By Ewan Morrison
At Brooks Academy in Massachusetts, a strong box containing a key to every lock in the school had been passed down through the generations of students, a heavily guarded stash that allowed for all manner of boarding-school mischief. One spring during the late 60s, as they graduated, the keepers of the keys needed a worthy underclassmen on whom to bestow the secreted legacy. As fate would have it, Jake Burton Carpenter was just the young man they were looking for.
But Jake only had that strong box for one day before an overzealous janitor discovered it while snooping through his possessions. As a result, he was unceremoniously tossed from the school, much to the chagrin of his father, who along with Jake's older brother George, was a Brooks man himself.
“I was basically a f–k-off as a kid,” remembers Jake. “I started to learn how to beat the system at a very young age and took pride in that. My role models were f–k-offs, and I was following in their footsteps. I was smoking cigarettes and smoking dope and f–king around, just doing the bare minimum in classes. I had this reputation for being so lucky–I never got caught doing anything–and then it all sort of caved in on me and I got kicked out.”
Sounds like a charming lad, no? So how does a slacker from Long Island get from there to here, from bending the rules and working the angles to building the most potent empire in snowboarding? Nobody knows for sure but Jake himself, and no doubt the end result is a combination of many elements–confidence, ingenuity, timing, sweat, and good old-fashioned luck among them. But one thing was clear to me after talking with Jake over the course of a couple of days this spring in Vermont: that very unwillingness to play by the rules, that tendency to go against the grain–to hell with the establishment–played an instrumental role in the pieces falling into place for Jake Burton Carpenter.
Born in Manhattan in 1954 and raised on Long Island, in the small seaside burg of Cedarhurst, New York, Jake's was your standard American upbringing.
“It was a middle-class deal,” he says. “I lived in a relatively small, modest house. We weren't rich, but we weren't poor–pretty much somewhere in the middle. Cedarhurst was a cool little town, kind of surrounded by ghetto, but it was a cool spot right next to the ocean.”
He went to school, hung at the beach during the summer, and enjoyed swimming, bodysurfing, and riding waves on a brittle Styrofoam precursor to the bodyboard, always envious of the kids with real surfboards.
Jake's introduction to skiing came at age seven on a family trip to Bromley, a rootsy little mountain in Vermont. Immediately hooked on sliding on snow, it wasn't long before Jake was skiing every chance he got. He was a natural, eventually becoming one of the best skiers in his hometown.
“From day one I just got into it and dug the sensation,” says Jake. “I'd be one of those kids in the snow plow who wouldn't turn. My parents got into it, too. They really dug the Vermont thing. My father took up skiing at age 40. I think the fact that we all did it as a family made it even more fun for him. It was a great effort by my father. He'd drive up there every weekend, five hours each way. Those types of people deserve a lot of credit.”
The Carpenters were a tight family, and two tragic events early in Jake's life–the death of his older brother George in Vietnam when he was twelve, and later on at age seventeen, losing his mother to leukemia–caused him to retreat inward as he realized that even the most important things in life can be snatched away.
“My brother was eight years older than me, and when he died it was like watching this tragedy rock my family,” recalls Jak “And my mother and I were really tight. Dealing with all that shit at that age made me very independent. Since then I've never been comfortable in a closed group of people who hung out together. Even in the snowboarding industry, I don't like hanging out with competitors. I don't even hang out with that many people who work at Burton. I've got great friends, but it seems that I like to operate with a certain level of independence.”
At Brooks (with the ill-fated box of keys), where Jake tested out those independent tendencies in classic adolescent-male fashion, a crucial early piece of the puzzle fell into place. Although still heavily into skiing, the timing was ideal for Jake to discover the Snurfer.
“It was a trend,” says Jake. “They weren't too expensive–fifteen bucks, maybe–but it was for an older demographic than sledding. A sled for adolescents, and that was appealing because I always dug sledding. The flying-saucer thing was old, and not challenging, so this was right up my alley. It just had so much soul right from the beginning.
“We'd get high and go out on the local sledding hill and ride Snurfers straight down. It was a rodeo-type thing. Just fourteen or fifteen years old, bombing down and taking horrendous wipes. We'd get dissed by the skiers even back then.”
Although he didn't recognize it at the time, the sideways seed had been planted. But throughout high school and beyond, Jake continued skiing, and the Snurfer remained an on-and-off sideshow. It was skiing, actually, that pulled Jake from his sloucher malaise. Once he got his walking papers from Brooks, Jake enrolled in Marvelwood, a small, unpretentious private school in Connecticut close to Mohawk Mountain ski resort. He joined Marblewood's ski team and decided life was too short to waste.
