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The outdoor industry has lost One Tough Mother. Gert Boyle, Chairman of the Board (she hated the term “chairwoman”) and former CEO of Columbia Sportswear, died on Sunday, November 3, 2019, at the age of 95.
Gert never retired; she loved going to her office at the brand’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Employees were accustomed to her zipping through the hallways on her motorized scooter or having her drop into their office to get an update on what they’d been doing. Gert never liked wasting time, and, in her 90s, having wheels allowed her to cover more distance quickly. She always had an opinion, she always remembered people’s names, and she never failed to see the humor of any situation.
The first time I met Gert was in 1982. Still in my teens, I’d made the trek from Salem to Portland in search of an affordable ski jacket. Being a good Oregonian, I went directly to the Columbia store, which was under the Sellwood Bridge back then. I pawed through the sale rack and finally settled on a brown men’s XL Parka that was marked down to about 75 percent off the original price. It fit me like an oversized sleeping bag but I couldn’t afford to be picky and figured this would serve me just fine for driving a tractor and picking strawberries, which was how I was earning money at the time.
Gert, who happened to be in the store, disagreed. She watched with a piercing stare as I put the gorgeous purple jacket that fit me back on the rack and opted for the much-too-big one that was on sale. Then she pounced and told me in no uncertain terms to not be a fool and buy the purple one.
Years later, in 1988, when I was a cub reporter at my first outdoor trade show (Outdoor Retailer was still part of SIA in Las Vegas), my inaugural interview was with Gert. I strolled into the Columbia booth and immediately got cold feet. There was Gert. Same piercing stare. I had butterflies. Had I done my homework? Did I have traces of lunch on my face? Would my questions be clever enough? Finally, she spoke. To my amazement, she remembered me—I’d been a gawky, broke teenage farm worker back then, and now I was an editor for Rock and Ice.
“How’d the jacket work out?” she said with her characteristic droll, take-no-prisoners wit. That was Gert at her finest—direct, totally tuned into her customer base, and always a surprise.
I explained it had been an integral part of my ski and climbing kit through college and grad school. She nodded. “Probably time to get another jacket,” Gert said without cracking a grin.
The last time I saw Gert, she was 94 and racing down Columbia’s hallways on her scooter. We’d sat down for yet another interview, this one more than 34 years after we first met. She looked great—snowy white hair beautifully coiffed, elegant jewelry, and a smart, three-piece salmon-colored ensemble . She was as sharp, witty, and clever as ever. She pointed out her favorite photo in the office—a picture of her and Nelson Mandela. She asked about my husband and children—how the heck she kept all that straight, I have no idea. Gert was a keen student of human nature. And, she was a brilliant businesswoman.
Grit and entrepreneurism was in Gert Boyle’s blood
Gert is an American success story. One of her many mottos was “Early to Bed, Early To Rise, Work Like Hell and Advertise.” And she did work like hell. She learned at a young age never to take anything for granted. In 1937, when she was 13, her family escaped from Nazi Germany and relocated in Portland.
Her parents embraced their new country. That same year, they took their daughters to nearby Mt. Hood to watch then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicate Timberline Lodge, which had been built by the Works Progress Administration. In an interview, Gert told me that she was inspired by Roosevelt’s passionate speech, the magnificence of Mt. Hood, and the public works project that had brought together so many disparate individuals to create the Lodge.
Gert’s entrepreneurial father had owned one of Germany’s most successful shirt factories. In Portland, he borrowed money and bought the Rosenfeld Hat Company. Wanting to find a name that sounded “local,” he renamed the company Columbia. Like many kids her age, Gert helped with the family business; she and her sisters assembled the hat boxes. In the summer months, she picked beans and strawberries for local farmers. Gert was never afraid of work.
In 1943, Gert attended the University of Arizona. There she met her future husband. Gert recounted that she and Neal Boyle “met under a table after a fraternity party.” They married in 1945, had their first child, Tim, and moved back to Portland, where Neal went to work with Gert’s father.
Columbia moves from hats to outdoor apparel
By the late 1950s, the Pacific Northwest was attracting people who loved to fish, hunt, and hike. Gert and her family saw an opportunity and expanded Columbia into gloves and apparel. Gert, like young women of her generation, knew how to make a pattern and sew. She helped to design what is now a Columbia classic, the Henry Fork Vest.
