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At the Outdoor Retailer Show, I listened to Donna Carpenter, President of Burton, speak at the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition (OWIC) breakfast.
Donna shared her insights on being a woman in the action sports/outdoor industry and how Burton’s business changed when it added more females. She also detailed some fairly remarkable efforts Burton made to retain women, including generous child care benefits for traveling moms.
Donna and her husband Jake Burton Carpenter are the sole owners of Burton Snowboards. Since 1982, Donna has held a multitude of roles at Burton, including building snowboards, answering phones and expanding Burton’s market to Europe. She is now the company President.
She also heads up Burton’s non-profit Chill Foundation, (bringing snowboarding to underprivledged youth), and is the mother of three sons.
Ten years ago, Donna knew women would be critical to the success of Burton.
“Men like products, but women talk more about them,” she said.
At that time, Jake was at a global meeting and of the 20 to 25 global directors, only three were women.
This was 2002, a year where Burton team rider Kelly Clark took the gold medal at the Olympics. It was also a year when the company had record sales.
Donna says Jake knew, “We needed diversity to solve problems.”
Donna began researching why there were so few women and how to recruit more.
When Burton started 30 years ago, there were as many women as men in the office. But Burton grew fast, and they mostly drew talent from hardgoods companies, which are primarily male dominated.
In 2002, women made up only 30% of Burton’s applicants. Of the 30%, none applied for director roles. Also at that time, most of the high level management team had stay-at-home wives.
“There were no role models at the top, especially when balancing a career and a family,” she said.
Maternity was also the biggest retention problem.
“Culturally it was incredibly difficult for women,” Donna said. “It was not so much sexism as much as cluelessness. Managers didn’t know what to do when women had kids.”
To support career growth, Donna knew women at the office needed female mentors. She launched the Women’s Leadership Initiative. As a company, Burton proactively sought women candidates and better-trained managers to hire females.
They also got more women on the mountain since a lot of decisions are made on the chairlift, and Burton’s Learn To Ride program helped those efforts.
Burton instituted internships for women engineers, gave longer benefits for maternity, and instituted a policy for travel.
If women had kids under 18 months old, Burton would provide a caretaker while they were out of town for business, or they could take them with them on the road at Burton’s expense.
Burton also partnered with local childcare providers, started a volunteer mentor program, and a women’s professional association with speakers.
After two years, 62% of the women at Burton were promoted or took a different job role.
Donna said the men had a hard time at first. But the whole company came to understand that the changes made to accommodate women strengthened Burton as a company.
Some of their best engineers came out of Burton's internship programs. Burton began to respect employees as parents and also gave paternity leave as well as maternity leave.
Donna said today, more men then women take advantage of Burton’s Daycare Benefit Plan. This benefit allows parents who participate in the Dependent Care Reimbursement Plan to receive a 100% match contribution from Burton.
For example, if the employee chooses the maximum annual IRS limit of $5,000, the worker will set aside $2,500 tax free and Burton will match that $2,500 tax free.
There is also a room for women to pump breast milk, and Donna says she has seen a lot of guys sleep off a hangover there, too.
See Page 2 for how Burton targets women with specialized product