As Jake puts it, “I sort of turned things around and decided I really didn't want to be an underachiever for the rest of my life.”
As he finished up at Marvelwood in the early 70s, unbeknownst to him, several other pieces of the puzzle began falling into place for Jake. He moved back to New York for an independent study program in his last semester of high school, starting a landscaping business with one of his buddies. He then moved out west to attend Colorado University at Boulder and tried out for CU's ski team. He didn't make it, and looking back, it was the beginning of the end of Jake's life as a skier.
“I'd been doing pretty well ski racing in high school and sort of had aspirations of making the ski team there, which was a joke because it was way beyond my ability,” says Jake. “That's also when the plastic-boot thing started in skiing, and I trace that to when I started losing interest in skiing.”
He lost interest in CU after a year as well–too big–and moved back east at age nineteen. A lifelong animal lover, he then made the decision to pursue a career working with race horses as either a vet or trainer, a dream he'd developed as a kid in New York. But this plan also quickly lost its luster as he realized that success in the thoroughbred game had little to with being an animal lover. Meanwhile, the idea of building a better Snurfer, which had been floating in the ether of his subconscious for years, was occupying an increasing amount of his thoughts.
“The idea was always sitting there,” says Jake. “I knew very early on that the thing had the potential to become a sport. But I think my eyes really opened up to it when I was eighteen and got involved in the landscaping business. That gave me a little more of a business understanding, making me think there might be an opportunity there.”
Still in New York, circumstances found Jake enrolling in night classes at NYU. Then he shifted to full time, his sights not yet set on building “snowboards,” but on resuming his landscaping business after graduation.
But in his senior year at NYU–1976/77–Jake's older sister unwittingly set in motion the series of event that would prove to be the final nudge Jake needed to crystallize his vision, connecting him with a friend of hers, Victor Niederhoffer, who had a small investment-banking company in Manhattan. As Jake raced to finish up his course work at NYU, he began putting in serious hours working with Niederhoffer, helping him to match cash-poor entrepreneurs with working capital.
“I was talking to all these successful entrepreneurs and realized that it's not impossible to get a business going,” recalls Jake. “The people I was dealing with didn't bowl me over with their capabilities. They seemed like normal people, and I was like, 'Shit, I could've done that.'”
Jake graduated from NYU in June of 1977, and although Niederhoffer's business had continued to grow, for Jake, things were getting convoluted. He felt burned out, and when Niedhoffer became embroiled in an all-consuming lawsuit, diverting even greater stacks of work to Jake, he hit the eject button.
It takes balls to dive headlong into an industry that doesn't exist, but ever the freethinker and brimming with confidence after his work experience with Niederhoffer, that's exactly what Jake Burton Carpenter did. Debates about who built the first snowboard aside, it's safe to say that with the exception of the Snurfer, as of 1977 the business of snowboarding had yet to materialize.
With an initial sum of 20,000 dollars, Jake moved to Stratton, Vermont in December of '77 and took a job tending bar at the Birkenhaus, building snowboard prototypes based on the Snurfer in his spare time. Without fanfare and undoubtedly greeted by snickers and jeers from the skiers swilling beers at the Birkenhaus, Burton Snowboards was born.
“I was so f–king naive,” recalls Jake. “Here I was, 23 years old. It was December–winter wasn't even here yet–and I figured starting a snowboard company in December made sense. I thought I'd be making money that winter, you know? I didn't really understand that I had to manufacture product and everything. I mean, I ended up missing the next winter.”
Indeed he did, but nevertheless Jake Burton was committed (he dropped Carpenter to eliminate confusion–some people got the impression he was Jake Burton, carpenter). He spent the next year and a half toiling with his dream, starting by gluing strips of steam-bent solid ash together and attaching fins. He tested prototypes, experimenting with building materials–ash, marine plywood, fiberglass, surfboard foam–and generally burned through his money. Finally settling on horizontally laminated wood, Jake was convinced his prototypes were dialed in. He set up a humble factory in Londonderry, Vermont and hired two relatives and one friend to help him with production.
With high expectations, he unveiled his boards at a sporting-goods trade show in the fall of '78. Burton had the distinction of being the only snowboard maker at the show, and when all was said and done he took orders for six boards–four of which were eventually cancelled. He sold two lousy boards. Burton Snowboards had officially arrived.
