Jake Burton Carpenter, who as founder and CEO of Burton Snowboards helped popularize the winter sport and elevate it to Olympics stature, died Wednesday, November 20 of complications from testicular cancer. He was 65.
Carpenter was just 23 when–after countless trips to hardware stores resulting in around 100 prototypes–he produced in his Vermont barn the Burton Backhill, one of the first snowboards. He figured he’d rack up sales at a rate of 50 a day. But that was wildly optimistic: It was 1977 and hardly anyone knew what snowboarding was. Instead Burton Boards, the business he opened, sold just 300 that first year. When a stint selling door-to-door produced still more rejection, Carpenter decided to switch his focus from making money to cultivating the sport he loved. The company’s name didn’t even appear in its first ads.
Carpenter gave away boards to ski instructors and–after persuading sometimes hostile resort operators to allow the gear on lifts–began running contests for the rebellious young athletes attracted to the sport. In 1982 the company sponsored the first U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships. (The Burton U.S. Open moved from Vermont to Vail, Colorado in 2013.) As the sport’s profile grew Carpenter began sponsoring the world’s greatest snowboarders, soliciting their feedback on every one of the company’s products. It was a process he would continue throughout Burton Snowboards’ growth, and one to which he attributed much of its success.
During a family vacation in Europe in 1985 Carpenter visited factories hoping to find one that would apply to snowboarding the high-tech manufacturing techniques used in ski products. He found a partner at Keil Ski in Austria, after showing up there unexpectedly in the middle of the night. That relationship led to the creation of Burton’s first truly modern snowboard and the establishment of the company’s European division in the city of Innsbruck. The company manufactured there until 1992, when it moved to its current facility in Burlington, Vermont.
Snowboarding got its second close-up moment at the 1998 Olympics. (The first was in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill.) It debuted as a demonstration sport appealing to a younger audience than typically tuned in for the event. The gold medalist rode a Burton. In 2002 snowboarding became one of the most popular Olympic events, further bolstering Carpenter’s business. He continued to recruit new riders by creating a program to teach snowboarding to children. Today the program is offered in nearly 200 resorts around the world.
Over the years Carpenter expanded from snowboards into products like boots, outerwear, backpacks, eyewear, and luggage. He always invested heavily in R&D: Among the company’s patents is one for a snowboard boot binding system. “The minute we get beat on an innovation or make a mistake on quality we lose our lead,” he told Inc. Magazine in 2014.
Carpenter snowboarded 100 days a year even after a grueling battle in 2015 with what he described to Inc. as “the gnarliest form of Guillain-Barre” syndrome, which robbed him temporarily of breath, speech, and the ability to walk.
His wife, Donna Carpenter, took over as CEO in 2015. Carpenter remained as a product manager at the company, which today has 1,050 employees globally and sells through hundreds of retailers and its 30 flagship stores in the U.S. When he became sick he had been in remission from a 2011 bout with the cancer.
“He was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much,” co-CEO John Lacy wrote in an email to staff. “As a start of our celebration of Jake’s life, I’d encourage everyone to do what Jake would be doing tomorrow, and that’s riding.”