Chairman of the Board
Jake Burton Carpenter's passion for snowboarding led him to establish Burton Snowboards — his perseverance helped create an industry
by Portland Helmich
If vision, passion, and perseverance are three characteristics essential in any successful businessperson, it's easy to understand why Burton Snowboards is the leading snowboard manufacturer in the world. Founder and owner Jake Burton has all three qualities in spades. The 46-year-old entrepreneur is a bit of a paradox: laid back and informal on the surface, but driven to remain at the top of the industry he created.
Jake Burton knows his intense involvement in snowboarding keeps him in touch with those who really keep Burton Snowboards in Burlington alive: the riders.
While he takes credit for pioneering snowboarding into a bona fide sport, he doesn't take credit for having invented it. "The idea had been around since the '20s or '30s," he says. Burton's first experience with surfing on snow came when he was 14. "Snurfing" was just starting to catch on at the time. A precursor to snowboarding, snurfing had riders standing without bindings on a board with a rope attached, sliding down snow-covered hills without much control. Burton became hooked immediately. "From that time on, I felt like it could be a sport, but it wasn't a sport for the company that was manufacturing it. They were selling it like it was the Hula Hoop or something," he remembers.
Burton has always had a passion for sports, but concedes he was more of a "wanna-be" sportsman than a real athlete while growing up as the youngest of four children in Cedarhurst, N.Y. (The future snowboarder was named Jake Burton Carpenter by his parents; he adopted his middle name as his last later in life.) Upon graduating from high school in 1972, the Long Island native went off to the University of Colorado in the hopes of making its NCAA Champion Ski Team. A broken collar bone prevented him from trying out for the team and he left the school after one year, returning east to groom and exercise thoroughbred racehorses in Virginia and at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack. "I wasn't that into school, but I loved animals and the idea of training racehorses appealed to me. This is part of the sport thing," he explains. "Ultimately, I realized that the thoroughbred racehorse business is not something for somebody who loves animals."
He then enrolled at NYU and majored in economics. "It interested me the most," Burton says, "but I wasn't majoring in it as a step to something else. I had no clue what I wanted to do even in my senior year of college." He might have had no clue in college, but shortly thereafter the 23-year-old ambitiously moved to Vermont to start Burton Snowboards in Londonderry in 1977. "I was blindly optimistic," he admits.
Burton's optimism can be attributed to his youth and to a couple of early forays into the business world. After college, he spent a year working for a Park Avenue firm that sold small companies to larger ones. He interviewed entrepreneurs, wrote reports on their companies, and presented those reports to potential buyers. Moreover, he and a friend maintained a landscaping business they had started in high school throughout Burton's time at NYU.
"I'm first and foremost a snowboarder," says Jake Burton. His goal to ride 100 days each year takes him to exotic slopes all over the world. Pictured: The U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, held each March at Stratton Mountain.
"It seemed like starting a business wasn't that difficult," he says. "I thought I could just get it going, but it wasn't a service business. It was a manufacturing business, and I didn't even have a product." Naive but well-intentioned, Burton figured he could come up with a product and have it on the market in a few weeks. A few weeks turned into a year, as he made more than a hundred prototypes. "I'd come up with something and it would break, or it would be too heavy or too expensive," he recalls. The young entrepreneur had no business plan, but believed he could make a comfortable living if he could produce 50 boards a day. It hadn't occurred to him that demand might not exceed supply.
The fledgling company sold 300 boards the first year, but Burton was forced to let go of the two relatives and one good friend he had hired to help him get started. "It doesn't take much math to figure out that 300 boards is about a week's production," he notes. The next year, he mostly worked alone, relying on some part-time high-school help. Though he sold 700 boards that year, he had still gone through his inheritance — $100,000 that he received after his mother died when he was 17.
To make some of it back and to pay his Vermont living expenses, he spent two summers in New York, teaching tennis during the day and bartending at night. His motivation to continue growing his company came, in part, from the desire to prove to his successful city friends that what he envisioned was for real. "At that point," he explains, "I became more concerned with hyping the sport to make sure it happened so that I was right." One obstacle was that snowboarding wasn't allowed in ski resorts. Approaching small ski areas "that would do anything to sell a lift ticket," Burton got a major break when Stratton Mountain Resort agreed to permit snowboards on its slopes.
As interest in snowboarding spread, Burton received letters from European dealers and distributors who were looking for the product overseas. In 1982, he went to Europe with his future wife, Donna Gafton (they have three boys ages 10, 7, and 4), and her family; his intention was to locate a contract ski producer during the trip. "The dollar was incredibly strong at the time, so it was very cheap to get stuff made over there," Burton says, referring to Austria. In 1985, Burton and Donna moved to Europe for three years so he could develop a relationship with his subcontractor. She worked on establishing distribution. Innsbruck, Austria, is now the home of Burton SportArtikel, Burton's distribution center for the European market.
Today, the company does business in more than 30 countries. Burton also has a Canadian subcontractor that produces its well-respected boards (there are 120 boards on the Burton line). Boots are made in China, and bindings are made in Italy. The retail cost of a Burton snowboard — not including boots or bindings — is $300 to $550.
