Founder of Burton Snowboards
Born Jake Burton Carpenter, April 29, 1954, in New York, NY; married Donna (a gourmet-food store owner); children: George, Taylor, Tim. Education: Attended the University of Colorado—Boulder; earned degree from New York University, c. 1977.
Addresses: Home —Moscow, VT. Office —Burton Snowboards, 80 Industrial Pkwy., Burlington, VT 05401.
Had a landscaping business during his teenage years on Long Island, NY; worked for Nieder-hoffer, Cross & Zeckhauser as a business broker, c. 1977; founded Burton Snowboards, 1977.
Jake Burton launched the snowboard-manufacturing company that bears his name back in 1977, at a time when snowboarding was virtually nonexistent as a sport. Since then, both Burton Snowboards and its founder have been widely credited for establishing snowboarding as a legitimate sport and, for ski resorts across the globe, a lucrative alternative to the ski market. "At first we weren't even a nuisance, just a novelty," Burton told Esquire writer David Katz about the early enmity between the two winter-sport camps. "Then we were a nuisance. Then a threat. Then we were the saviors of the ski industry."
Burton uses "Jake Burton" as his professional moniker, but his full name is Jake Burton Carpenter. Born in New York City in 1954, he grew up on Long Island, and began skiing at the age of seven with his parents in Vermont. He proved a quick learner, and spent the cold months on the slopes and his summer months on the tennis courts. In high school, he ran his own landscaping business, and went on to study finance in college, first at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a known mecca for ski-mad college students.
Burton first came across a rudimentary snowboard in the late 1960s, when he was around 13 or 14 years old. Countless others had had the idea to surf down a hill instead of skiing it, but the first commercially produced snowboard was something called the Snurfer, which was based on the design of a Michigan dad, Sherman Poppen, for his children. Bowling- and billiard-ball manufacturer Brunswick sold the Snurfer—the "snow-surfer"—as a toy, not a piece of sporting equipment, and enthusiastic teens like Burton and his friends bought it and began to modify it to make it faster and more agile on turns.
Burton eventually transferred to New York University, and worked for a small Wall Street investment firm that dealt with mergers and acquisitions. "I wasn't loving it," he recalled in an interview with FSB journalist Brian Dumaine. "But I got to talk to the entrepreneurs whose businesses we were selling. I was amazed that they didn't intimidate me. I remember … thinking, 'This isn't any tougher than the lawn-mowing business I started in high school.'" Late in 1977, Burton decided to quit his job and establish a snowboard manufacturing business.
The first five years for Burton's company were rough. He set up shop in Stratton, Vermont, where he was house-sitting for the winter, hired a couple of friends and relatives to help him, and had to teach himself to use the woodworking tools he bought. "On two occasions I fired boards through a wall," he told Dumaine in FSB . "If either of them had hit me, I'd have been cut in half. I just had no clue what I was doing." During the first year, he sold the first Burton Snowboards out of his car at New England ski resorts for $88, partly because ski-equipment stores were uninterested in carrying them. He was left with unused inventory at the season's end and a mounting debtload. For the first few summers, he returned to New York City to work as a bartender and tennis coach to keep his business afloat. He had better luck making cheaper boards—with no bindings for a traditional ski boot, as his first product boasted—that sold for under $45, and these caught on with teenagers. The sales helped keep his company afloat, but by 1980 he was still more than $100,000 in debt.
Burton never imagined that snowboarding would become something that competed with skiing in the winter resorts. He even called the $45 board the "Backyard," because that's where he assumed most of the purchasers would use it. But as the small community of boarders grew and searched out steeper slopes, they were rebuffed at the ski resorts. A turning point came in 1984, when Vermont's Stratton resort became the first in the country to allow snowboarders access to its slopes thanks to Burton's efforts. Gradually, other ski resorts followed, and the number of riders grew exponentially over the decade. A 1987 New York Times article estimated that there were 100,000 snowboarders in the United States and Canada, and cited the U.S. Open Snow-boarding Championships in Stratton as evidence of the sport's increasing popularity.
Burton's company was instrumental in establishing snowboarding as a legitimate sport. They sponsored the first championship riders, and worked to set up training programs for instructors. By the 1990s, the number of skiers had declined, and their average age was increasing, too. Those factors opened up the remaining doors for snowboarders at the leading resorts, Burton noted. "We brought a whole demographic back to the mountain," he explained to Stephen Wood in London's Independent . "Until snowboarding came along, the resorts were putting in pinball arcades so that 14 year olds would have something to do while the family was skiing."
Burton's company expanded at a phenomenal rate during the 1990s, and came to dominate an estimated half of the $400 million snowboard- and snowboarding-gear market. Based in Burlington, Vermont, it makes boards as well as boots and bindings, and has separate helmet, goggle, and clothing divisions. The company headquarters are staffed by dedicated boarders, each of whom receives a season pass to a nearby resort as part of the company's benefits package. If more than two feet of snow falls in one day, the 500-plus staff are encouraged to take the day off and hit the slopes. Among them is Burton, who spends much of his free time snowboarding. Despite the phenomenal success of his business, Burton has often said that it was only when he focused on the sport, rather than his own get-rich-quick schemes, that his business finally succeeded. Years later in life, he is grateful that his company's success allows him to devote himself to snowboarding full time, both in the office and out of doors. "I just don't really have this appetite for a bunch of cash," he told Josh Dean in an interview for Inc. "I really love my job and the whole lifestyle, my friends. I mean, I'd become a slug pretty quickly. I'd probably turn into a lush if I were to retire."
Esquire , February 2006, p. 77.
Forbes , March 27, 1995, p. 45.
FSB , October 1, 2002, p. 62.
Inc. , March 2006, p. 112.
Independent (London, England), January 29, 2000, p. 5.
Investor's Business Daily , November 12, 2004, p. A3.
New York Times , March 9, 1987.