A Hump Day History Lesson with Brad StewardBy Brooke Geery • Nov 21st, 2012 • Category: Features, Hump Day Interviews, Latest
Let’s back up before Bonfire. Talk about coming up in snowboarding in Arizona when snowboarding didn’t really exist. What was that like?
You know, there was a movie that came out a few years ago called Almost Famous. It was about Cameron Crow’s experience. And when I watched that movie I walked away thinking, that’s my life story and nobody knows it. They don’t know that Tom Sims was the Rolling Stones and they don’t know that Jake Burton was I don’t know, pick your favorite old rock act, and I was kind of on the bus with those guys.
I feel really lucky to be in several meetings during really, the formative days of snowboarding. I mean before it was a sport and definitely before it was a business and always being the young kid in the room, you know? Where people would say, you’re probably the first or second kid of that next generation, what do you think about this? I remember sitting openly in meetings with Jake Burton, Tom Sims, Chuck Barfoot, and several other people would be sitting there saying, I’m not sure we really even need resorts, it could just be a backyard sport. If you even look at the first Burton lines and first Burton products, it’s backyard, back hill. It’s a very different perspective then what I had at Sims, and what I think Tom had at Sims even before me, which was calling it a ski board. You know, so we wanted to be on the slopes. I think I got to see the beginning of everything that shaped snowboarding to what it is today and hopefully played a role in it, but played a different kind of role. I realized that I wasn’t Tom and Jake and I wasn’t one of the first two guys at the table, but I was definitely one of the five guys at that first table, and it was going to fall out for each of us a little bit differently. I always felt like I’m the guy who represents the kid in all of this because I was a kid at that time. Very much so.
When I came into snowboarding in the early 90s, I feel like selling out was such a big deal. I remember riding a Salomon snowboard and being like, I don’t know if I like this, because it was a Salomon snowboard. Even though it was actually a super sick board. Did you have those kind of feelings of like you’re selling out snowboarding when you were selling your brand to a ski company?
No, not at all. Not for one second actually, and the reason why is this. I felt like I had seen a crisis looming in Japan for snowboarding and I felt like I saw it two to three years before any of our competitors did. I thought the result of this is going to be that my friends would be out of work, the industry would be harmed, and that we would stall as a business and that nothing would move forward. Remember that I had hiked for about ten years snowboarding with no acceptance at all. In the Bonfire bio where it says we were spit on by skiers and so on, and so on, that was all true. I really hiked under the ski lift and had skiers spitting on us while joking and laughing at the toys that they thought we were on. So my perspective was, I have to do something to stabilize our business as a way of stabilizing snowboarding a little bit because we were a pretty big player and I know that people were looking for people to step up in the industry and kind of get things settled a little bit. So I just looked at it and thought, this is a good long term plan on that.
I knew there would be struggles– I’m a complete contrarion by nature so I love the fact that I was putting this really core, for riders, by riders brand into the middle of everything that everybody resented at that time in snowboarding. For me, it was a really intriguing experience to try to do that, and I definitely, intentionally did it.
We could’ve sold to a number of U.S. ski companies, I had a lot of other offers from different people on the table. I just thought that this is going to be my life, I might as well pick the one that is challenging, fun, interesting, and that helps me to learn more about the world and stabilizes the business for the people who work here and ride for our company.
I always think that the most contrasting thing was that when I was at Morrow, and we started Morrow. Basically, Rob Morrow’s uncle came to us and said, you guys have $150k and 6 months to make this company work, and I looked him in the face and said no problem, we got it, I know exactly what to do. I’m fresh out of Sims and had been experimenting with Bonfire and building a few jackets and a few t-shirts and things. Six months later, multi-million dollar company, we’re 23-24 years old, 150 employees, just literally riding the top of this crazy, crazy crest, but feeling all along that this is probably going to crash. We’re not smart enough, and I’m not smart enough to maintain this.
