — disciplined, with strong emphasis on family and high expectations for the eldest son.

Ary Quiros rebelled in some ways to find his own boundaries, but also takes his father’s guidance very seriously.

When the son wanted to enlist as an Army soldier, for example, the elder Quiros resisted. He didn’t mind Ary gaining military experience — wanted that for him, in fact. But Quiros pushed his son toward a future as an officer.

“I had to save him. He’s my only son,” Quiros says.

Ary Quiros looks on at a summer press conference announcing the plane manufacturing facility he will help his father, Ariel Quiros, bring to the Newport State Airport. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Ary Quiros looks on at a summer press conference announcing the plane manufacturing facility he will help his father, Ariel Quiros, bring to the Newport State Airport. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Ary Quiros also attended Pace University in New York, rather than a nearby college in Florida, where his father wanted him to stay. But after Pace and Ary’s tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ariel Quiros got his wish – closer proximity to his son.

Ary earned a master’s degree in business administration from Norwich University — one of the schools his father had turned down for soldiering. And the son has worked with his father at several businesses in Korea, Florida and Puerto Rico since 2000.

Family friend and legal counsel Bill Kelly says Quiros had guided his son toward hospitality management years before Stenger and Quiros announced their sweeping Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative in September 2012. By that time, Ary Quiros was nearing the end of his studies in hospitality management at the elite Les Roches Marbella International School of Hotel Management in Spain.

When Stenger and Quiros decided to establish more active ownership at their recently acquired Q Burke Mountain, Kelly says, they wanted someone from the family to step in. Ary was a natural fit and the timing was right, Kelly said, though after recent controversy at the mountain the board has realized they need to give him more support.

Ariel Quiros stops short of saying that he’s groomed his son to follow his path.

“You don’t teach these things,” he says about business. Ariel has brought Ary to meetings, guided him to various positions, exposed his son to the family trade. But he hasn’t groomed Ary, he says. He can’t.

“You have to feel this type of things. You got to have it in you,” Ariel Quiros says. “That’s why he (Ary) went into Burke headfirst. To feel it, understand it from scratch.”

“That’s how you do things. Not by the book,” he says. And not by having decisions made for you.

Carried by a vision

Semi-retired life for Quiros looks a lot like his working years. Only now, he doesn’t do it for money.

“I just work to work,” he says. “To have fun. To do good things.”

“He follows his vision,” Kelly says. Ever since he met Quiros sailing, Kelly’s been along for the ride.

It was 1998 in the Bahamas. Quiros and his family were racing his sailboat, a 42-foot Passenger named Q2. Kelly and his family were sailing in the area at the time, but didn’t know the shortcut the regatta was taking.

“Although he thinks he’s a genius,” Quiros says — loudly now, twinkling with mischief — “he’s a shithead because he couldn’t cross the Barracuda Shoals!”

“I was going to go the long way around, like most people would go!” Kelly says in his defense.

But Ariel Quiros — a perfect stranger at this point — offered to guide Kelly through a better way, from the West End through the Abaco Islands. Like the handshake with Stenger, the passage sealed their friendship and eventually their business partnership.

Quiros is an aggressive sailor, but his course is well considered, Kelly says. And as with sailing, so with business: Quiros studies the approach, attunes himself to the atmosphere, then reaches an edge that competitors can’t find.

“He’s made some hard decisions that sometimes those of us around him have a hard time following,” Kelly confesses.

“But he makes good decisions, and we do follow them because we know at the end of the day they’re the right decisions,” Kelly says. “We’ve all been around long enough to know they’re the right decisions.”

Kelly measures the difference between Quiros and countless other businessmen he knows in degrees of commitment.

“Ariel has the … financial wherewithal to commit to projects and see them through. He doesn’t jump ship,” Kelly says. “But he doesn’t have to. There are some people that get into projects and can’t finish them. That’s when the trouble starts.”

Building an empire

Quiros says that, despite his penchant for trouble, he avoids it in business by not borrowing money.

“If I had a dollar, I lived with a dollar, instead of looking for the easy way, borrowing money,” Quiros says. “That makes an entrepreneur.”

GSI Group, where he got his start in Korea, imported and exported goods ranging from shoes to women’s blouses to radios.

“I even brought cows from Nebraska. Anything you want,” Quiros adds. He specialized in raw materials, much of it for the Korean government, he says.

As he started turning a profit, he also returned to Vermont as a refuge from the major cities where he had lived: New York, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin.

“And because land was so cheap when I was making my business, I was able to buy land with my profits that I made in Korea,” Quiros says.

A sunset silhouette of Jay Peak from the nearby town of Troy illustrates the magnitude of the resort's development. The building that receives the tram up the mountain has altered the skyline. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

A sunset silhouette of Jay Peak from the nearby town of Troy illustrates the magnitude of the resort’s development. The building that receives the tram up the mountain has altered the skyline. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

But the simple way he connects many dots belies the cunning with which he executes his plans. Quiros strategically purchased a large number of properties around Jay Peak, including the land where the Stateside Hotel recently opened.

His latest acquisition, an entire city block in downtown Newport, intended for development as part of the EB-5-funded Renaissance project, closed in December for $2.85 million. Quiros bought the property through G.S.I. of Dade County Inc., a company he formed in 1994, according to documents filed with the Florida Secretary of State, and of which he remains the sole director.

Quiros has founded more than a dozen businesses and involved himself with many others. Korean biotech firm AnC Bio is planning to locate an American headquarters in Newport, financed through EB-5. Flight Design Americas Inc. is a company Quiros formed to purchase the light plane manufacturer he and Stenger were already planning to bring to the Newport State Airport. Ariel Quiros is the sole director of Q.Resorts, which owns both Jay Peak and Q Burke Mountain ski areas.

Not that all his ventures have been successful. Quiros is almost sheepish when he describes QBall, a firm he started to invent a soccer ball with advertising panels on the surface. Likewise, Quiros says, Q Mirror, a motion-activated mirror that reverts to an electronic image when the viewer walks away, faltered after initial success.

Quiros says his greatest letdown to date is Techno Braille, a braille typeface made of epoxy he claims to have invented and that he hopes to establish a market for yet. Still in the wings are the Quiros Family Farm Inc., and Q Development LLC.

His business track record is not without its scars or near misses.

He lost his seat on the board of Bioheart Inc. after AnC Bio failed to make the second installment in a $4 million investment. A South Florida Business Journal article pointed to AnC’s financial hardship after the tsunami in Japan hurt its business partners. The story suggested the break was not irreparable.

Quiros also survived a Texas lawsuit in which two investors alleged breach of contract after they didn’t get their money back in full in 10 years. The appeal they won came with a dissenting opinion that criticized Quiros and Kelly on procedural grounds.

And a Florida man claims he never received almost $16,000 worth of equipment from a company called Q Vision, but he appears to have dropped his pursuit of the matter.

Quiros is sanguine about these anomalies in his record as a businessman. He takes it as a given that in business as in life, any path worth forging comes with some trouble.

But whether or not his children revel as much as he does in the exhilaration of the deal, he doesn’t know.

“Who do I leave all this to?” he asks quietly. “That’s the problem in the future, you know, leaving all of my stuff.”

Quiros says he doesn’t take it as a given that either Ary or Nicole will take over all that he’s built — that wouldn’t be fair, he says. And he wonders if Ary may love the military and flying too much to choose a life in business — though Ary loves the challenge at Burke, he says.

“You got to have it in you,” Quiros says. He’s quiet again, whispering now: The minute you don’t like it, it’s not your job.

Still, one day Ary and Nicole, he believes, will run his empire. If they want it.

Hilary Niles

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