Jake Burton Carpenter, 1981. Burton Photo.
by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine In 1976 a skiing prodigy from Southern Vermont not only achieved international fame, but within a few years would forever alter the future of snow sports. This fellow used a little known type of ski to win the first ever American Olympic medal in his sport – a feat not again achieved for 42 years.
Within a half-dozen years he would again change the entire industry by popularizing a new way of Nordic skiing.
Of course we’re talking about Bill Koch from Brattleboro.
On a warm day at the ’76 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Koch employed no-wax skis in order to muscle his way through the slushy course. Other skiers sputtered as they slipped and slid going uphill.
Koch may have been just a celebrated footnote if he had not then witnessed the future of cross-country skiing a few years later. During one race he saw a competitor “skating” past him.
With the epiphany secured, he became the first World Cup champion in Nordic skiing from the US in 1982. He popularized a new type of skiing that also required a new type of ski.
At nearly the exact same time and just up from Brattleboro in Londonderry, another young man was about to change another discipline in the snow sports industry.
Jake Burton Carpenter had been himself a champion on the Snurfer. The Snurfer was a board with a rope to hang on to. You then “surfed on snow.” This combined his loves of skiing and regular water surfing, sort of.
It was a modest sport. If you’ve ever tried such a thing, it’s difficult and for those who are bad at it, not much fun.
But Jake Carpenter was good at it and had his own epiphany about how to transform snow surfing.
He made the board bigger and added bindings that locked you onto the board. He constructed the first one in 1977. They let him on at Suicide Six in South Pomfret and soon after he talked his way onto the lift at Stratton.
You “shredded” the snow that many skiers disapproved of, but you could truly carve turns. Even today you can’t snowboard at Mad River Glen.
The phenomenon of snowboarding, like skate skiing, was born in Vermont. It wasn’t skiing or surfing, it was referred to as “riding.”
Carpenter engineered and built the original boards himself. As the company and sport caught on he moved the company from Manchester to Burlington.
He achieved fame and, yes, fortune, and his riders named Kelly Clark, Ross Powers, Shaun White and Chloe Kim went on to Olympic gold. Others will follow.
He raised a family in Stowe, expanded the company to Europe and achieved business success few ever see.
That fortune is not on the level of colossal billionaires. The unusual nature of Jake Burton Carpenter’s success was that he was the seer and innovator and inventor. Those folks rarely are also the ones who then run a successful business.
Running and growing a business is a slog. Maybe at the end of the day will come the payoff, but it’s almost never done by the inventor of the thing and nor accomplished even in a single generation.
Do you remember the Bomar Brain? It was the first popular hand-held calculator. WordStar? Lotus 123? Myspace? The Palm Pilot?
Like millions before them and many to come, each of those products defined their industries and while some still exist, they are only vestiges of previous renown.
Perhaps you don’t even remember Vermont pioneer Bill Koch. But his skating technique now dominates the Olympic Nordic events, just as Burton has always dominated snowboard events.
Jake, as everyone called him, is in rare company with the likes of Bill Gates, who wrote DOS and then built Microsoft.
But as a visionary, Jake’s perhaps more like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk in his ability to look around the corner and see what the future holds.
In 2011, Jake contracted testicular cancer. He was relatively old to get this. Lance Armstrong beat it in his 20s. It’s typically curable. But Jake’s came back. In early November he told his employees the cancer had returned. On November 20 he died at 65.
Like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, Jake had something perhaps even rarer than genius and certainly rarer than business success and fame and fortune.
Jake had a coolness factor that cannot be underestimated or even defined. You just know it when you see it.