Monday, January 4, 1999

When business is a pleasure

Far Hills Inn makes money — and memories


It's a pleasure doing business when your business is pleasure...and you're making money at it. Which is why David Pemberton Smith, president of the Far Hills Inn at Val Morin, has a smile on his face these days. Folks are queuing for reservations at his picturesque fieldstone and white clapboard inn set amid 500 acres of verdant beauty in the Laurentians, 82 kilometres north of Montreal.

More than 200 people shelled out $75 apiece for his famous New Year's Eve bash last Thursday. Lots of tasty food - buffet-style tables decorated with ice sculptures and laden with seafood, meat, pasta, salad, cheese, bread and desserts.

The fire was stoked in the hearth, balloons hung from the wooden beams, wine glasses were brimming and all 72 rooms were booked.

Pianist Robert Leroux tickled the keys of the Yamaha baby grand piano in the dining room which looks out over the ski hill at Mount Sauvage, while rhythm and blues singer Louise Goulet entertained in the Panorama bar.

Pemberton Smith is a straight-forward man with renaissance tastes - fine food, exotic flowers and a good, solid title like "president." As he's fond of saying, "once a president, always a president" - although he acknowledges that every president should be fortunate enough to have a partner like Louise.

He's the first to admit that she's a heck of a business woman - ever so smart and charming. Her guests and staff of 60 employees are not immune to her charms...her easy laugh, the way she places her hand on a listener's arm to emphasize a point, the vivacious blue eyes, the blonde hair, the red nails. .

David is a proper upper middle class Westmount boy long on book learning and corporate smarts. He's a mechanical engineer by training - McGill, class of '59 - who opted for the boardroom after working as an engineer for 12 years.

Between 1971 and 1974, he was president of Mico Enterprises, a holding company in the Edper empire of Peter and Edward Bronfman. From 1975 to 1982, he was head of the Quebec division of a major real estate company controlled by Toronto developer Bruce McLaughlin. In his spare time, he played a mean game of golf and was a six-time winner of the Canadian Doubles Squash Championship.

Then there's Louise. Think about her namesake in the movie Thelma and Louise - without the excessive drinking - and you start to get the feel for her adventuresome spirit. She's a Daoust from the Ottawa area an earthy, French-speaking girl who left home at age 13 so she could continue her education at a nearby village which had a high school.

At age 17, she left home again to study nursing at the University of Ottawa. Diploma in hand, she headed for the sun and palm trees of Santa Monica. Lots of stress and gut-wrenching scenes in the emergency rooms of California. But the beaches were a good place to practise English.

She worked for a while at Saint John's Hospital, rubbing shoulders with stars like Red Skelton and Judy Garland.

Nursing was up her alley because she loved people, but something in her gut propelled her toward business.

In 1960, when the travel lust waned, she made her way to Montreal, attracted by it's cosmopolitan nature and Latin temperament. Within a year she and David had married.

But Louise had that entrepreneurial fire in her belly.

She wanted to mingle and make money. By 1965, she had left nursing for real estate. By that time, David knew he had more than a wife - she was a potential business partner.

The opportunity to forge the business relationship occurred in 1974. David was president of Mico Enterprises, which wanted to spin off nine companies. They couldn't find buyers for two of the businesses. One of those was the Far Hills Inn.

David bought the inn and 150 acres surrounding it for $900,000, knowing that Louise could run it while he pursued other business interests. He made several key moves to ensure that the inn came with advantageous financing, working capital of over $100,000 and a matching line of credit.

Their business dream was born. Within one year, they had expanded the operation to include a $400,000 cross-country ski centre. In all, they have invested over $1.5 million in the inn and over $1.5 million in the ski centre, expanding the 150 acres to 500 acres.

There are two pristine lakes on their property - Lac Lavallée and Lac LaSalle.

By 1985, David was working full-time with Louise. The inn itself has made a profit for 25 consecutive years, what David calls "a comfortable living." The cross-country ski centre is marginally profitable, operating in the winter months.

His long-term goal is to add another 1,000 acres of land between his resort and the Hotel La Sapinière in nearby Val David in order to open what he calls a "soft adventure park" with summer outdoor activities for the family, including hiking trails and bird sanctuaries.

The main attraction of the Far Hills Inn and its surrounding area is nature - soft and low key.

It stands in contrast to the highly-developed Mont Tremblant resort 50 kilometres to the north with its glitz, shopping and condos.

Far Hills is a mellow experience. It offers a large a variety of outdoor actitivities for winter and summer, including skiing, swimming, tennis and hiking. In summer, guests walk through the garden, where David has planted over 200 different varieties of flower.

In the winter, it's the kind of place where you find guests curled up in a comfy armchair in front of the fireplace with a book and a glass of wine. The inn, built in 1940, represents what Louise calls "soul and warmth" - the knotted pine walls, the stained-glass window, the tiffany light boxes on the wall with artistic renditions of rustic scenes such as waterfalls and brooks. Original paintings in every room, many of them by David's aunt, Freda Pemberton Smith.

There is games room with a ping-pong table and a championship rosewood snooker table next to an indoor pool with sauna and whirlpool. Guests can go to the fridge or help themselves to a cup of hot coffee 24 hours a day. It's like being in your own home.

But it is still a business, and one of the lessons David learned in the early years was to concentrate on providing quality rather then to worry about filling the inn by offering weekend specials. Two of the major areas he upgraded were the wine cellar and the food, obtaining a four-fork rating from the Quebec government within four years of buying the inn in 1971.

Jean Maisonneuve has been with the chef for four years after working as an assistant chef at the inn for the previous six years. As for how the inn has remained one of the few family-run auberges of its size in the province, part of the answer can be traced to David's extensive business connections and experience, as well as to his foresight in arranging adequate financing prior to buying the property.

The other part of the success equation is the passion that David and Louise bring to the enterprise - a throwback to a simpler era when dad and mom rolled up their sleeves and worked side by side as partners in love and business.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.