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Burton. Sims. Morrow. Barfoot. You know all those names because they have been printed in huge letters across the bases of countless snowboards. You may not be as familiar with the name Brad Steward — founder of Bonfire Snowboarding and Salomon Snowboarding — but don’t assume he’s had any less impact in this crazy world we live in. The first kid of the second generation of snowboarding, Brad was there for the days when snowboarding wasn’t allowed at resorts, and has bought, sold and run more of snowboarding than you’ll ever even know existed. Be warned, this interview is long, but it’s worth it, so read up and learn.
Tell me about the history of Bonfire and what was the original idea behind starting the brand back in 1989.
Actually the original idea of the company that existed are in some ways really similar to what I had in mind, and in a lot of ways different to what I had in mind. The original company name was Bonfire Think Tank Designs Inc. At that time I’m coming out of film school, coming out of being a pro rider, had a little bit of corporate experience with starting a couple of brands but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do yet. So the original idea was, why couldn’t you start a clothing line, be a film company, maybe be an ad agency, and do something that was way more creative than just making stuff and selling it? I was really trying to stay out of that business model, without even really being smart enough to know that was a business model. I was just thinking how do you stay creative and active and keep on the road. Which was a big goal of mine actually, just to keep on the road, shooting, living, riding, and having fun.
So how would you say that Bonfire today compares to that?
Well, we existed kind of in that way I just described. We existed in that way probably for the first 7 years of the business. I had started it under kind of weird circumstances. I was sitting at Morrow one day and I discovered, via a call from one of the people that worked at our bank, that there was something going on that probably wasn’t very ethical, and that I wasn’t aware of what’s happening. And I always had this thing where I didn’t want my time in snowboarding to be tainted by anything at all, you know? So I confronted the owners of Morrow and said, hey, this is unethical. They said, that’s just the way we work and I basically handed them 6 million bucks worth of stock back and said I don’t work this way and literally walked out. Grabbed a couple family photos, split. I went to the Mac store down the street, bought a computer, went to my house, and started a new company. It was a really different company from the beginning because my attitude was kind of, I have to make this work. And even our first labels have a little thing at the bottom that just says “Make it work” and it was just a little message to myself to that it’s up to you, you can make this work or not make it work.
So, how does that pertain to what we are today? About 7 years into it I realized a really, really simple thing. If Burton was going to be the Coca Cola of snowboarding that represented everything to everyone in snowboarding, then I need to do something different to be successful. Chasing them and doing it the same way that they had done it would never work.
One of the basic business questions I always try to ask myself is what would the competition never do? And at that time something that no other snowboard company would do would be to partner with the worlds biggest ski company. And I thought, this is the reason that it will work, is because there is no precedent for it, nobody knows the ground rules or how it can all happen. And I always say that I kinda came to that realization, but during that same time the Salomon guys had come to me and said that we want to buy your company. I had sort of re buffed them 3 or 4 times and said no way, this is business suicide, career suicide, brand suicide, this will never work. And literally just one day I thought, actually wait a minute. This totally will work. So that’s kind of the beginning of the relationship. Going from a no way in hell, to a hi, nice to meet you.
So how did the ski company effect everything? Do you feel like they changed your original idea?
In some ways yes, and in some ways no. The original proposition was, we’re going to buy Bonfire and we’re going to start Bonfire Snowboards. And Bonfire Snowboards will be cool because Brad’s legit, the company is credible, and everything will be good. I talked to them for a little bit about that, and as I learned more about it I just kind of came to the table and said hey man, I don’t think you should start Bonfire Snowboards. I think you have to re-invent Salomon. My image of Salomon in the 90′s was a ski instructor in red pants and I just said you gotta rebuild that, and if you rebuild that successfully, Bonfire will follow. It seemed like they were kind of asking the tail to wag the dog a bit, and I thought we’re going to be in this small company and we’re going to create this completely core company and nobody is going to understand what it is, why it exists, how it’s important, or what it even means to the people who snowboard. So I really started out on this mission to try to change Salomon. Years down the road where we are now, my day to day work at Bonfire is really bringing back to Bonfire that original flavor that we had. You know, we were making award winning commercials, little movies, and doing all sorts of crazy stuff and people knew Bonfire to be a smart brand. It wasn’t a company for people who wanted to wear a snowboard uniform or just being the goofy kid in big pants, we were always a little smarter then that.
Not so trend focused, would you say?
I think that we were trend aware, but my orientation was more, if that’s the trend what can we do to buck it? And that’s actually caused us some really good benefits to happen at Bonfire and also some really bad benefits. A great example is when tighter pants and that whole look came around. We introduced it at least 3 years before the competition. We took it to snowboard trade shows and people said, you are crazy, those don’t even fit. And we’re kinda sitting there thinking, well, yeah they do, you just have to start seeing things a little bit different. We had them for two years, then we killed them. The staff that created those left Bonfire, started Holden, and came back with a brand that had that whole perspective and turned out to be a major competitor to us. It was just kind of a lesson of that we can be kind of far ahead, but we kind of damage the brand sometimes by being too far ahead — where people were looking at it saying no, no, no, that’s not what snowboarders use. And my perspective is the Northwest is the only place in the world where snowboarders outnumber skiers, and we have a different viewpoint. We see it differently. Myself and the other people in the company, we’re not really interested in hitting what’s out there. We’re interested in trying to find something that people don’t know they need, and build it for them.
That’s interesting you mentioned Holden, with them recently moving to L.A. What is your take on that?
Super smart guys, super smart move. And because I know them personally, I’ve never really seen them as a snowboard company. To me the d.n.a. of that company has always wanted to be a street wear company. I think they are good guys and good friends and I wish them success.
It just comes down to what you want, you know? And with Bonfire, what I have always wanted for the brand was just dumbed down and simple. Because I’m kind of a dumbed down and simple guy, and that is — I want a group of people working together to make something that’s cool, artistic, interesting, and ahead of the curve. And that’s it. And inside of all of that, you can do a ton. There’s all the movie projects, the writing, the visuals, you know the whole way you build a brand and you build a life. All of that is inside of that. That’s very different from saying, we want to sell our company to a big surfing company. We’re going to move to L.A. and we’re going to plop right in the middle of their neighborhood so they can all smell our brand and ask themselves, do we need a little serving of that? That’s a very different goal. And neither one is right or wrong, it’s just a different thing. For me, I’m just looking to stay creative and keep people engaged and to be valuable to the riders that ride our stuff and for the people that buy it. READ MORE