Donna Carpenter Shares The Details Behind Her New Role & an update on Jake Burton’s Health
Burton Snowboards announced yesterday a new leadership strategy, with Co-Founder Donna Carpenter taking the reigns as CEO, following the exit of former President Mike Rees, who had been in the position since May 2014. Longtime staff member John Lacy will is stepping into Carpenter’s former position to lead as brand president.
In light of the recent changes, and as the snow industry gears up for next year, we caught up with Carpenter to hear more on the new role and what it entails, Burton’s strategy moving into 2016, and an update on Jake Burton’s health.
First of all Donna, congratulations on the new role. Can you start off by explaining how you are approaching 2016, any of the major initiatives you are putting in place, and where the company currently stands in terms of Jake’s ongoing role?
Donna: The overriding message is we have an amazing team. Being privately held, you know we've always looked at success in three ways, not just our quarterly profits. We really look at it as the value of the brand, which you know, is how it's being distributed, and how it's being marketed. Jake will continue as chairman, along with Greg Dacyshyn, our chief creative officer. That's been the dynamic duo on our creative side for a long time. It's nice to have Jake back where he can focus on that.
That’s great news.
D: Yes, he's totally one hundred percent fine. I can tell you the story, if you want. The New York Times is going to be writing an article [on it], and it should be coming out in the next week or so. We just spent a day or so with one of their reporters.
In mid-March, right after the US Open, one day he started complaining of double vision, and three days later he was on full life support, and his body was slowly being paralyzed. Something foreign, or just random— he has to be genetically predisposed for this— got into his body. It could've been a bad oyster, it could have been a virus, and his body thought something was wrong, so it started building up antibodies, which started destroying the nerves between the muscles and the brain. The first day we got to Dartmouth [Medical Center] they said ‘If this is what we think it is, tomorrow you're not going to be able to open your eyes, and the next day you won't swallow, and the next day you won't breathe, and we're gonna try and stop the paralysis, but don't worry, you'll be okay.’
The first day we got to Dartmouth [Medical Center] they said ‘If this is what we think it is, tomorrow you're not going to be able to open your eyes, and the next day you won't swallow, and the next day you won't breathe, and we're gonna try and stop the paralysis, but don't worry, you'll be okay.’
They didn't have a definitive diagnosis for a little over a week, but when they did, they said ‘You're going to be okay.’ His full body became paralyzed – although he could move, he could write, he could move his hands and his feet, so he could write to us. He was pretty much fully paralyzed for two months, and then it all came back, just like 110%. And if you saw him, you wouldn't have thought anything had been wrong. Except that he's a new man.
I think I speak for everyone in saying that I am so glad he has recovered, and that is behind you.
It was crazy, and it all seems like a bad dream now. We're so lucky and so grateful. You know, usually when you go through something like that you lose the person. He came back. We couldn't be more grateful, and happy, and it really gave me a chance to step back and look at where the company is going. So, when Mike [Rees] said he wanted to ultimately move back to his family in Pennsylvania, I thought that was the best time for me to make my role official as the CEO.
What I was saying before, is we look at success three ways. First, it's the value of the brand, and Jake will continue to have a really big role in that. Then it's obviously the business results, and we have to have business results to keep going, and to be able to invest in the future. That's where John Lacy will step up, and step in to handle those day-to-day functions. Then there’s the community. I will continue to stay very focused on that, and I will continue to help John make the decisions, and be able to look at it from that lens of: What's right for the brand in the long run? What's right for the business in the long run? What's right for the community in the long run?
With a focus on 2016, if you're talking about what's best for the brand and the community, are there any major additions or changes that we'll see?
D: We made some changes recently that I will be focusing on in terms of US sales. That's been my current area of focus. And you know through Jake's illness, taking a step back, I really realized that we needed to get some horsepower in US sales. So I will continue to do that. I promoted Beth Steele, who's been with us for a long time, as VP of Sales, National Accounts. And then we brought in a woman named Elysa Walk. She was the general manager of the US for Giant Bicycles. She’s been in the role for a month now, focused on our specialty channel. That is such an important part of our business, and it's an important part of our heritage. When specialty [retail] is doing well we're all doing well. We've made an investment there, and I'll be focusing on sales more than I have.
Over the last year, Durable Goods has become an important category for the brand. Will that continue to be a focus in 2016?
