Outside Business Journal

The Sideways Success of Donna Carpenter and Jake Burton Carpenter

The recipients of the Outdoor Inspiration Award for Lifetime Achievement, the pioneering couple has pushed Burton, snowboarding, and our entire industry to higher heights

MT Elliott

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There was no such thing as modern snowboarding before Jake Carpenter strapped into a novelty board in the late 1970s and felt the future. Today, that start has ballooned into a $400 million industry, and Burton Snowboards, which holds about half the market share, continues to lead the way forward by innovating its products while staying true to its core. So, it’s fitting that the first combined show between Outdoor Retailer and Snow Show recognizes Donna and Jake Carpenter, the founders of Burton, with its Inspiration Award for lifetime achievement.

John O’Connor, Donna Carpenter, Keith Heingartner, and Chuck Heingartner in Stratton, Vermont, in 1986 (Photo: Courtesy)

“It’s rare that you find someone who created a whole category; from the first show where no one knew what a snowboard was, to all the areas that wouldn’t even allow snowboarding,” said Greg Thomsen, managing director of adidas Outdoor, which sponsors the Inspiration Awards. “[Donna and Jake’s] perseverance, direction, and commitment is laudable. And they couldn’t be nicer, more honest people to deal with.”

Years after a car accident derailed his effort to join the ski team at the University of Colorado Boulder, Jake began riding a Snurfer monoski. These had ropes attached to the nose for steering, and lacked bindings. Jake sensed it could be more. In 1977, he cribbed notes from skateboard and ski production and used them to tinker on his prototypes. He ditched the rope and used ski bindings to lock into a sideways stance. Two years later, Burton had sold a whopping 300 boards to shops and exhausted his finances. That led him to begin a mail order business, and the company flourished.

Such perseverance is in Burton’s DNA, and the company has used it to maintain its prominence on the three pillars of branding, community, and financial sustainability. “I like to say we stand sideways and look at the world a little sideways,” Donna said.

As snowboarding began to take hold at resorts across the country, the Carpenters looked to kindred markets to inform their decisions—or to use as cautionary tales. When Donna joined Burton’s leadership in the early ’80s, she felt the ski industry had lost its passion: all the former ski bums she knew were fretting over spreadsheets. That was not something the Carpenters wanted for themselves. To safeguard against it, Jake pledged he’d ride 100 days a year—a promise he’s kept every year but two. “It was that sense of staying connected and not losing why we’re in it,” Donna said.

Burton board prototypes. (Photo: Courtesy)

In the ’90s, surf brands showed them what overexpansion looked like. “Surf had a legitimate lifestyle to sell and they got greedy by going public: they overproduced,” Donna said. “Staying private is an incredible competitive advantage to us because we can invest in things like sustainability and gender diversity without having to worry about the next quarterly profit for our shareholders.”

Instead, Burton has focused on what’s now and what’s next, strategically selecting athletes to sponsor to highlight the brand’s image and performance and always seeking to invite new members to the sport.

Over the decades, Burton’s sponsorship has fostered young athletes who grew up to represent the sport on the world stage, like a nine-year-old named Shaun White and a strong roster of women. For the broader snowboard audience, Burton runs several services and programs to help grow the sport’s community, including Learn to Ride, which also hosts women-only introductory sessions, and the Chill Foundation, which puts underprivileged youth on the slopes. There’s even the Riglet program to get kids from ages two to four onto modified boards.

They learned other lessons the hard way, but being pioneers earned them some leeway over the years. “We made the mistake of hiring all the bros, or whatever, in the beginning and then there was a period of time where I think we went too far the other way and were just looking for specialists,” said Donna. “We realized that cultural fit and values are important.”

Current upheaval around issues like diversity and the #MeToo movement have rattled companies in every industry, but Burton was ahead of the curve and a leader in women’s representation. “My team is 45 percent female,” Donna said. “That really came from an aha moment that Jake and I had 14 years ago.” After rapid growth took in employees and participants from the male-dominated sports of skate, surf, and snow, Donna said the brand “took on a culture that we didn’t really mean to.”

Six years ago, when European brands pushed for transparency in their production, Burton went all in, too, and now boasts one of the highest percentages of bluesign-approved softgoods in the industry.

In the early days, snowboarding had a chip on its shoulder, carving a way for itself on the slopes with the attitude of that sideways perspective. “There was a sense of it being more than a sport, of it being a movement,” Donna said. “I think we can do that again in terms of fighting global climate change or something, but I miss a little bit of that rebel spirit.”

2014 Global Ride Day (Photo: Courtesy)

Burton has found innovation is still a great way to disrupt and grow the industry. From initial board shapes—some of which are seeing a retro rebirth—to the latest Step On bindings, the company has prioritized the rider first and lifestyle second. The Step Ons were born when Jake remarked to a company engineer that he’d spent enough years bending over to get into his bindings and wanted an easier option that would offer the same performance as a buckle binding. Five years later, that product came to market.

As chairman of the board, Jake has kept his focus on products and athletes. He’s instilled a simple litmus test for gear coming through the pipeline: if it doesn’t help the rider, let it go. He still tries on the latest apparel and technologies. In the past year, he began meeting with specialty retailers and going out to dinner to give a more familial feel to retailers who stayed loyal over three decades.

For Donna, the realization that Burton was a family first came amid the 1989 Savings and Loans Crisis. The bank had pulled Burton’s funding and Donna had to tell employees they couldn’t cash their paychecks for two weeks. “Nobody blinked. Nobody complained, from the warehouse to the salespeople.”

But does a lifetime achievement award imply they are ready to hand over the reins?

“Burton’s our kid and it’s growing up and we want it to be independent,” Donna said. “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting there.”

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