At Salomon, my first conversation was how much money do you need to develop a board? And I said that I needed three million bucks to do one board. Literally without hesitation they said, okay you got it. So we spent three million bucks creating that first board. The thing that I thought was really fun and interesting and straight in line with my nature to kind of be a bit contrarian, was that at Morrow, I had built the brand on really highly developed, highly complex artwork that was executed in the most complicated way possible. And at Salomon, when everyone came to the table and said are you going to bring that look and do that cool thing and everything, I said no, actually I’m not. I’m going to hire a designer from London, the most expensive and interesting guy I can hire, and we’re going to do solid color boards with a black base. And to me it was just kind of a little joke I played on myself that I never really told anybody else. But if you look at the difference between Morrow and Salomon, and think that the same person launched those, it’s impossible to believe that. They are totally different in every single way, and to me that was a really fun, creative exercise that kept it interesting.
So talking about selling to a ski company, do you see any irony in Burton buying The Program to keep it a core snowboard thing, and now it’s just gone. What’s your take on that?
I haven’t until now, but that’s a little bit ironic. You know, for me all the dialogue of snowboarding vs skiing and so on is just a joke at this stage. I think that a lot of snowboard companies haul it out and use it to market because they have nothing else to say. What else can you say about your products, and about the people who ride your products, and the things you do and what you support and why you support it? So that’s why when I always see. “We’re rider owned, rider driven, and we hate ski companies” kind of tagline, I just sort of think, get over it and move on to the next stage of your business.
It’s great that your proud of what you do, that’s awesome. I’m proud of what I do too and I’m proud of the people that work for us, but do something. Get engaged and don’t just sit back and use that same old line because for people like myself —and inside of snowboarding, there’s only three or four of us left who are in the industry and physically hiked for ten years getting on mountain. Maybe there’s not even two or three of us now who did that and to me it’s like, if you want to go back to the dark days and really see what it was like before the ski industry gave us a hand on some of the things they did for us. Then have at it and go back there. But I also think it’s a bit insincere as well because you gotta remember the board of directors of Burton is loaded with ex-ski executives. Morrow purchased molds from K2 to begin, Ride used old molds from old ski factories, I mean everybody has benefited from the ski industry. And to me the irony actually is that in the last ten years, skiing has just become snowboarding on two things that you face forward. That’s a larger irony to me. The ski industry resisted snowboarding for quite a long time until now. I literally think as a ski marketing guy you can just sit back and flip through a year old snowboard catalog to find out what’s going on in skiing today. So I don’t have any feelings at all about selling out or not selling out. It’s totally irrelevant to me.
Who do you think is doing it right? What brands do you look at and say, this brand has good ideas? Or are there any?
Well, I’m probably a little bit biased to a few of the Portland companies because they are here in my backyard, and I’m also inclined to have a little more respect for companies that are actually placed in zones that have real mountains and real snow. So when I look at the Southern California brands I kinda think.. Well that’s cool, I lived there and know what it’s like, but you’re a bit of a traveler, you know? You’re on the freeway to go snowboarding and not really living in it in a way that I think we do here in Portland and I would say Seattle, Denver, and a some of the other places where you are kind of in it. I think the Airblaster guys deserve a huge amount of respect for selling a very simply concept, which is “snowboarding is fun” and I think they are awesome guys and I like brands like that to be successful because they are good people and I know that they care about snowboarding. The Holden thing kinda is what it is. I think they left the Northwest to do something different. As I said and acknowledged their snowboard roots, so I don’t really see them as a snowboard company. There are snowboarders that work there, but they are on a different trip. I don’t look around a ton at other brands and I don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to whats going on in the industry actually. Anybody that’s selling fun and snowboarding as a connection to getting out with your friends and doing cool shit and staying creative, any brand that’s on that legitimately, I’m with.
So you’ve obviously made a fair amount of money in your life and you could probably retire, why do you still work?
