Columbia Sportswear’s longtime chairman of the board Gert Boyle was remembered for her die-hard determination. No one understood the degree of that mettle better than her son Tim, who serves as president and chief executive officer of the nearly $3 billion company.
Boyle’s death Sunday at the age of 95 has reminded many of how a Fifties housewife unexpectedly became a pioneering force in the outdoor apparel industry. Aside from breaking the glass ceiling, Gert Boyle helped to establish Portland, Ore., as a nexus for the athletic industry. With 1,820 employees, Columbia is the second-largest local employer in the area’s apparel and footwear industry behind Nike Inc., which employs 12,000 in Oregon. In addition to the Columbia brand, Columbia Sportswear Co. owns the Mountain Hardwear, Sorel and prAna labels. With 552 Columbia stores, the company has more than 30,000 retail accounts around the globe.
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Halfway through responding to the “few thousand” e-mails he had received 24 hours after his mother’s death, Tim Boyle spoke with WWD on Monday about her certitude, indomitable spirit and legacy. While many senior executives would find it unimaginable to work with a parent on a day-in, day-out basis, Boyle recalled how his mother frequently said, “’Sons very frequently work with their fathers, but they don’t often work with their mothers or for their mothers.’” Boyle said, “That’s accurate but together we really figured out how to make it work, splitting up the various parts of the business to what was each person’s special skills or approach to the business.”
Born Gertrude Lamfrom to Jewish parents, she was only a teenager when her family fled Germany. In the Northwest, her father managed to purchase the Rosenfeld Hat Co., renaming it the Columbia Hat Co. After studying at the University of Arizona, she and her husband, Neal Boyle, returned to Oregon, where he joined the family business. Following her father’s death in 1964, her husband Neal Boyle became president of the company, which then diversified into outerwear to appeal to more outdoorsmen such as fishermen and skiers. Six years later her husband died unexpectedly and Gert Boyle stepped up to assume the lead role at the company.
“She really never worked in the company until my dad died and that was in 1970. Until then, it was more of a typical Fifties family with my dad going to work every day and my mom dealing with the three kids,” Boyle said. “They used to joke a lot. My dad was a Roman Catholic kid from Beaver Falls, Pa. He knew way more people in the synagogue than my mom knew. We went to parochial schools so my mom knew everyone in the local parish.”
From the start of her unexpected entry to the working world, there was no question that Gert Boyle’s involvement would be a huge undertaking. Three months before Neal Boyle died in 1970, he had taken out a SBA loan to build the business. After his sudden death, his son left the University of Oregon in his senior year to pitch in and never went back. With limited experience in Columbia’s warehouse, the younger Boyle, like his mother, had a rough start. “Between the two of us, we lost all the equity in the business over the next four years and the company was basically bankrupt. The bank had called our note and said, ‘You guys are going broke. You’ve got to sell the business,’” Tim Boyle said.
The mother-son team decided against a $1,400 offer for Columbia. Boyle recalled, “We were not successful and the bankers said, ‘OK, well, we’ll give you a few more months or we’ll have to liquidate the business.’
“Around that time — the mid Seventies — the bank had just loaned some money to some guys starting a shoe company in Beaverton so they approached those guys to see if someone from that company might be interested in being on a board of advisers. That company ended up being Nike,” Boyle said. “We had one of the early Nike employees, Ron Nelson, help us to build the business. And Ron is on our board today.”
Boyle’s philanthropic efforts include a $100 million donation to benefit what is now Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Research Center. Boyle initially made the donation anonymously and it wasn’t until local media unearthed her generosity that it became public. Her contribution went even further, since it was earmarked for the Knight Cancer Challenge, an initiative started by Nike cofounder Phil Knight and his wife that pledged a $500 million matching donation if $500 million was raised. The 320,000-square-foot Knight Cancer Research building now houses some of the world’s leading cancer researchers led by director Brian Druker, M.D. Knight said via e-mail Monday, “Gert Boyle was one of a kind. She raised a family, saved a company, and then built it into a global brand. I had tremendous respect for her leadership and will forever appreciate her generous support of OHSU’s cancer research.”
Asked what the company’s matriarch would consider her greatest professional accomplishments, Tim Boyle said, “Just being the head of a company of this scale, which is a significant accomplishment. That, and her ability to impact people who were, are and will be the recipient of significant work that Brian Druker is doing at the Knight Cancer Institute.”
There wasn’t one thing that turned Columbia around under Gert Boyle’s reign from her son’s perspective. “But it was certainly dogged determination that we’re not going to fail. At the end of the day, it is inarguably the point of differentiation. In 1970, when she was leading the company as president, there were very, very few businesses of any size that had women running them. So she was a very determined person. The fact there was a woman running the business was highly unusual. The fact that we made it a significant portion of the company’s public persona is a real testimony to her willingness to do that — put herself out and she was ultimately rewarded for it.”
He added, “She was tough. She had a great sense of humor. She was not always politically correct and not always varnished. She was quite capable of being direct in her criticism of people who she felt needed to be criticized, which included her son from time to time.”
Gert Boyle’s directness served her well, while her son tends to be more measured. Sales and merchandising were his territories and later in life he became “quasi-adept at the financial performance analysis of the company, but she was always very good at being the leader of the company, the face of the business and having a good sense of humor. Frankly, some of the ads required the ability to poke fun at yourself and she was good at it.”
Many consumers remember Gert Boyle as the “One Tough Mother” character she flaunted in Columbia advertising and commercials. “They were always miserable to make,” Boyle said, referring to the two days of “standing around waiting for people to move cameras and all that stuff to get 30 seconds of good content.” He said the result was worth the effort, citing his mother’s commercials atop a Zamboni machine and another cliffhanger one as his favorites.
Not surprisingly, Gert Boyle has words to live by. Tim Boyle said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah. ‘Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.’ That was one of her specialties.”
While authenticity, family values and heritage are current corporate buzzwords, Columbia Sportswear is built on those fundamentals. Asked how they are protected as business becomes increasingly automated and digitalized, Boyle said, “Somebody has to develop that stuff and it has to be developed in a way that’s going to last. It can’t just be words that get repeated mechanically. They have to be ingrained in the business. Hopefully, she has done that. I think most of our employees would tell you that that’s the case.”
Boyle has assumed the role of chairman until the next board meeting early next year, when directors will decide the governance of the business going forward. That decision was made prior to Gert Boyle’s death, as the board has contemplated “an event like this,” Tim Boyle said.
However recognizable Boyle was as “One Tough Mother,” she was not preoccupied with what her legacy would be. “She let her actions and words speak for themselves.”
In addition to her sister Eva Labby and her son Tim, Boyle is survived by two daughters, Kathy Deggendorfer and Sally Bany, who is a Columbia board member. Boyle’s grandson is president of the Columbia brand, and her granddaughter works in Sorel’s e-commerce business. Plans for a tribute had not yet been arranged.
“People are certainly missing her,” Tim Boyle said. “She was a great mom for sure.“
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