The Ranch at Rock Creek
Little boys watch Westerns on television and dream of becoming cowboys when they grow up. Then they go off and become ultra-successful financiers and the dreams fade. Or in the case of James Manley, the dream led to a 20-year chase to find the perfect ranch. Recently Manley visited Elite Traveler’s New York office, where he sat around our conference table (we didn’t have a campfire) and shared tales of turning his dream into reality with Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan and Associate Editor Tova Piha.
ET: Tell us about your background.
James Manley: I have a boutique investment bank called Atlantic Pacific that I started about 16 years ago. Before that I was a general partner at a hedge fund for four or five years, and before that I worked on Wall Street.
ET: Where did you get the idea for the ranch?
James Manley: The idea for the ranch started literally when I was 10, when most of the shows on TV were Westerns. There were about 10 cowboy shows on. I got immersed in the idea of horses and guns and wide open spaces, so I made a vow that when I got older I was going to get a ranch. Everybody laughed, very hard, but that dream never died, and when I was 33, I had a little money, so I started looking.
ET: Tell us about the property you found.
James Manley: From the age of 33 to 53 I looked all over: Northern California, Canada, Idaho, Colorado, Montana. I looked at about 500 properties before buying because I wanted a place that met nine specific criteria: A river running through the property, no paved highway right beside it, low elevation but a high alpine feel (to avoid the headaches of 8,000 feet), no poisonous snakes, no grizzlies, a mining town nearby that looked like it did 100 years ago, a ski resort nearby, adequate rainfall and snowfall so it could be a year-round resort, and I also wanted to own a valley, so as not to see nearby development. These nine things were impossible to find. So when I saw my ranch after 20 years, I basically bought it that day, before it went on the market.
ET: When you bought the land, did you want to turn it into a guest ranch?
James Manley: No. I bought it for my family and friends. I had about 200 family members and friends come out over the course of a year and a half, and they all went crazy over it. But I didn’t want to expand it and hire more staff for them to just sit around when I wasn’t there. So I decided to expand, but also to have clients come, which morphed into quite a large investment.
ET: What makes The Ranch at Rock Creek unique?
James Manley: We have created the top luxury guest ranch in North America. We built it to have that step back in time feel, meaning every building that’s new has old wood on the outside and the inside, so that it looks like it’s been there for 100 years. But we also made it luxurious—we have a spa, which a lot of ranches don’t have. I wanted to attract the guy who’s an outdoorsman, but also his wife, who isn’t. We’re also all-inclusive, which encourages people to get out. You don’t sign for drinks, you don’t sign for any activities, except for spa. Because there’s no real check-in and you don’t pay, you feel like you’re in someone’s home. And when guests feel this way, they bond. Everyone eats in the same dining room with communal dining, and they do the activities together, so there’s a lot of bonding.
ET: Doing a ranch is pretty far off from what you do. Is it still for personal enjoyment, or do you now consider it a for-profit business?
James Manley: It’s mainly for fulfilling a lifelong dream. The main goal was to break even. But my guess is the way we’re going, we will turn a profit. But the point of turning it into a guest ranch was to make it better. Invest in the property, have an even better shooting program, more horses, and that takes capital. This is really a passion project, not a for-profit venture. If I were in the hospitality business, I don’t think this ranch would be as good as it is. I didn’t have to get a return on it, so I did things that a hospitality person wouldn’t do. I’ve also traveled all over the world, and what annoys me, and what annoys most people, is when you check out of the hotel and there’s an extra $150 or $200 for your long distance, parking, movies, water from the bar, which will never happen at the ranch.
ET: Now that it’s open to the public, is it still serving the same purpose of having your friends and family come out?
James Manley: Yes, in fact we’re having a family reunion—I have eight brothers and sisters, and they all have kids—at the ranch with all 49 Manleys in about a month. I still bring my friends with me too.
ET: You have your first year under your belt. Now that you look back, is there anything that you would say was really surprising?
James Manley: The surprise was that people like it even more than we had thought. In our first summer we did $2.5 million in revenue, and I didn’t think I’d do that well. The only negative surprise, which I sort of expected, is that it takes almost a year to work out the kinks. I’ve been extremely pleasantly surprised by the amount of publicity we’ve received; we’ve been written up 40 times around the world in magazines and newspapers.
ET: What helped you get it right the first time around, when most people start off with a couple failed attempts?
