Careering on Head 220 skis on a Chilean mountainside in 1963, Charles Bird Vaughan set a downhill speed record of 106 miles per hour. Nineteen years later C.B. Vaughan is still racing—not down the Andes anymore, but to unprecedented earnings as the maverick head of his own skiwear company, CB Sports. In spite of the recession that has frosted this year’s market, the 40-year-old Vermonter expects his Bennington-based company to gross $12 million. His CB logo has become the lift-line equivalent of the Lacoste alligator. “Let the other guys worry about catching me,” he crows. “I won’t tolerate second place.”
C.B.’s handsome but functional clothes with high windproof collars, synthetic zippers and Velcro closures—have scored big with skiing fans from Stowe to Gstaad. Burt Reynolds wore his parkas in Cannonball Run, and actress Mary Beth Hurt turned up in a CB jacket in A Change of Seasons. (Vaughan supplied both gratis.) At the John Denver Celebrity Ski Race in Nevada’s Heavenly Valley later this month, a mountainside of stars will be outfitted in CB wear provided at a discount by its promotion-minded maker. With prices ranging from $130 to $210 for down parkas and $130 to $180 for ski pants, Vaughan’s gear has proven popular with thieves as well. To thwart pilfering of his popular vests, parkas, shells and pants, Vaughan ships them to retailers in reclaimed Pampers and Bubble Yum cartons.
Vaughan has been leaving distinctive tracks on the ski trails since he was a rebellious boy growing up in Manchester. His parents ran a country inn that catered to skiers and golfers, and C.B. soon developed more fondness for the slopes than for his studies. “I was always in trouble,” he admits. “Sometimes I’d kick the teacher in the leg or bite her in the arm. I was a terror.” Attending Saint Lawrence University on an athletic scholarship, he made captain of the varsity ski team but missed a berth on the 1964 Olympic squad. He promptly joined the European pro circuit and spent the next four years racing for money instead of medals.
In 1969, with $5,000 in savings and the help of his wife, Roxanne, a college sweetheart, he started CB Sports. Touring ski country in southern Vermont, he hawked what he called his “super pants,” insulated ski pants with a side zipper. “Basically we had a lot of nerve,” he grins. “I just knocked on doors and said, ‘Here’s my bag of tricks. You’ve got to buy it.’ ”
C.B. has taken some spills on the way to the top, and in 1978 he and Roxanne were divorced. “I don’t think the business had anything to do with it,” he reflects. “I think I didn’t know what love was.” One year later Vaughan found himself in a confrontation with the Department of Labor. At issue was his practice of employing ski cap knitters who worked at home, treating them as independent contractors rather than paying them a minimum hourly wage. Vaughan, backed by many of the craftswomen, led a two-year defense of “cottage industry.” After spending $100,000 in legal fees, he reached an out-of-court settlement with the government that admitted no wrongdoing but cost his firm $15,000 in back wage payments. Because of new rules requiring costly bookkeeping for such home labor, C.B. discontinued his use of the knitters and now denounces the government’s action as “a direct attack on the fundamental principles of our American way of life.”
To keep himself fit for such battles with business and bureaucracy, the onetime champion skier resorts to 50-mile bike rides or 15-mile runs near his Manchester cabin. Three years ago he entered the New York Marathon and completed the 26.2-mile course in under three and a half hours, a feat he now calls “one of my most exhilarating moments in sports.” Meanwhile, thanks to profits from his booming business, he has begun construction on two new Vermont homes for himself and plans to attach the CB label to a new line of sweaters, hats and summer sailing apparel. “We’re getting into products where we really don’t know our rear end from third base,” he concedes. “Now we’ll see how good we are at running a business.”