Jake Burton: From Snurfer to Snowboarding Mega-Brand

PHOTO: Jake BurtonPlayCourtesy of Burton Snowboards
WATCH Jake Burton: Snowboard King

What if it were your job to spend 100 days out of the year goofing off with your friends on a snow-dusted mountain, traveling to the most exotic winter resorts in the world for research, making tons of money and getting treated like a rock star?

You might think it's too good to be true, but this is the life of Jake Burton.

At 57 years old, the widely successful snowboard tycoon is rarely seen without his signature ski uniform -- a skull cap, boots and his board that all bear his last name. Burton has created an entire lifestyle, an Olympic sport and a multi-billion-dollar industry almost entirely by himself.

It all started with a $10 toy his parents bought him when he was a kid. It was called a Snurfer, a wood plank with a rope attached to one end that riders could use to surf downhill on land.

Watch a classic snurfer video featuring Howard Sorensen.

Jake was inspired. "From the minute I got on it I was into it," he said. "I always thought that there was a sport there. It was made by a bowling company, Brunswick, and it was not marketed as a sport. It was sort of like the hula hoop."

The Snurfer was a passing fad in the 1960s to nearly everyone except Burton, and his hobby soon grew into an obsession.

"So I graduate from college in '77, and I had a pretty good job in New York City," he said. "I guess you could call it investment banking. It was a little different back then, but I wasn't very happy. And that idea was still that there was a sport there."

That year, Burton dropped everything, moved to Londonderry, Vt., and blew his $100,000 inheritance to create his first crude snowboard and found his own company. Just one problem. He had no idea what he was doing.

"I can remember sort of developing a board and trying to figure out how to make them," Burton said. "I had this little woodworking shop, and I had developed this really small router to make boards. Twice the router shot boards out, and they went into a wall. [I] was sort of like a fish out of water."

His goal was to sell 50 snowboards a day in that first year, but at the end of it, he had sold only 300. But the following year, sales doubled and a craze was born. Three decades later, Burton now helms a snowboarding mega-brand.

In 1981, a wooden Burton Back Hill board sold for around $115. Today, Burton snowboards still have a hardwood core but are coated in laters of fibreglass and finished off with steel edges and acrylic graphics. Boards come with such names as Bullet, Joystick and Meateaters Road Soda, and retail from around $300 to $1,500, for custom boards.

His name is now synonymous with some of the most popular events at the Winter Olympics and X-Games. His gear has been worn and designed by celebrity athletes such as Olympic snowboarding champion Shaun White.

While his company is private and does not release financial or sales figures, Burton Snowboards grosses around $700 million a year, by some market estimates.

It's serious revenue for a not-so-typical company. At Burton headquarters in Burlington, Vt., dogs are welcome, suits are not. And if there's fresh powder on the nearest mountain, no one's expected at work in the morning.

Snowboarding Banned in Some Places

While it seems that snowboarding has won the hearts of winter athletes, the sport still has not won over all critics. At least three ski resorts in the United States still ban snowboarding. Others consider the sport still too dangerous.

Several reports said 12 snowboarders have died over the past month in the western United States alone. Many of them either slid into towers or trees, others were buried in snow after going off-trail.

That feeling of invincibility brought people such as professional snowboarder Craig Kelly, one of Burton's closest friends, into the snowboarding world.

Burton said Kelly was hailed as an innovator, an acrobat and the heart and soul of snowboarding. Eight years ago, he was killed after an avalanche trapped him and six others on a mountain in British Columbia.

"It was just a very tragic winter," Burton said. "That's part of mother nature. I think that when you're out there in the elements, there's gonna be some element of that."

Today, Kelly's memory is preserved at Burton -- the company's new snowboard R&D prototype center has been named in his honor. The new space is simply called Craig's.

The R&D facility also hosts a museum about Kelly's life and the sport he helped trail blaze. Burton said Kelly will remain the muse for the dozens of new snowboards designed, cut and laid out here.

Burton said he believed the legacy of snowboarding will only grow.

"I think the sport is in a very good place right now," Burton said. "It's not about having the latest goof rack on your BMW or how good the food is at the hotel you're staying at. It's about just getting out and shredding and having fun with your friends and as long as that remains at the core of the sport, it'll continue to do well."