James Manley: I probably would have made a mistake if I had done it 25 years ago, as I wouldn’t have seen enough. But I effectively did 20 years of extensive research. I spent a lot of time in other ranches and saw what people liked and didn’t like. Even so, I didn’t realize until I’d owned my own ranch for a year and a half that I needed evening activities. People really don’t want to just sit there and drink; they love bowling, pool, ping pong, karaoke and watching movies, so I built the Silver Dollar Saloon, offering all these activities, but with an old-time feel.
ET: Now that you’ve got this one knocked out of the park, any ideas or inclinations to do this same concept somewhere else? Like on a private island or a castle in Ireland?
James Manley: No. I would never do it again, because I want to polish this gem even more. I want this to be, to continue to be, the top luxury guest ranch. My dream was to have a ranch, not to have two ranches. Plus, this property is one in a million. And there’s no giddiyup in a castle. At the ranch, people really become like kids again because they’re playing all day, whereas in most resorts, they’re not really playing…they’re sitting by the pool in the sun and reading a book.
ET: As you’re open year-round, what is special and unique about each season at the ranch?
James Manley: In the winter, we ski at a gorgeous mountain 25 minutes away. On the ranch, we snowshoe and build igloos, we have a horse-drawn sleigh, snowmobiles, cross-country skiing and ice skating. We have bird hunting in the fall, which is a gorgeous season because the Aspens are changing and the weather’s perfect for hiking and biking. Summer’s obviously the most crowded, and we have a beautiful pool. I enjoy every month, but I would say April’s not ideal because it rains a lot, and you could get some snow mixed in.
ET: You mentioned bird hunting. Are there other types of hunting you can do out there?
James Manley: There’s elk hunting in the fall. Though with bird hunting, we can accommodate more people. We couldn’t have 30 elk hunters, even though there are 10 square miles—that might be dangerous. And we can bird hunt year-round.
ET: What type of bird hunting?
James Manley: Any birds our guests want, as we order and release them on the property a few days before the guests arrive. Pheasants or chuckers usually, but whatever guests want. We can’t leave the birds year-round because there are too many predators: Coyotes, badgers and mostly raptors, eagles and hawks.
ET: And what about the fishing?
James Manley: Year-round. Rock Creek—and when I say creek, at 100 feet across, it’s really a river—is one of the most famous trout fishing creeks in North America. I would say fishing is probably what draws a lot of people, because fishing the upper part of Rock Creek is something they couldn’t do before without floating through it. Riding is really big as well. We have 10 square miles for the horses.
ET: Can you ride in the winter as well?
James Manley: Yes you can ride in the snow, but you can’t ride if there’s a layer of ice below the snow, because you could slip.
ET: Do you do full takeovers of the ranch?
James Manley: We do a lot, yes. We’ve had several people book to buyout the whole ranch. We have a couple of Fortune 500 companies that are coming with 80 of their clients. You can buyout the ranch at any time, but we prefer to do buyouts at Christmas and particularly in the winter and the fall, because in the summer, we’re going to be 90 percent full with families. You can also do partial buyouts given the layout of the ranch.
ET: In a partial buyout, you can have pretty much everything privately from the rest of the ranch?
James Manley: No, you would have your section of the ranch, but you would go to the communal dining hall. And you would be riding, but the people from the lodge would also be able to ride, because we have 70 horses, so there are plenty to ride, and they’d be riding in different areas.
ET: Have you thought about additional cabins? Is there space?
James Manley: As we speak, we are building two additional cabins that will be finished in two weeks. But if this gets too big, it will be unwieldy, not as boutique. At a certain point, it won’t look like an authentic gentleman’s ranch, it’ll look like a resort, and I don’t want to cross that line. We also get much better service with 40 rooms. The most I think we’re going to get to is 45.
ET: What’s the airport if you’re flying privately?
James Manley: Anaconda, 30 minutes away, or Bute. The runway at Anaconda’s 57—long enough for a mid-size, not a G4. Big jets go to Bute or Missoula. Bute’s an hour away. Missoula’s an hour and a quarter. From anywhere out West, people can take a King Air and land right in Philipsburg, 15 minutes away, but it’s not for jets.
ET: Do people drive, take helicopters?
James Manley: We’ve had three people take helicopters from Missoula—which takes 22 minutes. 30 percent we pick up; we do charge for that. And then the rest rent cars.
ET: Now that the ranch is up and running, and it’s clear that you enjoy it so much, does it make it harder to go back to the day job at Atlantic Pacific?
James Manley: No, because I always look forward to going. I like the work at Atlantic Pacific. I think it’s better when you visit the ranch, and it’s fresh and new. If I lived there, I would miss the hustle and bustle of back east.