Why Jake Burton Says Vermont is Snowboarding's Spiritual Birthplace
Jake Burton Carpenter once said Stratton Mountain Resort, its 3,875-foot summit lording over southern Vermont, had probably done more for snowboarding than any other mountain on the planet. Still, in the mid-1970s—when he was an early 20-something freshly escaped from Manhattan’s corporate culture— testing prototypes of snowboards he made in a barn in nearby Londonderry, Carpenter had to sneak onto the mountain in the dark after lifts had closed. “Jake would take each new design up after the lifts closed and hike up Suntanner, which is one of our central runs, to test his boards,” said Myra Foster, Stratton’s director of PR for more than 25 years.
Eventually the resort, which has a 2,003-vertical foot drop, agreed to allow Carpenter to ride his creations during the day. “When he became confident that he or anybody else would be able to turn and stop on a snowboard, he came to our director of operations and said, ‘We’d love to be able to ride these on the mountain.’” Stratton’s answer was, “Why not?” “He seemed to be on to something exciting,” Foster said. “We wanted to be a part of it. We were one of the first resorts in the country to allow snowboarding.”
Stratton was right. Burton, who early on decided his middle name “Burton” made for a better brand name than his last “Carpenter,” was on to something. Forty years later, five different snowboarding disciplines, from half pipe to snowboard cross and freestyle, are Olympic sports. Burton Snowboards, which Burton still owns with his wife Donna, is estimated to be worth more than $100 million (privately held companies don’t have to disclose financials) and employs more than 900 people around the world. Half of everything snowboarding-related sold—from clothing to boots, bags, bindings and boards—bears the Burton name.
While Burton has stores around the world, its world headquarters remain in Vermont. Not in the barn—which belonged to Stratton’s ski school director—where Burton first toiled over prototypes, but on a campus for roughly 400 employees that includes an 84,000-square-foot prototyping facility, a flagship store and a 68,000-square-foot office complex.
Walking into the lobby of the office complex, you’re greeted by a timeline display of wall-mounted snowboards dating back to the company’s founding in 1977 and a simple message: “You need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”
It’s an important reminder for Burton as the brand closes in on its 40th anniversary. Sliding down mountains sideways on a snowboard may still be a relatively young sport, and progression and innovation are still the name of the game, but four decades of dominance in the industry is also cause for celebrating some deep roots.
Burton would be the first to tell you he didn’t invent snowboarding. He skied as a kid and got his first taste of carving slopes sideways when he was 14, on something called a Snurfer. A rudimentary precursor to the modern snowboard, Snurfers were patented by Sherman Poppen in 1966. Among the many historic items in the Burton collection on display in the flagship store are a pair of even more rudimentary snowboards patented even earlier—in 1939 by the Bunker Sno-Surf Company.
Despite Bunker and Poppen, it is Burton’s name that has become synonymous with snowboarding. After he first got hooked on the experience of surfing on snow, the self-identified “loser shop class kid” experimented with different materials, shapes and manufacturing processes, trying to figure out how to make snowboarding even more fun. And he’s been at it—“it” being making the sport fun—ever since.
Though Burton, 61, is a New Yorker by birth, briefly went to college in Colorado (he graduated from NYU) and has lived abroad, the Burton Snowboards story is pure Vermont. The first official board he launched his brand with in 1977—after spending a few years making hundreds of prototypes in that Londonderry barn—was dubbed the Burton Backhill, “BB1.” It’s at the beginning of the headquarters’ timeline wall and is also prominently featured in a small museum gallery of the Burton archives that is open to the public by appointment. A limited-edition model based on the company’s early boards, the Throwback, sold out in 2015 and is in wider release this season. After nearly 40 years of innovation, its popularity proves there’s still plenty of fun to be had in stripped-down simplicity, even as the company leads the charge in technical and technological innovation elsewhere in its line.
“Since day one, we’ve charged ahead to innovate and give as much back to snowboarding as we’ve gotten out of it,” reads the manifesto summarizing the company’s goals Burton wrote himself. “We answer to no one but snowboarders, and support everything we do with the quality and service that shops and riders have grown to expect.”
