To find the godfather of snowboarding, you must travel to the outskirts of Burlington, Vt., drive across a one-lane bridge and park in front of the building that was once a Gatling gun factory. Inside, you must wade through a display of new snowboards, walk past a huge and eclectic array of snowboard-making machinery, perhaps play a game on the company pinball machine, do a two-step around a small pack of sleeping dogs and say hello as you pass a gang of goateed and nose-ringed professional boarders. Only then will you arrive at the office of Jake Burton Carpenter—founder, president and chief visionary of Burton Snowboards.
The sport of snowboarding, which entails riding surfboard-style equipment down snow-covered mountains, is booming. Virtually unheard of 15 years ago, snowboarding now has more than 2.3 million participants in the U.S., representing nearly 20% of the people who visit ski resorts annually. Since 1988 the number of snowboarders has risen 77% while the number of skier; has fallen 25%, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
The person most responsible for transforming snowboarding into an international craze is Jake Burton. (To avoid confusion in business, he dropped the surname Carpenter in the early 1980s.) The 42-year old Burton seems to be the antithesis of a hard-nosed businessman. He has the serene demeanor of a mature surfer, and his 300 employees view him more as a pushover camp counselor than as a wealthy president and founder of a multimillion-dollar corporation. (If conditions at the nearby Stowe ski resort are especially fine, the factor shuts down for a staff snowboarding day.) Burton's skin is preternaturally tan, his voice is late-night-deejay mellow, and his office attire is ultracasual, usually jean and a T-shirt. "I feel incredibly uncomfortable wearing a tie," he says.
Jake and his wife, Donna, have three sons: George, 7, Taylor, 3, and Tim, six months. When Jake runs his hands through his dark brown hair, he seems surprised to find it short; before he became a parent it brushed his shoulders.
"I have the best job in the world," says Burton. "I ride my board several days a week, the company is making money, the sport is blossoming. I'm not surprised. Snowboarding provides so much more of a rush than skiing. Most skiers who try it never go back."
Though Burton is often called the inventor of the snowboard, he refuses to take credit for anything more than improving on somebody else's idea. He settles, instead, for the label "snowboard pioneer." The other notable pioneer is Tom Sims, who sold his first commercial board in 1976 and now runs Sims Snowboards, in Vancouver.
The first person to produce a snow-boardlike object was Sherman Poppen, a businessman from Muskegon, Mich., who in 1965 bolted two skis together for his children to slide on. Poppen licensed his invention, which he called the Snurfer, to the Brunswick Corporation. It had no bindings or metal edges—just a rope on the front to grab on to—and sold for about $10.
Burton, who grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., got a Snurfer when he was 14 years old. "I always felt there was an opportunity for it to be better marketed," he says, "for serious technology to be applied to it, so Snurfing could become a legitimate sport instead of a cheap toy. I knew there was an opportunity there. I couldn't believe Brunswick never took advantage of it." (The company discontinued Snurfer production in the mid-'70s.)
According to Jake's father, Tim Carpenter, Jake did not possess any innate entrepreneurial spirit. "He wasn't the type of kid who set up lemonade stands," says Carpenter, a writer who also had worked as a broker on Wall Street. "But once he had the idea for this board in his head, he put every bit of his energy into it."
Burton's teenage years were marred by tragedy: His older brother, George, was killed in Vietnam when Burton was 12, and their mother, Katherine, died of leukemia five years later. "The losses made for two things," says Burton, "real independence and an ability to persevere." Both came into play in December 1977, when, shortly after he earned a degree in economics from New York University and inherited a small sum from his grandmother, he moved to Stratton Mountain, Vt., and founded Burton Snowboards. He was 23.