Burton Snowboards maintains its headquarters on Industrial Parkway in Burlington. In 1996, it opened Burton Manufacturing Center on Community Drive in South Burlington.
In 1996, Burton Snowboards, which maintains its national headquarters on Industrial Parkway in Burlington, opened Burton Manufacturing Center on Community Drive in South Burlington. There are 168 employees at the factory in addition to the 205 in the Burlington offices. Donna, who was once the CFO of the company, is no longer as heavily involved in her husband's business. She owns Harvest Market, a specialty foods shop in Stowe. "That was our intention," says Burton, "for the benefit of our relationship." Now that his company is thriving and snowboarding has become a legitimate sport — it debuted at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 — Burton can concentrate on what he loves most: snowboarding. "I'm first and foremost a snowboarder," he insists, "and I use the fact that I don't have to be here every day like I used to as an opportunity to get more immersed in the sport." He has only one quantitative goal: to ride 100 days a year. The unconventional businessman knows his intense involvement in snowboarding keeps him in touch with those who really keep his company alive: the riders. "I've seen with ski companies that when people would hit a certain level of success, they'd parlay that into an opportunity to go to the beach in January or play golf year-round," he offers. "It seemed like they used it as a way to distance themselves from their sport and their business."
John Gerndt, known as "JG," would agree that Burton is not a hands-off leader. Burton's board-testing coordinator and a former member of the company's competitive international team, Gerndt has been with the company since 1987. "Jake still has a real concern for the business," he says. "He's not just in it to be in it." The Burton founder is still very interested in research and development and went to New Zealand in July to test many new products and to do his favorite thing: ride. He has no plans to go public with his company because he has no interest in answering to those who don't share his passion for the sport. "You can't compare us to a publicly owned company," he says, "because those companies have a bunch of shareholders who only care about how they're going to do next quarter."
Burton is less interested in hiring hot-shot businesspeople than in finding those who share his enthusiasm for riding. "I'll take a pretty good businessperson for whom snowboarding is a passion over somebody who's a brilliant businessperson but doesn't really care about the sport," he notes. Though snowboarding is not required of Burton employees, most who don't snowboard prior to joining Burton become hooked on it once they are exposed to the sport. "The work environment is a lifestyle," says Emmet Manning, manager of Burton's factory store on Industrial Parkway. "Everyone is in pursuit of fun, so you'll be working alongside an employee who just returned from a weekend of riding, and it's infectious. People who haven't snowboarded eventually get into it."
The atmosphere at Burton Snowboards is much like the personality of its creator — hip and relaxed. Not surprisingly, the company attracts many young people, who surely appreciate that they are free to dress casually, bring their dogs to work, and slip out for a few hours on a "powder day."
"That's one of the benefits of working here," explains Burton. "If it snows 2 feet the night before, we understand there are going to be a lot of empty desks the next morning." He acknowledges that phones still have to be answered, for example, but stresses that "the large majority of people can probably find a way to ride a few hours, come in, and work a few hours late."
There are 120 boards in the Burton product line ranging in price from $300 to $550; boots and bindings are extra. Emmet Manning manages Burton's factory store in Burlington.
In an effort to give back and to share the sport of snowboarding with young people, Burton Snowboards founded "Chill" in 1995. The non-profit, after-school, learn-to-snowboard program is designed for underprivileged and at-risk youth in the Burlington area. It has expanded to include Boston, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The program takes children between the ages of 10 and 18 snowboarding once a week for seven weeks and provides them with everything they need for the experience: boards, boots, bindings, transportation, lift tickets, and instruction. "There are so many companies out there doing things for the environment, but we decided to address the people side of things," says Burton.
Burton Snowboards has a simple goal: to remain on top. Competitive by nature, Jake Burton makes sure to address weaknesses in any product category as soon as he's aware of them. He believes being number one is his company's right — after all, he put snowboarding on the map. "Nobody is more entitled to be in a leadership position than we are," he asserts. Still, he doesn't feel the need to lead the company in a day-to-day fashion anymore; thus, he made Tom McGann, the company's former vice president responsible for hard goods, president of Burton Snowboards a year and a half ago.
Burton attributes his longevity to a variety of factors. "I think that I really understand our sport, and I understand people pretty well," he explains. "And I'm not hung up on irrelevant details that aren't of substance — like how you're dressed. I've got high expectations, and I'm tough. We were there first, so if we lose our leadership position in any category, I kind of take it personally."
Finally, Burton's love for the sport cannot be overlooked as a driving force behind his success. Ted Janeway knows of the CEO's snowboarding zeal firsthand. Friends with him since childhood, Janeway is senior manager of the Detroit office of NYK Line, an ocean freight transportation business. "Jake was fooling around with this when all of us were getting real jobs," he recalls. Janeway says Burton had a burning desire. "He had a drive to succeed and a love of the sport, and it just caught on." In an effort to illustrate his friend's single-mindedness, Janeway recalls his wedding day: "You know what … (Jake) gave us for a wedding present? A snowboard."
Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer and television producer who hosts "Rural Free Delivery" on Vermont Public Television.