In 1978, after the success of the Backhill, Burton moved the business out of the barn and set up a more proper shop in Manchester, 20-some miles west. In 1992 the company moved again, this time to the Burlington campus it still calls home. Although Burton is sold worldwide and is expanding into new markets like China—according to Bloomberg Business, as much as 10 percent of Burton’s business will be in China by the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing—the company’s home will never be anywhere but Vermont. Nearly all of the company’s first-hand testing with its research and development team still happens on the nearby slopes of Stowe. While Burton and his employees want the company to be profitable, they spend less time thinking about market share and growth strategies than they do thinking about the soul of snowboarding—how to define it, nurture it, protect it.
“Progression on the mountain and innovation really go hand in hand,” said Burton archivist Todd Kohlman while leading a tour of the company archives and the company’s Craig Kelly Prototype Facility. The latter is named after a former, long- time sponsored rider and collaborator who died in 2003 in an avalanche outside Revelstoke, British Columbia. To employees, the prototype facility is simply “Craig’s” and it’s where tomorrow’s designs are born. “Jake always says the riders are in the driver’s seat,” Kohlman said. “They’re the ones directing the way snowboarding will go. They tell us what they need from us in order to do what they want to do.”
Inside Craig ’s, next to a small museum display honoring the first 30-odd years of Burton Snowboards history, Kohlman took us past a crew making boards marking the 20-year anniversary of rider Terje Håkonsen’s iconic 1995 signature board. The new boards are built with contemporary specs, but the Sprocking Cat design is vintage. Norweigen Håkonsen, who picked up the nickname Sprocking Cat because he always lands on his feet, signed with Burton in 1989, when he was only 15, and has worked with the company, designing boards ever since.
“The boards we’re making right now were designed by Terje, using the trickiest materials and the newest shapes, with just a nod to the history,” said Chris Doyle, Burton’s head of Prototyping R&D, as he waited for a rapid 3D prototyping machine to mock up a new helmet shape, while a high-tech CNC router in another room shaved and shaped ultra-thin milled wood cores into precise dimensions for a new whimsical-looking asymmetrical board design.
The bulk of Burton’s manufacturing has moved overseas, both to China and Austria, but Craig’s remains the heart and soul of the company. It’s here where all of the new products get their beginning, where special projects like Terje’s anniversary board are produced, and where personal boards for team riders like Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Kelly Clark are made to spec.
Next up on the facility’s docket are custom boards that team riders like White, Mark McMorris, Clark, Danny Davis and Enni Rukajarvi will use in upcoming competitions. Each rider collaborates and consults throughout the design and production process for their board(s).
Prominently displayed on a wall inside Craig’s is another recently completed project, the very first signature deck designed by and for Jake himself. It’s named “The Stone Hut” after a favorite, 80-year-old backcountry hut of Burton’s near the top of Stowe Mountain Resort’s Mt. Mansfield. Its design is meant for powder and the deck features artwork from Burton’s favorite Jimi Hendrix album “Valleys of Neptune.”
Craig’s is a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for snowboarders. Burton likes to think Kelly would approve. “Craig was an engineer at heart,” Burton said shortly after the center opened in 2010. “It was what made our relationship tick once he got involved with Burton. He was so into board design, and he brought us so far. It seemed only appropriate we would name this place after him. I mean, I owe so much to that guy for teaching me to listen to riders and just what he did himself, pushing our board designs. There’s no other name that should be on the door than his.”
On the day I visited, racks of a limited-run tribute model snowboard marking the 25th anniversary of Kelly’s first signature Burton board greeted us. Kelly was one of the sport’s first superstars and one of its most engaging personalities, winning some of the first major snowboarding contests as he led the movement towards freestyle progression with an ear- to-ear grin pasted across his face. Burton was his board.
