Is Burton Snowboards in Trouble?
After an anonymous open letter portraying a company at risk and two senior executives at fault, Burton has been doing damage control all week.
Photo by Flickr user Jarle Nystuen
On Monday, Yobeat.com, a snowboarding news blog, published an anonymous letter addressed to Burton Snowboards founder Jake Burton Carpenter and company president Donna Carpenter (the two are married). The letter appears to be written by a former employee. (It seems like Yobeat wasn't the only outlet to receive a letter: Transworld Snowboarding published to Facebook, and later removed, a photo of an envelope similar to the one Yobeat received.)
"One of the greatest cons in the history of action sports is going on right inside 80 Industrial Ave," the letter says, referring to the location of Burton's headquarters, in Burlington, Vermont. It goes on to accuse two unnamed "senior 'leaders'" of undermining the company and the industry, with examples that include "financial mismanagement," "failed collaborations," and, for one person, "open drug use." The letter also states that the company's "industry leadership" and "employee livelihood" are at risk, as well as Jake and Donna's personal health, if nothing changes. It's signed "Sincerely, Snowboarding."
The two "senior 'leaders'" mentioned in the letter appear to be Burton Chief Creative Officer Greg Dacyshyn and Vice President of Marketing Anne-Marie Dacyshyn (who are also married to each other). Burton President Donna Carpenter and two former Burton employees confirmed that the letter was about the Dacyshyns.
In an exclusive interview with VICE Sports, Donna called the letter slanderous and untrue. The company is considering an internal investigation, she said, and reviewing its legal options.
"I've been president for five years," Donna said. "Jake and I decide the strategy. We care about the sport. Greg and Anne-Marie care about the sport. I don't think we've ever faced such a challenging time in snowboarding."
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, participation in snowboarding dropped 28 percent between 2003 and 2013. Last year, slightly less than 28 percent of resort visitors were snowboarders, down from 31 percent the year before.
"We have revamped how we're looking at innovation," Donna continued. "We have a focused trail map that includes things people don't like, such as focusing on our biggest accounts. The reality has changed."
Burton has received anonymous letters in the past, though none has criticized the Dacyshyns' involvement in the company. Earlier this year, someone sent the founders a copy of Burton's latest catalog with the Burton logo replaced by the Hollister logo—a suggestion that the company was abandoning its mission and turning into a clothing retailer. Donna recalled another anonymous letter, sent in 2007, which accused Burton's CEO at the time, Laurent Potdevin, of sinking the company ship.
"It's a passive-aggressive way to criticize," she said.
While the letter published this week is clearly a rant, there may be some truth behind its statements. Chip Bleakney, who worked for Burton for nearly 20 years until 2013, spoke highly of the Carpenters but said that many of the letter's complaints reflected employee concerns that were present during his time at Burton.
Not all employees, he said, supported the Dacyshyns' role in the company. Mostly, he said, employees disagreed with Burton's acquisition of several snowboard brands in the early 2000s, which, some felt, compromised the integrity of the brand.
"In my exit, Donna and I talked a lot about the concerns about Anne-Marie and Greg Dacyshyn expressed in this letter," Bleakney said. "They are close with the Carpenters. It's somewhat two-faced. Jake values riders and snowboarding. In the room, Greg is very agreeable to all those things. Outwardly, they didn't express those sentiments. It didn't even feel like they were on the same team. Greg's initiatives were not in parallel with the people working at the company who care about snowboarding."
Another former employee, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, remarked on a general lack of confidence in brand direction, but wasn't sure the Dacyshyns alone were responsible.
"The letter touches on something that's real there," she said. "It can't be ignored. But I'm not convinced removing those two people mentioned will do a whole lot. There is more to the story."
Brooke Geery, 34, founded Yobeat 18 years ago. She has never worked for Burton, though she applied for a job there several years ago at the company's urging. She's quick to recognize Burton's contributions to snowboarding, such as the Learn To Ride program that encourages kids to snowboard, but she also said the letter underscores the current state of the snowboarding industry and Burton's role within it. She cited the company's recent sponsorship of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival as an abandonment of snowboarding's roots.
"Snowboarding is in a crazy place right now," Geery said. "Burton is seen as our industry leader when realistically they've become a rental board company. For them to be off in their Coachella-coke-head-LA tangent is really unfortunate for an industry that's trying to find itself right now."
The anonymous letter makes explicit references to drug use, partying, and a trashed condo in Vail, Colorado, that cost Burton $150,000 in repairs. On the last point, Donna Carpenter did claim responsibility.
"Honestly, I thought it would be a good idea to put down some sawdust on the balcony outside. It ended up inside and scratching the floor. It was a dumb move," she said. "The owners went ridiculous. We said we would replace the floor."
Donna does think that some of the other criticism is unwarranted, however, given what she feels is the nature of the sport.
"This is the fucking snowboard industry," she said. "Are we going to start judging each other on that? This is what we were rebelling against. For God's sake, [snowboarding pioneer] Shaun Palmer used to tear up every hotel he was in and get arrested. We make 420 kits, we sell drug paraphernalia."
Burton is still a business, however, and there is a question of what, if any, repercussions the letter will have. "Obviously if a letter like this was written towards us, it would cause a knee-jerk reaction to see what we're doing internally," said Dan Abrams, the president of Flylow Gear. "I haven't read the letter, but criticizing a marketing campaign 12 to 14 months after it was implemented seems like a losing cause."
"The saying is any press is good press," he added. "I bet Burton comes out a winner in this."
The anonymous letter on Yobeat has been shared thousands of times, and commenters, many claiming to be former Burton employees, have posted in the hundreds. Burton has not responded with an official company statement, though Jake and Donna did circulate an internal memo, which was published by Yobeat on Wednesday morning. In it, they defended Burton's recent moves and reassured employees of the company's commitment to the brand, the industry, and the athletes.