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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Board designs range from minimalist to psychedelic to "the point where I'm embarrassed to show my mother," says Todd King, 36, business unit director for boards. The names are also inventive: Try Lux, Feelgood, Blunt, and Vapor on for size. Customers can also design their own boards by submitting artwork or a photo (Gene "The Demon" Simmons of the glam-rock band Kiss had one made featuring his own mug).

Image matters. Like its boards, Burton's apparel is anything but vanilla. Jackets come in denim, plaid, camouflage, and polka squares, and some even contain hidden shirt cuffs with thumbholes—"fully technical," says John Lacy, 33, vice president of soft goods. The company is steadily growing its women's line. Although females make up roughly 25 percent of all snowboarders—and have for most of this decade—they're spending more these days on shorter and lighter boards. "Retailers are recognizing that women are serious participants and they're interested in serious equipment," says Kelly Davis, director of research for trade group SnowSports Industries America (SIA).

Although Burton is going for multi-generational appeal, "ultimately, it's still about youth," says Potdevin. And he's not kidding. The company now makes a Mini Shred line, which includes children's suits in sizes from toddler up to age 6 in prints like "Candy Camo." It also consults focus groups made up of the junior-high set. "Twelve-year-olds are outriding adults, they're rocking the pink pants...and if they want skulls on their jackets, we turn it into reality," says Lacy. Since most snowboarders are 18-to-24-year-olds, the company also stays tuned to the college crowd (popular is Burton's Lil Buddy, an insulated bag with a removable speaker system and room for a cold 12-pack).

Maintaining a nonconformist image undoubtedly plays into Burton's decision to remain a private company, says Eric Tracy, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, who covers competitors Quiksilver and Volcom. "These companies have to tread lightly and not dilute their brand," he says. "That's probably one reason Burton never went public. Because as a private company, you're not 'selling out.' "

Burton's move into the surfboard and skateboard markets (via the acquisitions of Channel Islands Surfboards and DNA Distribution in 2006 and 2008, respectively) has allowed it to capitalize on fast-growing, all-weather sports and spread its risk at the same time. The peak year for snowboarding participation was 2004, SIA says, when 6.6 million riders took to U.S. slopes. That number has since fallen to 5.1 million, mainly because of the weather, says Davis. Pair unseasonably warm winters with the sport's increasingly steep price of entry: gear, lift tickets, and gas for reaching the mountain. A typical setup, including board, boots, and bindings, costs roughly $540 (Burton's boards range from $300 to $1,000).

The skateboarding and surfing crowds aren't that different from Burton's core audience, as snowboarding is "practically a snowbound version in terms of the aesthetic, tricks, and marketing," says magazine editor Muzzey. It takes a well-established company to pull off a move into these West Coast-based product markets, says Tracy, but "Burton is opportunistically making inroads." One big payoff is immersion in extreme-sports attire, a niche that's growing faster than the overall apparel market.

So what's next for Burton? "We're focused on growing these businesses and further opening the door to markets like Latin America, Australia, and China," says Potdevin. Perhaps there's another extreme-sports market out there waiting to be conquered.


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