But after winning four consecutive World Champion titles (1986–1989) and three consecutive US Open titles (1987–1989), Kelly walked away from competition to pursue big-mountain freeriding and backcountry snowboarding. Common today, such riding was revolutionary at the time. Some of Kelly’s other sponsors balked at this shift. Not only did Burton continue backing him, but they also allowed Kelly to design the gear that would make this new type of riding more fun.
The building, which is available for tours by appointment, is symbolically protected by avalanche fences above the front entrance. Tour groups go into each of the prototyping rooms, but cameras are banned in most of them. During my visit, the engineering team was putting a new boot design to the test in a robotic torture device so classified we were asked to not even describe it here. Other trade secrets, like the process for creating Burton’s trademarked “Channel” binding attachment system, are even more heavily protected.
“I’m a company guy, obviously, but I can honestly say we build the best snowboards and snowboard equipment in the world,” said Doyle. “I respect all of our competitors but I can respectfully say that we’re still the best. Jake is a true believer that last year’s trophies don’t pay this year’s bills,” Doyle said. “He really doesn’t have a whole lot of time for nostalgia and sitting on one’s laurels. This is snowboarding, after all: the whole thing moves very quickly, and you have to stay with it. So when you come in here, what you’re seeing is the future being made.”
“Here’s how I like to look at it: every board being put together is the potential energy for so much fun. Where is that board going to go? Who is it going to take to the top of a podium or somewhere amazing? You can feel that energy when you come through here. We’re not given total carte blanche, but we do have the freedom to try things and to do some weird stuff. We can prototype everything, and it allows us to play in a bunch of different directions. I’m pretty much ruined for working anywhere else.”
Whether a snowboard, boot or jacket, Burton products have one thing in common: the words “Burlington, Vermont.” It’s key to the brand’s DNA. “When I think of Vermont, I think of quality,” Kohlman said. “And when you’re talking about Burton, you’re talking about Vermont: that’s at the core. Jake and Donna are proud Vermonters, and Vermont is really proud of Burton and our culture. It’s a special place, and it ties in heavily to both our history and our future.” And it’s where Burton has always loved to ride.
“I’ve heard him say he’ll ride all over the world, but some of his best days are still at Stowe,” Kohlman said. “There’s something about your home mountain and your special spots. On any given day at Stowe you could run into Jake out there, trudging up on a splitboard with his dogs in tow, or out testing our latest prototypes, or just riding with Donna and their sons [George, 25, Taylor, 22 and Timi, 19].”
Stowe Mountain Resort is the closest resort to Burton HQ, and Jake and Donna have a home there. “You’d find Jake on the Bruce Trail,” said Doyle. “It’s an old backcountry trail, a great, long, fun run. It’s un-groomed, and to get out at the bottom you have to pole out along the cross-country trails, which sends the skiers into fits of apoplexy—we’ve learned to stay out of the groomed cross-country tracks! You better have your board waxed.”
In 2011, Burton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It is now cured, but last March, just after the Burton US Open in Vail, Colorado, he was diagnosed with Miller Fisher Syndrome, an extremely rare type of Guillain-Barre Syndrome that results in the body’s immune system attacking the nerves. It temporarily paralyzed him. He was on full life support for two months at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, but is now back at home in Vermont focusing on physical therapy. Burton spokeswoman Abby Young said he’s expected to make a full recovery, but it’s been a trying year.
“What he’s done for the sport, his heart and soul, his enthusiasm, his overall drive, his hands-on approach—you see that in how he beat cancer and how he’s fighting this Miller Fisher Syndrome, too,” said Shawn Johnson, Burton’s global development manager. “When he comes through he always asks, ‘What’s hot today? What are you working on?’ That’s where his heart is, and he’s always receptive to new ideas.”
“It’s always been Jake’s passion to develop snowboarding, to keep making it better and better so we can get to wherever we’re heading, and to me that’s the heart of what this company is about,” Kohlman said. “The past is awesome and it’s worth celebrating, but Jake is always focused on ‘What’s next?’ ‘How can we make this better?’ It’s the future he’s interested in.”