Well, for the same reason I started Bonfire. It was never about making money. It was never about getting a game that I didn’t have. It was about developing myself and it was about developing people in the company to stay artistic and creative. So for me, that’s still what I’m about. It doesn’t really come down to a financial decision or a financial play. It comes down to, how do stay creative and stay snowboarding? How do you do things that are interesting, compelling, and unique? You know? And if there’s anything I always get asked, the question of, why stay in snowboarding? Or what does snowboarding need now? Or why did snowboarding lose its soul? All of these things, and I just think it’s really simple. You have to stay in there and stay engaged, and you have to stay creative. You have to do stuff, and thats a life lesson to me. So if I wasn’t doing it at Bonfire I would be at another snowboard company probably doing the same exact thing, just trying to make a good life out of it.
How much do you still snowboard?
As much as I can, but less than I used to. I was telling my doctor the other day that I feel like I’m an experiment, and the experiment is, what happens after you have been snowboarding for around 34 years, what happens to your body? So my doctor and I are learning what happens to your body after 34 years on the mountain. I have a little bit of arthritis in my back that gets to be a little bit troublesome, but it doesn’t stop me from riding or snowboarding. Like said, if you go back to what Bonfire was — Bonfire Think Tank Designs. It’s art, it’s snowboarding, it’s books, it’s music, it’s film, it’s a lot of things. I get off on all of those things and that all fits into snowboarding for me. So in a weird way it all kind of feels like riding to me because I’m happy to do it, I’m happy to be out there, and for sure nothing replaces the physical experience of just being on your board and riding. That’s definitely something that I take pride in and i think it’s important that I do a lot. But to me, it’s all life. I don’t really look at snowboarding as a separate activity as a part or my life or anything, its just what i do. When you walk into the house or anything there’s snowboard stuff everywhere, you pick it up and go snowboarding just like you would grab your bike and run to the grocery store. So it’s not a separate piece of my life at this stage.
Do you still have it? Can you still do the tricks?
I think I still have some of it. It’s funny, I look at old action shots and I think, Man, I wish I could still do that. Then I have other moments where I surprise myself on what I still can do. A couple of years ago Jason Ford and I and a few buddies went up to Alaska up to Thompson Pass and did the Book Ends up there. It was really funny because I was riding with guys who are some of the best professionals or best ex-professionals in the world and I pretty much hung with them to the point where they were like, Man, it’s pretty crazy that you came straight out of your office and stepped out of the heli on some of the steepest shit rolling, and you’re going for it. What they didn’t know, was that my knees were sewing machining all the way down and that I was pissing my pants on every run down, but they don’t need to know that. I just think that staying riding is really important, but kind of what I don’t like is actually referring to going snowboarding as something separate to your life. So it’s a bit like asking a writer if they are a writer. And they say yeah, I’m a writer. And you say, well when do you write? And they say well, It’s kind of all writing, I’m always thinking of it, I’m always jotting a note down, I’m always making a mental note of something I see or hear. Same thing with good filmmakers and thats how snowboarding is to me. I’m always riding in some way in my head. That’s how I look at it.
On your average day to day, how involved are you with the marketing and the brand image of Salomon and Bonfire?
I have a lot of people that I work with that are a hell of a lot smarter than I am and they do a lot more for the success of the company than I do. I’m in a position where I get to sort of stand back and take credit for a lot of stuff that other people do, which is never that rad, because I know that a lot of people worked hard and I want them to get the credit. I try to stay 100% engaged on the things that are important to the company that speak to the core and soul of what we do, because I believe I have a unique perspective. I believe 35 years of snowboarding has given me something that very few people in snowboarding have.
When I walk through the office and see an intern through the door I think, Man, I’ve been riding twice as long as that person has been alive and they are working on something I have a perspective on it, so I always give it. I think my employees know me to be a bit outrageous, completely outspoken, 100% able to speak the truth, and probably more importantly, 100% able to hear the truth. And I regularly have people say to me, that’s a really shitty idea, Brad. And I regularly say to them, thanks for calling me out, let’s work on a better idea. And I think thats the viewpoint you have to have, especially as an artist, a writer, and a snowboarder. You can’t close doors, you just have to walk in everyday and open doors. So sometimes I get in the nitty gritty of everything, looking at every last thing going out the door and others times I just kind of drift and when people need me, they grab me and they ask me to help them work on something or if I need I help I ask them to help me work on something and we put it all together.
