Jake Burton Carpenter - Burton Snowboards founder
Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards and a key early promoter of the sport, died November 20, 2019, in Burlington, Vermont. Cause of death was complications from testicular cancer, for which he was first treated in 2011.
To the snowboarding culture, Carpenter shares founding-father status with Snurfer inventor Sherman Poppen, Winterstick inventor Dimitrije Milovich and skateboarding hero Tom Sims. But he was undoubtedly the keenest businessman among them and should be credited with building the sport into the billion-dollar industry it is today. Most significantly, Carpenter instinctively grasped the growth of a rebellious youth movement of the late 1970s that was primed for the mountain life and a conspicuously different way to head downhill. And all the better, Burton understood, if it annoyed the hell out of the ski community elders.
“Snowboarding attracted kids—skateboarders and surfers—who otherwise might not have taken up skiing,” said John Fry, chairman of the International Skiing History Association. “His marketing genius was to capitalize on the generational clash of young snowboarders and older skiers, often their parents.”
Carpenter was born on April 29, 1954, in Manhattan and raised on Long Island. In his private life, he preferred to be known as Jake Carpenter. At the office, he was Jake Burton—his mother’s family name and the one he used for his business. He may even have had two personae: One Jake attended an exclusive prep school, while non-conformist Jake was expelled from it.
After a short stint at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he attended New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and began work in the financial sector. During this time, he built his first snowboard prototype in his Manhattan apartment. He saw his future and soon headed to Vermont.
In 1977, at Stratton Mountain, 23-year-old Carpenter began to manufacture a device resembling the Snurfer, on which he had ridden as a boy. The rider held onto a rope attached to the top of what he called a “Backyard Board.” It cost $49. Traversing on it was almost impossible, although the rider could make passable wedel-like turns. For a more elaborate Backhill model, Burton added rubber straps that worked something like a water-ski foot piece.
To increase his production, Carpenter scraped together his own savings, a bank loan and an inheritance from his grandmother—$100,000 in all—and converted a farmhouse near Stratton into a mini-factory capable of producing 50 wooden snowboards a day. It was a case of instant overcapacity. The first year, 1979, he sold only 300 boards, the equivalent of six days’ production. But sales doubled the next year to more than 700 boards, and they went on doubling. By the end of the late 1990s, Carpenter’s privately owned, Vermont-headquartered firm, with operations in Austria and Japan, was the world’s largest snowboard company.
For his book The Story of Modern Skiing, author John Fry interviewed Burton at his home in Moscow, Vermont. Burton confessed to Fry that when the potential for a mass snowboard market was largely a dream in his head, he suffered an accompanying nightmare—that the big ski manufacturers would begin to crank out snowboards before he could carry out his full business plan. He needn’t have worried. The established gear companies initially failed to understand the iconoclastic cultural appeal of a new sport to a new generation. They stood by passively as Burton and an army of young acolytes fueled an explosive growth in snowboarding. “We went from a fly on the windshield, to a nuisance, to a threat,” Carpenter said. “They gave us a 15-year head start.”
In the winter of 1984–85, when it was rare to see a snowboarder on the slopes, skiers accounted for a total of 51 million visits to U.S. ski areas. By the winter of 2001–02, when skier-visits totaled 54.2 million, snowboarders accounted 16 million of the visits. Without snowboarding, the resorts would clearly have suffered a punishing immediate loss, if also the potential loss of a future generation.
The sport approached mainstream acceptance in the 1990s. A milestone was the introduction of boarding events in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Carpenter was greeted by a sign at the Games noting “Sno-Boarding,” indicating the battle was not yet won.
Carpenter may have won the cultural war, as the freeskiing movement adopted many of the fashions, slang terms, terrain-park tricks and general screw-the-rules attitude incubated by snowboarding’s original rebels and pioneers. And the mid-fat short ski revolution of the early 1990s could be viewed as nothing more than putting a snowboard on a table saw and cutting it in half.
Burton is survived by his
Carpenter was a man of many talents, including a strong sense of self-awareness. “I didn’t invent snowboarding the way Poppen did,” he said. “If there’s anything I give myself credit for, it’s perseverance.” —Greg Ditrinco
The following is an excerpt from The Story of Modern Skiing, by John Fry.
In 1977, at Stratton Mountain, Vermont, 23-year-old Jake Burton Carpenter began to manufacture a device resembling the Snurfer, on which he had ridden as a boy in the 1960s. The rider held on to a rope attached to the top of what Burton called a “Backyard Board.” It cost $49. Traversing on it was almost impossible, although the rider could make passable wedel-like turns. For a more elaborate Backhill model which he designed, Burton added rubber straps that looked something like a water-ski foot piece.
To increase his production, Burton scraped together his own savings, a bank loan and an inheritance from his grandmother -- $100,000 in all – and converted a farmhouse near Stratton into a mini-factory capable of producing 50 wooden snowboards a day. It was a case of instant overcapacity. The first year, 1979, he sold only 300 boards, the equivalent of six days’ production. But sales doubled the next year to more than 700 boards, and they went on doubling. By the end of the 20th Century, Burton’s privately owned, Vermont-headquartered firm, with operations in Austria and Japan, was the world’s largest snowboard company.
