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Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times
Jake Burton Carpenter heads a company that makes snowboard equipment but is moving further into clothing.

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Burton Snowboards


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To Balance a Business, He Rides a Snowboard

By CATHY HORYN

THIS week, as many corporate executives collapse into lawn chairs or drag themselves to yet another cocktail party at the beach, they may like to know what Jake Burton Carpenter is doing.

Mr. Carpenter, the founder and chief executive of Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vt., has been snowboarding in New Zealand. Despite a tough year at the company, Mr. Carpenter, 49, plans to spend much of the next nine months seeing the world from Patagonia to the Alps from the rim of a snowboard.

Not many executives could afford to be away for so long, or to bear the expense of bringing along family members plus tutors and an assistant. And not many would countenance such an expense at the start of a new sales season, or after laying off 19 percent of their work force, as he did recently.

But since starting his company in 1977, Mr. Carpenter, perhaps more than any other grown-up in his youth-driven industry, has stayed in touch with the sport's core element: the kids who would ride 365 days a year if they could. "It would be hard to find a guy who is more `core' than Jake," said Kurt Hoy, the editor of TransWorld Snowboarding magazine.

The challenge is to remain true to that core while selling to the mainstream, a balancing act that Mr. Carpenter seems to have managed, at least so far. More than a third of the $365 million spent last year in the United States on equipment and apparel was for Burton products, according to Mr. Carpenter, although the company, which is private, would not specify sales and profits. Foreign sales account for 60 percent of volume, according to Mr. Carpenter, with a very profitable portion of it in Japan, where he plans to spend his December.

Now he is ready for the next stage. This month, the company's line of fashion clothing, called Analog, will arrive in stores. It has the same name as the company's high-tech outerwear label, but it is Burton's first attempt to expand its sales to a year-round audience, much as another company, Quiksilver, has done with surfing and skateboarding.

Burton's new line goes beyond the logo T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts that it has always sold. Analog will include low-riding corduroy pants and skirts for girls and, for both sexes, military styles and a red pullover based on a Russian hockey jersey.

Participation in snowboarding has grown steadily, to 5.5 million Americans last year, according to Snow Sports Industries America, a trade group, but overall sales of snowboarding apparel fell to $118 million last winter from $128 million the previous one.

After posting annual sales gains of 50 percent in the 1980's and early 1990's, Burton has hit a bump. Mr. Carpenter says the company has needed to lay off 102 workers in the last 15 months because of weaker demand after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two seasons of relatively low snowfall.

"In the early days, kids were buying two or three boards a year," he said in an interview in late June. "And they're not doing that now."

Although orders for the new season are up about 10 percent over a year ago, he said, there is also more competition. In the early 1980's, Mr. Carpenter worried that ski makers would notice what a popular sport snowboarding was becoming and would jump in. But years went by and nothing happened. "It's incredible to me that they were that asleep at the switch," he said. But now ski brands like Salomon and Rossignol sell aggressively to the core audience by sponsoring professional snowboarding teams and using cool graphics on the boards.

Mainly because he has been around the sport so long his first homemade boards were based on a toy called the Snurfer that he had used as a child Mr. Carpenter occupies a kind of Hugh Hefner role. Not that he walks around Burton headquarters in a bathrobe, though in his office he works on a sofa with a laptop propped on his knees. But he is immersed in the life. At his home near Stowe, Vt., he and his wife, Donna, have a hockey rink and hold midnight snowmobile parties.

"It's like a frat house," said Alexander Vreeland, a former executive at Giorgio Armani who is a member of the Burton board.

Employees can bring their dogs to work. And during the winter, Mr. Carpenter encourages workers, who receive free season lift passes at the Stowe resort, to begin their day with a ride. "If you get in a couple of runs in the morning," he said, "you can work until midnight."

There is a purpose, of course, to the playing. "I watched skiing lose its youth culture," he said. "And as long as I'm around, we won't make that mistake. When I was a kid, skiing was cool. But the ski industry totally lost that." He does not rely on conventional forms of market research, like focus groups. He gets his information from Burton's team of professional riders. "I think the process keeps us pretty straight," he says. "Kids really see through a rider who's endorsing a product he's not behind."

For example, the Burton snowboard team, as well as Greg Dacyshyn, who oversees apparel design at Burton, persuaded Mr. Carpenter that the company needed to step out from the usual baggy snowboard attire. When the company started the original Analog outerwear line three years ago, it had minimal distribution; this fall, the spinoff fashion line will be in 300 specialty stores.

Analog, Mr. Dacyshyn said, has served as "a style lab, where our more progressive riders and customers were willing to go." One of the first styles, a bright orange jumpsuit, met with resistance, but now, he said, "everybody wants that suit."

Mr. Dacyshyn and his designers have since turned out jackets in custom camouflage prints, and a coat with push-button controls for a built-in minidisc player. This month, Burton is bringing out its first aluminum snowboard, the T6. Made mainly from aircraft-grade honeycombed aluminum, the board is surprisingly light when compared with all-wood and fiberglass models (and, at $600, about 25 percent more expensive than most board brands).

Mr. Hoy, at TransWorld, has not tried the T6 but says the industry trend is toward new and lighter materials. One company, Arbor, makes a board from bamboo.

Still, Mr. Carpenter expects the T6 to be a tough sell to riders who like to do tricks and airborne spins. But he predicts that younger riders will eventually initiate the switch to aluminum.

THOUGH he has stubbornly clung to the underground spirit of snowboarding he initially opposed its inclusion in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan he had the foresight to open sales offices in Austria and Japan.

"They do a remarkable job of running an international company," Mr. Vreeland said. If Quiksilver can sell surfer shorts in an urban area like Times Square, he added, what's to stop Burton from selling "endless winter" in Los Angeles or Tokyo?

"I would love to see them in major cities to present the breadth of their products," he said.

At the moment, the only such showcase is the company's store in Burlington, which was expanded recently. But Burton's president, Laurent Potdevin, says the company has looked at possible sites in Los Angeles.

For all its efforts to remain true to the core of the sport and its youthful spirit, Burton cannot escape what it is an established brand. The absolute cutoff age for being considered cool by the young boarders is 25. The company is 26.

"They deserve a ton of credit for what they've done," one retailer said. "But they're never going to be the supercool brand for the kids who are pushing it all the time. It's just the `law.' "

No one is more aware of that bind than Mr. Carpenter. "I'm not trying to be a 17-year-old," he said. But in an e-mail message on Friday from New Zealand, he said he had been surprised in both South America and New Zealand by the pervasiveness of the snowboarding, surfing and skate culture in everyday life.

"Hitting the expected price points is a challenge," he said, "but the demand for authentic brands is there." 




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