Donna Carpenter was only 20 years old when she walked into a bar in Londonderry, Vt., on New Year’s Eve in 1981 — and her life changed forever.
It was there that she met Jake Burton Carpenter, who had started a business out of his barn in 1977 creating this newfangled product called a snowboard. They married a year later and over the past 35 years have worked together to build Burton Snowboards into an undisputed leader in the snow sports industry.
Donna Carpenter, who started out dipping snowboards in polyurethane and answering the customer service line that rang in their bedroom, was named chief executive officer in February 2016. Over the years she has been credited with creating and expanding the company’s international operations, which now account for about two-thirds of its overall volume. She has also been a champion of the company’s initiatives for equality in the workplace as well as for its push to become a 100 percent sustainable company by 2020. The mother of three also oversees Burton’s Chill Foundation, its non-profit mentoring program for underprivileged children.
Here, Carpenter talks about Burton’s past, present and future and how the brand manages to remain on the cutting edge of snow sports.
WWD: We read a lot about Jake, but tell us about you — where did you grow up and when did you meet your husband?
Donna Carpenter: I was originally from a small town in Texas and my father got a job in New York City and it was a couple of years after that my mother agreed to move north and raise Yankee children. We lived in Greenwich, Conn., and my mother was like a fish out of water. But we all went skiing and that really became a passion, being outdoors in winter. I met Jake and he said he made snowboards and I thought, “I’m from Manhattan — I was going to school at Barnard in the city at the time — I’m way too sophisticated for this.” But we married a year later and there was something very appealing about the lifestyle and the kind of irreverence of snowboarding. It was almost tribal — there was a small community of people starting this sport, it felt very exciting. So I always said I was kind of the accidental entrepreneur.
WWD: So you moved to Vermont?
D.C.: Yes. I was very young, and I was like: “Oh my God. What have I done?” But at the same time, Jake believed that there was a way to make a snowboard like a ski. At the time, it was just a laminated wood board with rubber bindings and a rope on the end. But he was convinced we could use ski technology for snowboards. I actually got a job in Austria, I was going to be working with the Experiment in International Living recruiting Austrian students to stay in the U.S. and vice-versa. Before we left, Jake [realized] people were interested in snowboards in Europe. And the next thing we knew, I was setting up an office and deciding on distributors in Europe. I was 24 years old.
Everyone said it was such a traditional alpine skiing region, they’ll never accept snowboarding — and it was really the exact opposite. People were looking for something new and it exploded, so I found myself in my mid-20s, running this European company.
WWD: What was it about snowboards that appealed to snow sports fans?
D.C.: Before I met him, Jake looked at making snowboards as a get-rich-quick scheme, and that didn’t happen, but he always says, the moment he started putting the sport first and thinking of what was right for the riders, everything else followed. We always had sort of a higher purpose, saying this sport belonged on the mountain. It got kids reinvigorated in snow sports. At the time, a lot of ski areas were building video arcades to keep teenagers happy and snowboarding offered a new and different way to get kids outside and enjoy the mountains again.
WWD: How have you put your mark on the company as ceo?
D.C.: Being the wife of the founder and visionary, it was hard for a while to figure out where I was going to have an impact. I had an immediate impact in Europe, setting that up, but I didn’t realize the impact I would have on the gender equality front and also on sustainability; I’ve really driven that and we’ve become a leader there. That was something I championed. I always approached my jobs that way at Burton — this isn’t about me, this is about what Burton needs and what I can offer. I try to wake up every morning and ask, “What can I contribute?”
WWD: It’s got to be hard to work with your husband every day.
D.C.: Oh, yeah, there were times when it was very stressful, but one thing that works is that we handled different parts of the business. He was marketing and product and I did finance and operations. But there was a period of time when we had to have an agreement that we wouldn’t talk business after 6 o’clock. He would be like, “I have a major product problem,” and I would say, “The bank won’t give us money.” We would make each other miserable. But it’s always been about something bigger — it’s always been about snowboarding. Jake always says if it’s not going to help the rider, let it go. He trained all of us that way, so it was easier to make decisions. One of the lessons we learned from the ski industry is that they had become “suits” — it had become a business to them, there was no more passion. They had all started as ski bums, but now it was all about the numbers and production. And we made a real conscious effort to stay connected to the sport.
WWD: Is snowboarding mainly a male-dominated sport?
D.C.: No, it’s really not. We’ve been very intentional in making sure women still feel a part of the community. It’s about 60-40. I always say, I can retire when we’re 51 percent of participation, sales and leadership and right now all those numbers are about 40. We’ve come a long way.