Over the course of its first winter in business, Burton Snowboards eventually moved an underwhelming 300 units, and by the summer of 1979, in what Jake describes as one of the lowest points in the whole story, he was forced to lay off his two relatives and one friend. Once again flying solo, he waited tables and taught tennis to make ends meet.
Down but not out, Jake was back at it in the winter of 1979/80, selling the leftover models from the previous winter's production. Little by little, they started moving. Friends were turning friends onto snowboarding. Enclaves of pioneer riders started popping up across the country, not just in Michigan–where the Snurfer had originated–but also in California and Arizona.
“I remember when we sold our 700th board,” recalls Jake. “All of a sudden there was just a hint of momentum. It was encouraging. Financially, we were continuing to eat it. We hadn't hit rock bottom yet–which ended up being about 100 grand or so in the hole–but emotionally I started to feel more positive.”
From that point on the flood gates opened up, inertia pushing the whole thing forward as Burton Snowboards started doubling sales every season. By the mid 80s, snowboarding's appeal was undeniable, and Burton–along with fellow innovators Sims and Winterstick–made up the vanguard of one of the most dynamic sports trends in history. Skaters, surfers, and skiers everywhere were discovering the liberating sensation of sliding sideways on snow.
Over the ensuing fifteen years, Jake Burton Carpenter had a front-row seat for snowboarding's metamorphosis from a teenage fad, categorically banned by ski resorts everywhere, into the mainstream Olympic sport that ironically saved the collective asses of those same ski resorts by creating a new wave of participants to replace the aging ski crowd.
He saw the boom years, watching as coattailers flooded into snowboarding, not to mention the ski manufacturers. He wondered why they'd given him a fifteen-year head start. He looked on as competitors went public–their stock prices skyrocketing, then plummeting–and witnessed an industry-wide consolidation chew up scores of companies and spit them out.
“We sat there and watched the whole public-company thing happen,” says Jake. “And fortunately we had the patience and discipline to sit on the sidelines. It was tempting to get all that money in your hands and have the stock as a currency to go out and build factories and stuff. An argument could be made that it might make for a better product–that's what it's all about, after all–but that wasn't the long-term answer for us. It seems like there's been a lot of turmoil going on all around us, but we've managed to remain pretty consistently stable.”
Go public? Take the money and run? Thanks, but no thanks. True to form, Jake stuck to his plan, unswerving in the face of temptation, his company focusing on developing high-quality snowboarding gear.
As I listened to Jake tell his tale, it occurred to me that he'd never lost that tendency to go against the grain–to hell with the establishment–but he'd simply learned how to control it, to channel it.
And now, on the cusp of a new millennium, with both Jake and his company more successful than even he could've ever dreamed, it's clear that his independent instincts have served him well. In recent years, those instincts have actually told Jake to pull back from certain aspects of the business, empowering a talented group of people to do what they do best.
“A big step in the evolution of Burton was developing a group of senior managers–key people–and dividing up the functions of the company. The senior management team is great. They all ride. They're all dedicated to the sport, and the majority have been here ten years.”
A major reason Jake started pulling back was to spend more time with his family–his wife of almost seventeen years, Donna, and their sons George, Taylor, and Timmy. But that's not to say he's checked out, off hitting golf balls somewhere. On the contrary, Jake's influence at Burton is recognizable from top to bottom. He's not going anywhere.
“I truly feel like I'm the best owner this company could have,” says Jake. “I mean, 100,000 shareholders? Like Nike or something? I don't think so. That's the scariest thing about going public. That's how I know it doesn't make sense for Burton, because those shareholders don't snowboard. They don't give a shit about snowboarding. How can they be better owners of this company than me? I live it, I love it–this sport is my life.”
These days Jake is refocused on what drove him to pursue his crazy dream in the first place–building better snowboards (and boots, and outerwear, and … ). He admits that above all other aspects of the company, he spends most of his time product-testing and giving his design teams an earful about each and every item.
“I don't work like I used to,” admits Jake. “I don't work weekends any more, and I'm not working 70-hour weeks. Instead I'm out riding. I'm thinking about it, living it. I've taken my success as an opportunity to get more involved in the sport than I've ever been. I ride alone a lot, get on the chairlift with some kid and talk about what's going on. I realized that the only way I was going to remain effective was to immerse myself even more in riding. To be honest, I can't imagine myself being any happier.”
That's for sure–logging an average of 100 days or riding each year, firmly planted on the throne of snowboarding's greatest kingdom. Who wouldn't be happy? You know, for a wise-assed slacker from Long Island, Jake Burton Carpenter hasn't done half bad.