Because I’d known Howard Head and Bob Lange, whose inventions revolutionized skiing, I drove to Stowe, Vermont, one summer day in 2001, in order to meet Burton. The man who mid-wifed modern snowboarding didn’t much resemble his famously rebellious, baggy-panted teenage customers. He is neat, trim, polite, courteous to a fault. His vocabulary and manner of expression and evenly modulated voice appear to belong to someone raised in the affluent ex-urbs of northern Westchester or Long Island’s south shore, where in fact he did grow up. He is lean, dark-complexioned, of medium height, with carefully groomed dark hair down the nape of his neck, crooked teeth, but with a kind of movie star athletic handsomeness. In his private life, he prefers to be known as Jake Carpenter. At the office, he is Jake Burton -- his mother’s family name and the one he uses for business. He may even have two personae. One Jake attended an exclusive prep school, the other non-conformist Jake was expelled from it. There is Jake the disciplined executive, and there’s the Jake who runs a company where employees can bring their dogs to work. There is Jake the cool, calculating youth-marketing strategist, and Jake the hotheaded believer in the right of teenaged snowboarders to access any resort.
“I didn’t invent snowboarding the way Poppen did,” said Burton. No, I believe what Howard Head said about dogged persistence. If there’s anything I give myself credit for, it’s perseverance.” One of Burton’s earliest commercial challenges was when skateboarding, a sport born on concrete, found its way onto snow. California skateboard maker Tom Sims began to shape snowboards different than Burton’s, designed to make possible the kind of halfpipe stunts done by skateboarders on concrete. They “were trying to simulate skateboarding on snow,” according to Susanna Howe, the author of (Sick) - - A Cultural History of Snowboarding. An east-west rivalry emerged. The So-Cal skaters – seemingly lathered in perpetual anger – disparaged not only skiing, but also snowboarding as it had developed in the east . . .it was for dorks. Everything sucked, except their special way of snowboarding, whose origin was not in the mountains, but in the inner-city. Wild new magazines and videos enthusiastically celebrated the exploits of foul-mouthed bad boy Shaun Palmer, and flamboyantly, day-glo dressed Damian Sanders.
The language, the music and the surliness were a problem if you happened to own a ski resort that was in the business of selling vacations to men and women, half of whom were older than thirty-five. Two out of three snowboarders were under twenty and predominantly male. Many ski areas -- with the notable exceptions of Breckenridge, Colorado, and Stratton Mountain, Vermont -- at first refused to sell lift tickets to them. The boycott made Burton both angry and skeptical. The resorts that banned snowboarding, he suggested, were bigoted -- treating kids as if they were an objectionable minority. “To exclude young people from the mountain is wrong, negative and shortsighted,” he said. “It’s terrible to hear people say, ‘We don’t want to be around kids.’ Skiers who speak of ‘fu----ng snowboarders’ give skiing a bad name.” Burton’s criticism of obscene language by skiers, of course, was a supreme instance of the pot calling the kettle black.
While he was angry about the refusal of ski areas to admit snowboarders, Burton also found it ironic. “At the time we were lobbying to gain access to the areas and as they were complaining about snowboarder behavior, the National Ski Areas Association gave me a copy of Warren Miller’s Wine, Women and Skiing. I read it. It described skiing’s early days in the 1940s and early 1950s at Sun Valley. It was just like reading about snowboarders. . . young people living in the back of a van, counterfeiting lift tickets, eating free crackers topped with relish and ketchup at the condiment counter. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is exactly the stuff that people are saying is so terrible about snowboarding.’ The irony is that the people who gave me the book were once ski bums themselves. They lived that lifestyle. Now they were running the ski areas. And they wanted to throw snowboarders off the premises because the kids were behaving just like they once did!” Burton’s analogy was only partially correct. The rebellious early skiers were typically fun-loving college graduates bent on saving money. The snowboarders tended to be angry, subverting teenagers who made themselves authentic with self-mockery and a pride in dissing “the system.”
The generational clash of snowboarders and skiers, Burton willingly conceded, helped his sales. Catering to the rebelliousness of his young customers, he said, was “to put snowboarding in a light that I think is appropriate.”
Snowboarders began to appear in real numbers on the slopes when boards and boots dramatically improved in design. Camber, metal edges, two-footed bindings and P-tex running surfaces were introduced. In a repetition of skiing’s development in the 1950s and 1960s, with each new equipment advance starting in the early 1980s, it became easier to practice the sport. Hundreds of thousands of people started to ride on snow for the first time.
“Without youthful snowboarders,” said Burton, “ski areas would have become elitist, small, high-end, inbred. Half the business we brought to them came from skateboarders and surfers who wouldn’t have taken up skiing. The other half came from people like myself who crossed over from skiing.” In the winter of 1984-85, when it was rare to see a snowboarder on the slopes, skiers accounted for a total of 51 million visits to U.S. ski areas. By the winter of 2001-02, when skier-visits totaled 54.2 million, snowboarders accounted 16 million of the visits. Without snowboarding, the resorts would clearly have suffered a punishing loss.
Burton confessed that when the potential for a mass snowboard market was largely a dream in his head, he suffered an accompanying nightmare. . .that the big ski manufacturers, Rossignol and Salomon, would begin to make snowboards before he could carry out his full business plan. He needn’t have worried. The established companies initially failed to understand the culture of the new sport. They stood by passively as Burton and an army of pot-smoking, garishly dressed young entrepreneurs came to exhibit at the industry’s annual trade show, sitting on beat-up sofas in booths decorated with graffiti, with the sales staff doing stunts on skate ramps. “We went from a fly on the windshield, to a nuisance, to a threat,” said Burton. “They gave us a 15-year head start.”
The ski companies did eventually make snowboards . . . By the end of the 20th century, two million Americans were snowboarding. Millions more took up the sport in every country that had snow. If they were not people who started on snowboards, they were people who switched to the new sport from skiing. Burton had been a skier in the 1960s. He remembered better than the ski companies that the passion of participants, not industry marketing, had driven skiing’s growth. –John Fry, in The Story of Modern Skiing
Also see Snowboarding: It's older than you think, by Paul J. MacArthur.
Photo: Jake Carpenter with Shaun White, 2017