WWD: Burton is the king of snowboards and related products, but how do you grow the business when it’s so niche?
D.C.: What we’re trying to do now is sell the lifestyle. That’s kind of new for us. When we started the company, it was really important for us to do nothing but snowboarding product. I remember trying to talk Jake into doing long underwear, which we do now, and he said, “We don’t need to make that.” We really didn’t believe people would want to wear us off the mountain. We were trying to figure out how to grow the company year-round and we bought some skateboarding companies, a surf company, we started a surf apparel line and while we were over there messing around with those things, the Burton lifestyle product was growing: the hoodies, caps, flannels and fleeces, and all of a sudden we realized people do want to be associated with the lifestyle year-round and we have created a mountain/urban lifestyle that’s unique to our culture.
I said we learned from the ski industry early on but we also learned from the surf industry more recently. They had a real legitimate lifestyle to sell: that Southern California OC beach lifestyle and Roxy and Quiksilver were making it accessible for people who would never see the ocean. Then they went public and they got greedy and the whole thing blew up and now the largest surf manufacturer is Hollister — and it’s made up. That’s my biggest fear — that someone is going to come along and sell the lifestyle that we helped create when we should really be the authentic voice for it.
WWD: So no plans to go public for you?
D.C.: We think that’s one of our biggest competitive advantages, staying private. We can invest in things for the long-term, increase the number of women in leadership and sustainability, set up our own distribution in Asia. It might hit us short-term, but it’ll pay off in the long-term.
WWD: You’ve had several successful collaborations over the years including Jeff Koons, Led Zeppelin and L.A.M.B. — how did those come about?
D.C.: I got a call from our store manager in New York who said he had a local artist who wanted to help our Chill Foundation. He’s a really good customer, he has a bunch of kids, he loves the brand. I asked, “What’s his name?” and he said, “Jeff Koons.” And I said, “You’re being punked, somebody set you up to call me.” But it was really true and when we met Jeff a few weeks later at his studio, the first thing he said was that snowboarding changed his life, it was a spiritual awakening for him. We became close and fast friends and he had the idea for the board right away, Plato’s cave and the whole enlightenment around snowboarding. Also, Gwen Stefani is a very passionate snowboarder and her kids are, too, so these are very organic relationships. [We only work with people who] share our values and look at the world a little sideways like we do.
WWD: Do these collaborations attract a different customer for you?
D.C.: We hope so. It’s got to be authentic and organic but we’re hoping to get eyes on us from new consumers. We suffer from people saying we’re a snowboard equipment company. But we’re a very unique company — there’s not another that you can name that is half hard goods, half soft goods. Patagonia started as hard goods and The North Face may have started making climbing equipment, but that’s long gone. We are still selling gear as well as soft goods.
WWD: What percentage of your business is men’s versus women’s?
D.C.: It’s about 60-40. The apparel is closer to 55-45 and equipment 65-35.
WWD: How many of your own stores do you operate?
D.C.: We have 11 flagships and nine outlets that are owned by us and then we have partner doors, which are mainly at resorts around the world. So when you go to Vail, you’ll see a Burton store. It’s actually owned by Vail but we help merchandise it and fixture it, but it’s run by Vail. There are about 40 of those. But 75 percent of our business is still wholesale. It’s a changing landscape. Sports Authority went out of business overnight. People are either looking for online convenience — and we have a lot of great companies we work with like Backcountry.com and Evo.com — and we have a great partnership with REI where we do shops-in-shops. Consumers are looking for online convenience or some kind of experience. And we’re the ones to give that experience of snowboarding. Maybe one day everybody is going to be leasing snowboarding like they share cars and bikes, and we should be the ones facilitating that and hopefully selling them jackets and beanies along the way. It’s really about staying consumer-focused. How the consumer wants that experience delivered might change, but we need to be the ones to give it to them.
WWD: How does the mix break down between ski apparel and off-the-slopes apparel?
D.C.: The apparel and bag part is growing. It’s definitely smaller than our outerwear business, but we’re really happy with it. We sort of shook up the outerwear world — they didn’t see us coming. We change our line every year with different prints and patterns and the outerwear companies tend to be a sea of same, producing the same jacket year after year and maybe changing the color slightly.
WWD: Do you have a designer?
D.C.: We have a creative director. He was in-house for a long time but now he has his own agency — his name is Greg Dacyshyn. He really sets the artistic direction for the product.
WWD: How big is your international business?
D.C.: About one-third U.S., one-third Europe and one-third Asia. We’re really global. It’s been a natural hedge for us. If it doesn’t snow in one area, then it’ll probably snow in another. If you have a weak currency here, you probably have a strong currency there. So over the years, it’s been very helpful. You can go to a Burton store in Tokyo and feel the same way you do in Vermont. It’s really a global tribe and a global family.