D: We really have a solid platform and it's got three pieces to it: Our performance goods, which we've always been completely dedicated to, whether it's the best snowboard out there or the best outerwear, or technical backpacks. The second piece is the Durable Goods piece. And again, we feel like we are the best company to sell the snowboarding lifestyle. It is a unique, fun, and well-established community and lifestyle, and our Durable Goods can extend that winter season for us, and get people to be part of it. And then the third piece is what we call "Coalition," or all the collabs that we do. It demonstrates the power of our brand. Whether it's Peanuts or Marvel or Lamb or Neighborhood, they're wanting to do collabs with us, and we're really leveraging the power of our brand. John Lacy really helped to formulate that, and he's also been the driving force behind organizing the brand structurally. Our soft goods category is now one team, we're not split between Durable Goods and performance, it's all one team to deliver the best quality, and to be able to creatively merchandise together, and so forth.
The other area I've really focused on, and John has played a key role in, is innovation. Looking at how we innovate, and whether we were giving our engineers enough time and bandwidth to work towards bigger innovations, rather than smaller innovations. I've really helped lead the charge, we have a whole new design thinking system that we've put in, on how we come up with ideas, and how we commercialize those ideas, and really focusing on the needs of our consumers, rather than saying, ‘Hey this would be cool to do.’ There will always be some of that; we can't totally discourage that. But rather than having that be the focus of our innovation, rather than having ourselves be the focus of our innovation, we're really training people to look at the customer, asking ‘what do they need,’ and not coming into it with a preconceived idea of what that means. It's been very exciting, and again, John, who's been in charge of the products, has completely restructured it. With hardgoods, we used to be completely siloed into boards, boots, and bindings, and now we have a different structure, where we have people focused on categories: Men's, Women's, Kid's and Rental. This is a chance to restructure things for the biggest impact, and everybody's really on the same page, and going in the same direction. We have our stance, which is our mission statement, and we have our trail map, which is our strategic plan, and we're just elevating some individuals within the organization as Mike moves on.
Circling back to the sales side of it, you mentioned you're going to be taking a stronger leadership role in that area of the business. Will it just be domestic sales you’re focusing on?
D: No, that's not the case, it's really not. In my role as president, I was able to say ‘Okay, where can I move the needle, where can I help?’ Things are going well in Europe from our perspective organizationally, but it's a very tough market there economically. We've had the same leadership there for a long time, and our Japanese and Chinese business is growing very well under great leadership. Sales happens to be the one thing that is regionally specific, although we're all very much facing the same issues: the decline of specialty, mass distribution—which we want to stay out of—and obviously e-com and online. I'm gong to be focusing on US sales, but I'm going to be able to help guide the global sales direction, as well.
…We want speciality to know that they're still the bulk of our business, and their health is our health.
What is Burton's take on how you could possibly effect change in those challenging areas like specialty retail? Are there any new initiatives that you’ll be pushing 2016?
D: I think that's always a focus of ours. Whether it's product or marketing support, for those accounts. I think we have a lot of tools and a lot of leverage to pull. I think a lot of times we're treating everyone the same. What I can do is go in and get a better understanding of what those specialty accounts need, what will help them. And with the snow situation this year, what's going to help an east coast retailer is not going to necessarily help a west coast retailer. Sometimes, I feel like we do so much for the sport and specialty, and we're not given a lot of credit. Maybe because we're not doing as good a job in matching the right programs to the right retailers. I don't know. But we want specialty to know that they're still the bulk of our business, and their health is our health.
Anything else to add about the strategy or new team?
D: Just as an aside, we have a very diverse leadership team here. Under John, Anne-Marie [Dacyshyn] will be running marketing, and Josie Larocque will be running operations, as well as taking on some additional responsibilities. It’s exciting to see such a gender-diverse senior team.
Don't underestimate the power of a diverse leadership team, and what it means for the women's market.
Props to you for building that team, and continuing to push that. Are there any new women's initiatives you’re working on for 2016, or anything you’ll be continuing to strengthen?
D: We're reaping the results of a ton of hard work now. To be able to have this senior team that's diverse, that doesn't happen overnight. That's the result of a lot of work. And the fact that key women are in product sales and marketing, I think we're doing a better job of marketing and selling to women. Burton Girls has really found its stride, and we're putting it on a more expansive platform. We're investing in Burton Girls. If anything wasn't going well we might be bringing in new leadership, but we're not. Don't underestimate the power of a diverse leadership team, and what it means for the women's market.
Anything to share about the upcoming US Open, or any of your other events or programs?
D: No real changes. Again, I think that Vail and the new format is totally working for us. I'm looking forward to it because it'll be closure, the end of a year—the end of a crazy year. Our marketing is amazing, and under Anne-Marie [Dacyshyn]’s leadership, it has really thought out of the box and creatively in terms of the Open event, trade show presence, and just how we present ourselves to the dealers and the consumer. So I'm sure there's more good things to come.