SI Vault
 
Chairman of the Board
Michael Finkel
January 13, 1997
Jake Burton took a childhood toy and launched an international craze
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 13, 1997

Chairman Of The Board

Jake Burton took a childhood toy and launched an international craze

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

The company's first headquarters was in the woodworking shop of a friend, Emo Henrich, then director of the Stratton Mountain ski school. Burton tended bar at night and made snowboard prototypes by day. After constructing more than 100 models—of various shapes, types of wood, laminating materials and binding designs—Burton finally had a board he was pleased with. That hurdle overcome, he had to convince people to buy the things. "I was so naive. I thought I'd be selling boards and making money right away," he says. "But by the time I had a board ready, winter was over and nobody was interested."

Burton spent the summer of '78 in Europe, testing his boards on Austrian glaciers. When winter rolled around, his company was in debt. Friends helped him build the boards, and Burton started concentrating on sales. He traveled to trade shows, established a mail-order department and called on retail shops. But he was able to sell only 300 boards, which retailed for $88 apiece. The next winter he sold 700 boards—still well below break-even level.

One major stumbling block was the fact that snowboards were banned at virtually all ski areas, ostensibly because of limits on insurance coverage but in reality, Burton claims, because resorts didn't want their genteel ski culture disrupted by the skateboard and surfer types who were attracted to snowboarding. Finally, in 1983 Stratton Mountain acquiesced to Burton's repeated pleas to let snowboarders on the slopes. "Paul Johnston, the mountain manager at Stratton, told me, 'Nobody wants you on our mountain, but nobody has a good reason why you shouldn't be allowed on,' " Burton recalls.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new sport, but still a godsend for Burton's company. As other ski resorts loosened their restrictions, snowboard sales climbed. In 1984 Burton finally broke even, and two years later he was operating in the black. Now 95% of the ski areas in the U.S. allow boarding, as do all ski areas in Europe. As the sport has grown, so has the competition in board manufacturing and sales, but Burton Snowboards still dominates the industry, selling more than 100,000 snowboards per year in North America, which translates to a 45% market share. (Prices for Burton boards range from $400 to $600.) About 250 competitors tight over the rest of the market.

The sport has gone global. In 1985 Burton opened a plant in Innsbruck, Austria, and his company's sales in both Europe and Japan have now reached U.S. levels. An international circuit of snowboard racing and freestyle events was started in '86, and the sport will make its Olympic debut at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

But Burton is not letting himself get too excited. "The good times can't go on forever," he says. "We don't control the weather, and the market is jammed with too many companies. Someone could come up with a completely new way to slide down the mountain that's even more thrilling than snowboarding, and I might be saying, 'What a waste of snow! What are these kids doing?' just like the ski establishment said to me 15 years ago. But I hope I'll be more open-minded."

1 2