WWD: You’re doing the U.S. team’s Olympic snowboarding uniforms. What benefit does it provide to the company?
D.C.: We’ve had a kind of love-hate relationship with the Olympics. When they first wanted to put snowboarding in the Olympics in the late Nineties, the Olympic committee was somewhat threatened by the X-Games, which was attracting a younger audience. But they never called us and there was an association and they never consulted them. They just said they were going to run it like the ski team with the same uniforms, the same sponsors and the same coach. And everybody said, “Um, I don’t think so.” In some ways, the whole idea of a uniform is counter to our culture. The best riders back then even boycotted until the Olympics gave in and said you don’t have to wear the uniform and have the same coach and you can have your own sponsors. Starting in 2002, they did an amazing job of showcasing superstars like Shaun White. And it was important for us to put our spin on the uniform and consult with the riders. I think they’re proud to wear it but it’s hard because snowboarding is so not nationalistic. I remember at the last Olympics, I got in trouble with the U.S. ski and snowboard officials because I was cheering for the Japanese girl who is a Burton rider. And my husband was saying, “Shhh.”
WWD: You sponsor some big names in the sport, including Shaun White. What’s the advantage to Burton to have ambassadors like this?
D.C.: Shaun was the first rock star of the sport. We hadn’t had someone who transcended the sport like he did. We started sponsoring him when he was nine. He is singularly talented and he made the sport accessible to kids, he’s very approachable and likable.
WWD: You have a big sustainability initiative coming up — tell me about that.
D.C.: Five years ago I said I think our customer is going to care more and more about this. And we wanted to be very careful that we weren’t greenwashing. We used to dip boards in polyurethane and we really didn’t want to be seen as hypocrites. At the time, I didn’t know what was in our product exactly or where it was made — we had a sense, but they might be using sub-contractors. There’s an industry standard called Bluesign and Nike, The North Face, Patagonia and Gore are all using this standard, which is a very limited chemical list. Everybody has a goal to be 100 percent Bluesign and I think we’re the furthest along, even ahead of Patagonia. Within the next two to three years we hope to go to 100 percent Bluesign, which would mean every fabric, every trim would be Bluesign approved. And on the human rights side, we’ve gone to Fair Labor standards in all our finished goods factories, and within two to three years we will have that in all our factories, including the raw materials and trims.
WWD: Why does it matter so much to you?
D.C.: It matters because winter matters, our playground matters. I heard somebody say the other day that we’re the first generation to see the impact of climate change and we’re the last generation that can do something about it. That’s where I see us. We didn’t want to talk about climate change; it’s not a feel-good topic. But we need to get together as an industry and speak collectively to protect our winters.
WWD: You’re also a pioneer in women’s rights.
D.C.: When we started the women’s leadership initiative in 2003, we were less than 10 percent female leadership. When we started our company, there were men and women in management. But as we took on employees from the surf, skate and ski industry, we took on this male-dominated culture and it was really Jake who pointed it out. He was at a meeting of 25 directors and only two or three were women. And he knew at a gut level that something was wrong. You’re not going to keep recruiting the best talent or have innovation if everyone is the same. So we put our heads down, we worked as hard as we could at recruiting, retention and advancement and we’re now at 42 percent. It has also impacted our product development. We used to be guilty of pinking and shrinking but we really have two separate processes and I really love it when the men’s borrows from the women’s.
WWD: You also oversee Chill — what is that program all about?
D.C.: We were really looking for a way to give back once we didn’t have everything pledged to the bank. We thought about environmental causes, but the demographic that put us on the map was teenagers. So we thought of it at first as a learn-to-ride program for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. We piloted in Burlington and found there was demand for it in other cities. And now it’s a youth development program that is using snowboarding as the vehicle. It uses the themes persistence, patience, respect, courage — everything you need to snowboard that you can relate back to your own lives. We’re in 14 cities and we serve about 1,500 kids a year.
WWD: Jake had a pretty serious medical issue recently but is recovered. What’s your exit strategy when you finally decide you want to snowboard off into the sunset?
D.C.: I remember going to a retreat a couple of years ago with other entrepreneurs and that was the question: What are you going to do with your company? I don’t have an answer. We’ve made provisions if anything happens to us so the company isn’t sold in a fire sale, but beyond that…we don’t want to take it public, we don’t want to sell it, we don’t necessarily want our kids running it if it’s not the best thing for them. So we don’t know. Bur for right now, we’re happy.