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How Burton Snowboards revolutionized winter sports

Since 1977, Burton Snowboards have revolutionized winter sports, taking snowboarding from a passion and dream to one of the most popular Olympic sports. In Sochi, the first evening that featured men and women’s slopestyle had 20 million viewers and household rating of 11.3 – on the next competitive day, figure skating attracted 2.585 million viewers and received a 1.6 rating. The company has grown tremendously since Jake Burton Carpenter made his first board in his Vermont barn. Burton now makes up 35 percent of the youth-driven board market, has 845 employees worldwide, and sponsors some of the best riders in the world, such as the Olympic Gold medalists Shaun White and Hannah Teter. SnowSports Industries America, a non-profit trade organization, reported that industry sales of snowboards, snowboard boots and bindings made  $236 million for the 2013-14 season. But, Burton goes beyond profit margins and household ratings. As Carpenter said in a recent interview with Tansworld Business:

We don’t give a . . . about how much money we’re going to make in the next quarter. We just want to run a good, privately owned company, take care of our people, and run the business for the long-term.

Jake was inspired the Snurfer, a popular board-toy that sold about a million units from 1966 to 1976. Where most people saw a fun and exciting fad, Jake saw a new sport. Initially it was a tough road. In his second year, Carpenter recalled, “I remember one trip when I loaded my station wagon with 35 boards and came back with 37 because one of the shop owners returned two he had previously bought.” After trying many different designs over some years, he went to Europe in the mid-1980s to find a manufacturer to make the boards more ski-like. These were the dark days where snowboarders were not allowed on most mountains during the day so riders would sneak up the mountain. Or, if you were Donna Carpenter, Jake’s wife, you’d bribe the Cat drivers with brownies. After being denied by 10 ski companies, Carpenter met with the owner of Keil Ski – at the time it was midnight in Austria and the manufacturer’s daughter had to translate – who accepted his offer. Now Burton is the largest snowboard manufacturer in the world. One of the big watershed moments for the company and snowboarding was in the James Bond movie A View to Kill, where Bond escapes a villain on a snowboard, taking the sport from the mountains to homes around the world.

After years of success, built on Burton’s unique business model and history of rider-driven product development, the company has continued to improve and evolve. Burton has always pushed for product extension – the company’s mantra is assume the product will fail and make sure it does not. In an interview with Inc Magazine, Carpenter remembers, “There were naysayers and purists who would say, ‘We can’t make long underwear!’ I’d counter, ‘Yeah, we can!’” Recently, Burton has realigned itself with such moves as distributing its Gravis brand solely in Asian markets, where it has been widely successful, as well as broadening the scope of protective headwear while still producing goggles. This is all on top of Burton acquiring the General Dynamics building adjacent its headquarters in Burlington, Vt. The building, now known as Craig after the late snowboarding legend Craig Kelly, is a new 10,000 square foot R&D and prototype facility where ideas can be become boards on the snow in less than 24 hours.

The marketplace has motivated Burton to enter the all-season apparel/backpack business. Burton’s depth, breath, and skill have allowed the company to market different products in different flagship store locations. For example, after monitoring the San Francisco Bay retail scene, the company decided to open one store in the Haight-Ashbury as well as Berkeley to serve the different markets but still take advantage of the riding in Lake Tahoe, which is only three hours away. Burton’s success comes from its limitless imagination and its atmosphere of encouraging trying and believing. Despite all of its growth, Burton still takes great pride in its Vermont heritage and the characteristics that come along with that, such as their commitment to locality and sustainability. When you walk into the headquarters in Burlington all you see and feel is the history of snowboarding and its limitless future – and that is something special.

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