Now we’re at the question of, has Colleen (Quigley) ruined the company?
(laughs) Sometimes you hire people who have the ability to say just the thing that needs to be said, or to sprinkle that little bit of dust on a conversation that just completely changes the direction of everything. Colleen is that person, and I count on her to be that person. If someone said, Brad got hit by a truck, who’s the person who has the personality most like him to run Bonfire? Oddly enough it is probably Colleen. So hopefully as I go home from work tonight Colleen wont run me down. But I think Colleen and I are actually kind of kindred spirits without ever actually discussing it. We just look at each other and we know we’re both capable of willfully negligent behavior and completely crazy stuff at any moment.
What is your perspective on kids today? Like the average snowboarder. What they are in to, what they think is important. How do you look at that with all the knowledge you have and all those years of doing it? Will they look back at and say I was an idiot, or do you think they are on the right track?
You know, here’s the funny thing. From the beginning of snowboarding, we’re a little piece of skateboarding, a little piece of surfing, and were even a little piece of skiing. As much as people don’t want to hear that. So we are a piece of all of these things, but what are we when you strip all of those pieces away? What really is this sport about, and what are the moments about, and the people, and the athletes, and so on and so on.. and that’s always a difficult question actually.
What’s happened in that void is that people have confused the story of snowboarding with the story of Burton. So you hear the story of Burton, and you think that’s the story of snowboarding, but it’s actually not. There’s an entirely different narrative out there that very, very few people out there know. To me the story of Burton is — A guy who was an ex-stock broker, who started going to snowboard contests, who saw a very cool group of kids doing something unique, aggressive, and interesting and took a crack at emulating it. And when he emulated it, he put a bunch of guys in speed suits and got them into slalom courses, and had them run down the mountain as a team.
Then there was another side of that sport, which was a rag-tag group of kids just from everywhere in America where there was snow that they could crawl up the slope on, and they tried to create a different kind of sport. So when I look at the kids today I ask myself a little bit, are they the hungry kids that had that same motivation that we had just to progress the sport? Or are they out to show what they are about and what they can do and expose themselves to it?
What I like is just getting snowboarding in the hands of more young kids and getting them to care a little bit more for what snowboarding purely is. If you look at the skateboard market and the value that the pioneers have to the value of the skateboard market, it’s massive. In snowboarding, Terry Kidwell can walk through a trade show and five people will recognize him. I think there’s something wrong with that, and I think there’s a piece missing from the soul of snowboarding. I’ve said in other interviews and at other moments in the office, I like it when you see Harley guys riding by each other and they shoot each other a little wave and it’s just kind of another way of saying, I know what you know and we’re on this whole thing together with our motorcycles. And I almost feel like snowboarding needs that same wave back. People need to know that we’re in it a little bit together.
So I think that today the kids are fine, I think people are doing amazing shit on snowboards and progressing the sport in an absolutely unreal way. And now more than ever, it’s probably important that snowboarding just finds that juice that started it, and reconnects to it. Because otherwise we just become this activity that bounces between a couple of Olympics here and there and that when you say to somebody, I’m a snowboarder. They say.. Oh really, what’s that like? You know, where as if you say to somebody.. I’m a skateboarder, or I’m a surfer. People know why you’re a surfer, you conquer huge waves, live an independent life, and you have something special. If you’re a skateboarder.. man, you’re gnarly and you’re doing crazy sick stuff that other people don’t do. If you’re a snowboarder.. Oh, really? So is Shaun White.. You know? And that’s not that answer that we wanted, I don’t think. Shaun is a good guy and that’s not meant to knock him at all, it just meant that we want to be something other then just a media event that you know.. snowboarding? Oh, that’s a circus, I’ve been to that circus. That’s not a good future for this sport, I don’t think.
Alright, in closing. Obviously, despite terrible economy, despite no snow last year, people just keep starting companies. What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you did?
Bleed for it. That’s it.
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