Jake Burton Carpenter, Who Ushered in Snowboarding as a Sport, Dies at 65

Jake Burton Carpenter, Who Ushered in Snowboarding as a Sport, Dies at 65

Jake Burton Carpenter, whose once-modest plan to make 50 snowboards a day turned into something far bigger — a global business that helped drive snowboarding into a popular Olympic sport — died on Wednesday in a hospital in Burlington, Vt. He was 65.

The cause was complications of testicular cancer, his company, Burton Snowboards, which is based in Burlington, said.

Mr. Carpenter was both a driven entrepreneur and an easygoing dude who disdained a desk in his office, encouraged his employees to bring their dogs to work and gave his staff days off to snowboard when storms dropped two feet or more of snow.

“He’s like the cool dad of the sport,” Shaun White, who has won three Olympic gold medals in snowboarding and is a longtime Burton Snowboards endorser, told The New York Times in 2015.

When Mr. Carpenter began making snowboards in 1977, skiing was the dominant snow sport. Sherm Poppen, a Michigan businessman, had invented an early version of a snowboard, the Snurfer — a strip of wood with a rope tied to its nose for steering — but it was more of a toy than gear for a breakthrough sport.

Mr. Carpenter loved it, calling it “a dream come true.”

“I wanted to surf, and I knew snow because I was a skier,” he told The New York Times in August, after Mr. Poppen died.

Mr. Carpenter’s initial goal was to make a better Snurfer, employing a small staff in a converted barn in Londonderry, Vt., and drawing on a $150,000 bequest from his grandmother. But that first year was filled with rejection, largely by customers at surf, ski and skateboard shops.

“Yeah, I was like Willy Loman,” he said in an interview in 2017 for NPR’s “How I Built This,” referring to the defeated protagonist in Arthur Miller’s classic play “Death of a Salesman.” “I remember once going out with 38 snowboards, visiting dealers in New York State, and came back with 40 because one guy gave me two back he had bought.”

Success came gradually. He sold 300 the first year and 700 the second, as word-of-mouth spread and brought in mail orders. Sales kept doubling, year after year, until the popularity of Burton’s snowboards (and those made by his rivals) in the 1980s and ’90s made it clear that young people had adopted snowboarding as a rebellious, low-cost alternative to skiing.

“Snowboarding attracted kids — skateboarders and surfers — who otherwise might not have taken up skiing,” John Fry, chairman of the International Skiing History Association, wrote in an email. “His marketing genius was to capitalize on the generational clash of young snowboarders and older skiers, often their parents.”

Ski resorts at first resisted the punk-music-and-rap-loving young snowboarders. Even a decade after Burton was founded, Mr. Fry said, only about 10 percent of resorts allowed snowboarders on their slopes. But by the early 1990s they had relented.

Snowboarding reached a major milestone when it became an Olympic sport, debuting at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. But the way it was accepted by the Olympic establishment did not please Mr. Carpenter.

The International Ski Federation did not inform him, one of the sport’s pioneer figures, of the sport’s entrance into the Olympics, he said. And when he arrived at the snowboarding venue he was chagrined to see a sign that said, “Sno-Boarding.”

“It was not a cool moment at all,” he said.

Mr. Carpenter was born on April 29, 1954, in Manhattan. His father, Edward, was an investment banker, and his mother, Katherine (Eaton) Carpenter, was a homemaker. About the same time he was Snurfing, Jake was expelled from the private Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., after being involved in a prank in which a janitor found in his possession a secret strong box, passed down through generations of students, that held the key to every lock in the school.

“I had this reputation for being so lucky — I never got caught doing anything — and then it all sort of caved in on me, and I got kicked out,” he told Snowboarder magazine in 2000.

He righted himself at another prep school, and after graduating got his first taste of entrepreneurship, starting a landscaping business with two rakes, an old station wagon and some garbage bags.

After one year at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he left for New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. While working for an investment firm in Manhattan, he crafted his first snowboard prototype in his apartment using a saber saw and wood.

After moving to Londonderry, he made snowboards in a barn during the day and tended bar at night. A turning point came when he sold his 700th board.

“All of a sudden, there was a hint of momentum,” he told Snowboarder.

That momentum continued to build, making Burton the top snowboard maker.

Health issues intervened in later years. He received his first diagnosis of testicular cancer in 2011. Four years later he was temporarily paralyzed with Miller Fisher syndrome, a type of Guillain-Barré syndrome. He spent six weeks in intensive care using a feeding tube and a ventilator.

Despite paralysis in most of his body, his hands could move, allowing him to write notes even when his eyes could not open. He addressed his wife and sons, guests and caregivers, offering poignant and humorous observations.

“Did you think I was a goner?” he wrote one day. On another day he wrote, “And don’t forget to kiss me once in a while”;
on still another, “All these dudes are stressing me out.”

He recovered and continued to work at the company, where his wife, Donna Carpenter, and John Lacy are the chief executives.

“We’ve always felt that our success has never been about us; it’s about the snowboarding world,” Ms. Carpenter wrote in The Times in 2012. “We believed we were pioneering something that others loved as much as we did.”

In 2016, the artist Jeff Koons, who had recently come to love snowboarding, designed a snowboard with Mr. Carpenter called The Philosopher. It used Mr. Carpenter’s technical specifications, notably a twin tip that would let the snowboarder ride forward and backward, and Mr. Koons’s likeness of Plato with a rendering of the allegory of the cave, from “The Republic.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Carpenter is survived by his sons, George, Taylor and Timi; his sisters, Katherine McCallum and Carolyn Wright; his stepbrothers, Richard and Stephen Carpenter; his stepsisters, Posie Carpenter and Margaret Carpenter Jones; and his stepmother, Margaret (Owen) Carpenter. His brother, George, died in combat in Vietnam.

Mr. Carpenter said that one of the most difficult phases in building Burton had come when he had to acknowledge that he could not do every job in the company better than anyone else and that he had to be willing to delegate authority.

“You have to let them screw up and live through their mistakes,” he said on “How I Built This.” “Burton’s made every mistake in the book, but I don’t think we made any twice.”

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