Success Stories: Jake Burton Charts a New Course in Snowboarding
As the early morning sun crests above the snow-covered mountain, Jake Burton adjusts his goggles, checks his bindings
takes a deep breath, looking down on his hometown of Stowe, Vt. The descent below is steep and fraught with peril only the
most experienced snowboarder can embrace. Burton, now 55, takes one more breath, and repeats to himself, “This is snowboarding;
you have to go for it,” before plunging down the mountain on a snowboard he created. For the owner of the leading snowboarding
company in the world, this isn’t just an escape from a boring board meeting. This is the meeting, and Burton is on the
I’m usually trying out something new—a board, a boot, a binding or some piece of outerwear. I’m
always testing something, it seems,” Burton says. It’s a far cry from the barn-based business he started 32 years
ago, but the philosophy hasn’t wavered. Burton credits his success, in part, to listening and getting input from people
who love the sport, including himself.
“Being around the scene, being exposed to it, and understanding that this is
a youth-driven business is key,” says Burton, who holds round-table meetings with some of today’s most iconic
snowboarders four to six times a year. “I’m often steering things in directions, but listening more to what is
going on out there among young, core riders who are defining this sport is important.” Charting a New Course Jake Burton
was intent on building a snowboard company even if it meant pioneering the sport. He did both.
Without Burton, though, those
core riders would likely be pursuing some other sport. Before he went into business, modern snowboarding didn’t really
exist. After finishing up an economics degree, he moved to Vermont and cultivated an idea to bring young people back to the
slopes. By the late ’70s, Burton says, ski resorts were building large arcades to keep kids occupied while their parents
skied. Young people had no interest in the sport. Burton modified the “Snurfer,” an early ancestor to the snowboard
that included straps for the rider to hold and steer with. Instead of a clunky novelty device, he created a snowboard that
was sleek, fast and, most important, not your father’s alpine skis. There was just one problem: Ski resorts wouldn’t
“They would tell us they’d never seen [a snowboard] before and didn’t want us on their
hill,” he says. “We had to convince them that it was a directional device. It was tough because everyone was a
beginner back then. You can imagine a ski resort where everyone on the hill was in their first season.”
your job your lifestyle, which is what it is for me, is a good recipe for success."
tirelessly, both on his boards and the resorts. His first year, he only sold around 300 boards. He had blown through a $100,000
inheritance he’d received after his mother died when he was 17, and he was working two summer jobs in New York just
to keep his fledgling business alive. On one sales trip to the slopes, he actually returned with more boards than he’d
brought. “One shop returned some boards I had sold them,” he says. Burton was nearing a breaking point.
was blowing up in my face. I was alone. I didn’t have any employees,” Burton says of that first year. “I
definitely remember not even wanting to get out of bed. I should just give up on this, I thought to myself. I was
to failing than I even admit.”
That’s when Burton changed his entire business philosophy. Instead of treating
it as a way to make a living, he decided to focus only on the sport. “This switch flipped on. From that point forward,
I looked out for the sport and made sure that there was something there—that I was right [about its potential]. Once
I got focused on that, everything started taking care of itself,” he says.
By year two, Burton had doubled his output,
and snowboarding was beginning to catch on. But it wasn’t until he convinced a few ski resorts to allow boards on the
slopes that his business began to take off. “Getting on their hills was huge,” Burton says. “It paved the
way for the explosive growth.”
That growth points to an industry with an annual revenue of roughly $500 million. Burton
Snowboards, which is a privately held company, reportedly captures 40 to 70 percent of the market share, depending on the
specific category of goods.
Burton has grown his company just as he did the sport—slowly, carefully, relentlessly.
As snowboarding grew in popularity, European companies contacted Burton about manufacturing his product. He and his wife moved
overseas to work closely with their partners, ensuring the product met his standards. Today, the company boasts facilities
across the globe and has expanded to include apparel, accessories, boots and binding divisions. Still the leading snowboard
manufacturer in the world, Burton is synonymous with the sport. It sponsors Shaun White, 2006 Olympic gold medalist and the
best-known name in the sport, and designed uniforms for the 2010 U.S. Olympics snowboarding team.
Having seen his idea bloom
into a multimillion-dollar institution, Burton finally decided to take a step back. He promoted longtime employee Laurent
Potdevin to act as president in 2002 and CEO in 2005. Burton still comes into the office most days and remains heavily involved
in the development and testing of new products. And, of course, he’s still riding.
“I’ve got no plans to
change anything,” Burton says. “I rode 117 days last year, and I’ll get my 100 in this year one way or the
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