By Jennifer Sherowski
If you’ve never thought about who designed the fancy ratcheting system on your new bindings or who’s responsible for making that powder gun float, well then you’re not alone. Personally, I like to think that new snowboard technology falls off trees in some far-off orchard, kind of like money … But actually, it’s real-life engineers sitting at dimly lit desks in the beating hearts of companies who are responsible. They scribble down sketches and equations that are eventually brought to snow and after rounds and rounds of testing are perfected into that new dream board you pull out of the plastic.
John Gerndt, or “JG” as most people know him, is arguably one of the most influential product development geniuses in snowboarding. Storming the scene as a Burton teamrider in 1984 and becoming a full-fledged Burton employee by 1987, JG has taken the process of product development to new heights over the years. He’s also had his hands in just about every bit of design and technology put out by Burton, from the 3-D hole pattern and all manner of boot and binding developments to the groundbreaking surf stylings of the Fish and Malolo. And despite a career dedicated to improving the experience of snowboarding for others, he still manages to log over a 100 days a year for himself at his home resort of Stowe, Vermont.
According to JG, he discovered his calling early on: “I grew up skateboarding and surfing some, but I knew that I wanted to surf mountains of snow when I was twelve.” He tried his hand at riding pro, attended college at Plymouth State, New Hampshire in the meantime, and then started working for Burton in the customer service department (the evening hours allowed him to ride every single day). In the next few years he would take on nearly every in-house role at Burton, from production and retail to warranty and quality control. “Riding and developing product is what I honed in on and what made me happy,” he says. “It helped my riding, it was innovative, creative, a lot of trial and error, and there really was no right or wrong way to do anything.”
In the early days of his R&D career, JG traveled extensively with the original Team Burton-Jeff Brushie, Jason Ford, Jim Rippy, Craig Kelly, Terje Haakonsen, Nicole Anglerath, et cetera. He’d tune their boards and customize their gear, having them test product and give him direct feedback. “I still travel with the team,” he says. “It’s the best way to build trust and friendships and get direct feedback on the spot. Also, watching them ride and riding with them is the best way to understand what’s going on with the products they’re using.” Incidentally, JG also still tunes Haakonsen’s board before the Legendary Baker Banked Slalom every year.
When pressed about what invention or technology he’s most proud of, Gerndt confesses that it has to be the Fish, a precedent-setting powder board introduced by Burton eight years ago. “Terje and I had been talking about the early days of snowboarding when we were mostly riding powder and not resorts. The shapes of those boards were tapered, with set-back stances and short tails. Besides, surfing was coming back around, and we wanted to ride short, wide boards that were fast and maneuverable. It took us a bit in convincing Burton to let us do it, but the first time I rode one at Stowe, I knew we were onto something good.”
Since then, several companies have released similar surf-inspired powder boards based on JG’s design. Burton obviously prides itself on being ahead of the pack technology-wise, and Gerndt is one of the company’s secret weapons in this field. “I’m slowly getting more involved in the surfboard side of things,” he says, “and I think I can learn a lot from the shapers and people behind the scenes in that industry-perhaps even bring some new insight into the snowboard world, and vice versa. I’d also like to see snowboarding go more versatile and not cost so much, as well as being more environmentally friendly and friendly on the body, too.”
I called JG’s career a “calling” earlier, and from talking to him, it’s clear that it is. Not many of us can say that we’re doing the thing we were born for, but JG is lucky in that way. He’s a gifted snowboard designer and developer, and as snowboarders, we are cashing in on that talent. “I don’t really feel pressure from the sport of snowboarding, but sometimes I feel it from the work environment-which is normal for most people,” he says. “Snowboarding has become big business, and with that there’s a certain amount of responsibility. But I’ve been riding for 30 years and it never gets old to me. I’m still learning and progressing my riding and developing new products along the way. It’s what I was meant to do.”
Photo: Chris Wellhausen