Burton Snowboards Is King of the Hill

The young, hip Vermont company rides trends to "shred" the competition.

CEO Laurent Potdevin at Burton's flagship store in Burlington, Vt.

CEO Laurent Potdevin at Burton's flagship store in Burlington, Vt.

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In the 1980s and early '90s, snowboarding was a sport of renegades. Skiers protested as young, etiquette-lacking adrenaline junkies with neon hair and baggy pants went bombing down the slopes with lawless abandon, sliding across picnic tables. Soon, ski resorts began banning snowboarders, further cementing the riders' image as outcasts.

Today, snowboarding is a mainstream pastime. "It's at the point where you've got your little sister, your mom, and your grandma out there," says Joel Muzzey, senior editor of Transworld Snowboarding magazine. (Snowboarders have even come to peacefully coexist with skiers.) This demographic transformation of the sport, which has grown from 2.5 million participants in 1997 to more than 5 million today, poses challenges for snowboard manufacturers, who must stay true to the sport's roots yet cater to the masses and a new generation of riders. (After all, the original misfits are now raising kids.)

The king of this $487 million industry, Burton Snowboards, has the right idea. The privately held company makes boards, clothes, and snowboarding accessories, claiming 40 percent to 70 percent market share (depending on the category). An adaptive strategy ensures the near-constant debut of new board models and fashions, allowing Burton to keep pace with ever-changing trends and to grab a piece of the increasingly lucrative kids' and women's markets. And in a potentially savvy move, Burton recently made an epic jump from pure snowboarding company to year-round dealer of surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding gear.

Laid-back digs. Burton's Burlington, Vt., headquarters represent a radically different corporate culture. A walk through the Subaru-filled parking lot provides a glimpse of employees skateboarding in a bowl behind the building. And once you enter Burton's lobby, you'll find overstuffed couches surrounding a fireplace. The feel is ski lodge.

Right away, it's apparent that Burton is young; the average employee age hovers near 30, and work spaces contain everything from mini bars to vintage boards to spare flip-flops. Perks include a ski-resort season pass, the chance to test and borrow equipment, and the privilege of bringing dogs to work. And should more than 2 feet of snow fall on Burlington in 24 hours, work is canceled in favor of the slopes. "It's a good balance: a laid-back and very casual atmosphere where people work hard and set high standards for themselves," says Burton's chief executive, Laurent Potdevin, 41. "So we get to blur the lines between lifestyle and work environment."

That philosophy harks back to the beginning. After walking away from a job at a Manhattan investment firm in the late '70s, Jake Burton went to work in a Londonderry, Vt., barn, modifying a 1960s toy called the Snurfer, which was essentially a plywood skateboard with no wheels and a leash. He built roughly 100 prototypes before deciding on a construction (an early model hangs in his office). Burton founded the company in 1977, first selling models out of his station wagon. "Some days, I'd return home with just as many boards as I'd left with," says Burton, 54, who came close to bailing when he found himself $100,000 in the hole. Fast-forward to today: Burton now boasts one of the biggest brands in the industry; maintains offices in California, Australia, Austria, and Japan (the company does more than half its business overseas); and sponsors a stable of pro riders, including Olympic half-pipe champion Shaun White.

Hard core. Burton's main business is hard goods: boards, boots, and bindings. Engineers and designers make the gear at a manufacturing center 10 miles down the road. This setup allows fluidity in production; engineers can turn around a new board in as little as two weeks (although complex designs can take as long as four years). Meanwhile, techies test products in a sort of in-house science lab. To measure their durability, boards are frozen, smacked with hammers, and crushed by machines. Boots are pushed and pulled repeatedly to test their flexibility. Burton then turns to its team of pros and amateurs, who take the boards to the slopes and subject them to different riding styles and terrains.


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