HIS week, as many corporate executives collapse into lawn
chairs or drag themselves to yet another cocktail party at the
beach, they may like to know what Jake Burton Carpenter is
Mr. Carpenter, the founder and chief executive of Burton
Snowboards in Burlington, Vt., has been snowboarding in New Zealand.
Despite a tough year at the company, Mr. Carpenter, 49, plans to
spend much of the next nine months seeing the world — from Patagonia
to the Alps — from the rim of a snowboard.
Not many executives could afford to be away for so long, or to
bear the expense of bringing along family members plus tutors and an
assistant. And not many would countenance such an expense at the
start of a new sales season, or after laying off 19 percent of their
work force, as he did recently.
But since starting his company in 1977, Mr. Carpenter, perhaps
more than any other grown-up in his youth-driven industry, has
stayed in touch with the sport's core element: the kids who would
ride 365 days a year if they could. "It would be hard to find a guy
who is more `core' than Jake," said Kurt Hoy, the editor of
TransWorld Snowboarding magazine.
The challenge is to remain true to that core while selling to the
mainstream, a balancing act that Mr. Carpenter seems to have
managed, at least so far. More than a third of the $365 million
spent last year in the United States on equipment and apparel was
for Burton products, according to Mr. Carpenter, although the
company, which is private, would not specify sales and profits.
Foreign sales account for 60 percent of volume, according to Mr.
Carpenter, with a very profitable portion of it in Japan, where he
plans to spend his December.
Now he is ready for the next stage. This month, the company's
line of fashion clothing, called Analog, will arrive in stores. It
has the same name as the company's high-tech outerwear label, but it
is Burton's first attempt to expand its sales to a year-round
audience, much as another company, Quiksilver,
has done with surfing and skateboarding.
Burton's new line goes beyond the logo T-shirts and hooded
sweatshirts that it has always sold. Analog will include low-riding
corduroy pants and skirts for girls and, for both sexes, military
styles and a red pullover based on a Russian hockey jersey.
Participation in snowboarding has grown steadily, to 5.5 million
Americans last year, according to Snow Sports Industries America, a
trade group, but overall sales of snowboarding apparel fell to $118
million last winter from $128 million the previous one.
After posting annual sales gains of 50 percent in the 1980's and
early 1990's, Burton has hit a bump. Mr. Carpenter says the company
has needed to lay off 102 workers in the last 15 months because of
weaker demand after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two
seasons of relatively low snowfall.
"In the early days, kids were buying two or three boards a year,"
he said in an interview in late June. "And they're not doing that
Although orders for the new season are up about 10 percent over a
year ago, he said, there is also more competition. In the early
1980's, Mr. Carpenter worried that ski makers would notice what a
popular sport snowboarding was becoming and would jump in. But years
went by and nothing happened. "It's incredible to me that they were
that asleep at the switch," he said. But now ski brands like Salomon
and Rossignol sell aggressively to the core audience by sponsoring
professional snowboarding teams and using cool graphics on the
Mainly because he has been around the sport so long — his first
homemade boards were based on a toy called the Snurfer that he had
used as a child — Mr. Carpenter occupies a kind of Hugh Hefner role.
Not that he walks around Burton headquarters in a bathrobe, though
in his office he works on a sofa with a laptop propped on his knees.
But he is immersed in the life. At his home near Stowe, Vt., he and
his wife, Donna, have a hockey rink and hold midnight snowmobile
"It's like a frat house," said Alexander Vreeland, a former
executive at Giorgio Armani who is a member of the Burton board.
Employees can bring their dogs to work. And during the winter,
Mr. Carpenter encourages workers, who receive free season lift
passes at the Stowe resort, to begin their day with a ride. "If you
get in a couple of runs in the morning," he said, "you can work
There is a purpose, of course, to the playing. "I watched skiing
lose its youth culture," he said. "And as long as I'm around, we
won't make that mistake. When I was a kid, skiing was cool. But the
ski industry totally lost that." He does not rely on conventional
forms of market research, like focus groups. He gets his information
from Burton's team of professional riders. "I think the process
keeps us pretty straight," he says. "Kids really see through a rider
who's endorsing a product he's not behind."
For example, the Burton snowboard team, as well as Greg Dacyshyn,
who oversees apparel design at Burton, persuaded Mr. Carpenter that
the company needed to step out from the usual baggy snowboard
attire. When the company started the original Analog outerwear line
three years ago, it had minimal distribution; this fall, the spinoff
fashion line will be in 300 specialty stores.
Analog, Mr. Dacyshyn said, has served as "a style lab, where our
more progressive riders and customers were willing to go." One of
the first styles, a bright orange jumpsuit, met with resistance, but
now, he said, "everybody wants that suit."
Mr. Dacyshyn and his designers have since turned out jackets in
custom camouflage prints, and a coat with push-button controls for a
built-in minidisc player. This month, Burton is bringing out its
first aluminum snowboard, the T6. Made mainly from aircraft-grade
honeycombed aluminum, the board is surprisingly light when compared
with all-wood and fiberglass models (and, at $600, about 25 percent
more expensive than most board brands).
Mr. Hoy, at TransWorld, has not tried the T6 but says the
industry trend is toward new and lighter materials. One company,
Arbor, makes a board from bamboo.
Still, Mr. Carpenter expects the T6 to be a tough sell to riders
who like to do tricks and airborne spins. But he predicts that
younger riders will eventually initiate the switch to aluminum.
THOUGH he has stubbornly clung to the underground spirit of
snowboarding — he initially opposed its inclusion in the 1998 Winter
Olympics in Japan — he had the foresight to open sales offices in
Austria and Japan.
"They do a remarkable job of running an international company,"
Mr. Vreeland said. If Quiksilver can sell surfer shorts in an urban
area like Times Square, he added, what's to stop Burton from selling
"endless winter" in Los Angeles or Tokyo?
"I would love to see them in major cities to present the breadth
of their products," he said.
At the moment, the only such showcase is the company's store in
Burlington, which was expanded recently. But Burton's president,
Laurent Potdevin, says the company has looked at possible sites in
For all its efforts to remain true to the core of the sport and
its youthful spirit, Burton cannot escape what it is — an
established brand. The absolute cutoff age for being considered cool
by the young boarders is 25. The company is 26.
"They deserve a ton of credit for what they've done," one
retailer said. "But they're never going to be the supercool brand
for the kids who are pushing it all the time. It's just the `law.' "
No one is more aware of that bind than Mr. Carpenter. "I'm not
trying to be a 17-year-old," he said. But in an e-mail message on
Friday from New Zealand, he said he had been surprised in both South
America and New Zealand by the pervasiveness of the snowboarding,
surfing and skate culture in everyday life.
"Hitting the expected price points is a challenge," he said, "but
the demand for authentic brands is there."