In 1964, Gert’s father died. Gert’s mother stepped up to handle day-to-day operations, and Neal took the helm as president. Gert was busy raising the couple’s three children, Tim, Kathy, and Sally. But Gert being Gert, she helped out when she could.
In 1970, at the age of 47, Neal suffered a fatal heart attack. Gert, with no background in business, had a choice—to sell the company or to step up and lead. As she wrote in her autobiography, “One Tough Mother,” she almost sold to a local businessman. But he “nickeled and dimed” her to the point that she decided if anyone was going to run the family company into the ground, it would be her.
“If someone asked me to swim a mile, I would tell them I couldn’t. But if someone took me out on a boat and pushed me out into the ocean a mile from shore, you better believe I would start swimming,” wrote Gert in her autobiography. And swim she did.
Gert Boyle takes the reins at Columbia
Columbia Sportswear had annual sales of about $800,000 when Neal Boyle died. In the year after his death, revenue dropped. Tim Boyle (who is now president/CEO) left his studies in Political Science and Journalism at the University of Oregon to return home to help (he eventually did graduate).
The banks started pulling in loans, but Tim and Gert decided they would fight to keep Columbia afloat. They slashed the number of SKU’s, started a private-label business, and the brand slowly began to grow. By 1977, Gert had paid off the bank and nearly doubled annual sales.
“It was just day-by-day,” Gert remembered. “You get to a point where it really didn’t matter. I knew I was going to go broke one way or the other so I got to the point where I thought, “Just go for it! Give ‘em hell!” Tim stepped up and went to the trade shows. At that time, I never accompanied him because I didn’t think that a 21-year-old man needed to deal with ‘this is my mother and I’m bringing her along.’ So I just let him go for it.”
That was classic Gert. Making a decision and letting it ride.
Together, Gert and Tim developed Columbia’s flagship product, a three-in-one combo jacket called the Bugaboo. They oversaw the transition of Columbia from a casual apparel brand to one that competed with top-of-the-pyramid outdoor companies with the Titanium line. Gert continued to push Columbia to international success and was a forerunner when it came to finding sustainable methods for sourcing and manufacturing. The brand grew and eventually acquired core brands like Pacific Trail, Mountain Hardwear, and Sorel. Gert became the first woman inducted into the National Sporting Goods Hall of Fame and was internationally acclaimed as a powerful business leader.
Gert was always known as the powerhouse behind the brand to those who worked with Columbia, but it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that she became the face of the company in the One Tough Mother advertising campaigns.
During this time, Gert became the public whip—a fake tattoo on her arm said “Born to Nag.” And her son Tim played the Laurel to her Hardy. In a series of well-executed ads, Gert turned Tim into her own “crash test dummy.” He was buried in ice while Gert ran him over with a Zamboni, and run through a car wash—without a car, all in the name of testing apparel. In 2017, she made hilarious “Tested Tough” videos with the Efron Brothers, Zach and Dylan.
Friends remember Gert Boyle
Says Judy Leand, a freelance editor and writer who became fast friends with Gert in the 1990s, “I remember meeting Gert at my first Outdoor Retailer show in Reno. I was at the black jack table, and who was sitting next to me but Gert Boyle. Both of us were learning the game and we laughed our heads off at the silliness of it all. She was a huge presence in the outdoor industry, even back them, but also a great friend.”
Leand’s fondest memory is when she visited Portland to work with Gert on a cover story and shoot for the magazine SportStyle. “Gert was always in a class by herself, so we decided on ‘Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer’ for the title and wrote about how Columbia differentiated itself from the competition.”
“Gert played along and dressed up as colonial drummer girl for the photo shoot. She had a tricorn hat, button-down shirt and skin-tight pants. The trouble was we kept bursting into laughter, and the pants were in serious danger of splitting.”
Emily Petterson, former PR manager at Columbia, also remembers a lot of laughter at work. “She used to call me over the intercom with a very serious voice. I’d rush to her office to find she wanted me to test chocolate samples with her. Or sometimes, when people were taking themselves too seriously in a meeting, she’d give me that special look with raised eyebrows to make me smile. Those raised eyebrows over the glasses. I’ll never forget that look. I’ll never forget her.”
Leand agrees. “Gert had what I’d call a conspiratorial sense of humor, she always made you feel like you were her confidant sharing an inside joke. She was very good with connecting with people, making them feel like they mattered.”
Gert never forgot how fortunate she was to have succeeded. In 2017, Columbia recorded net sales of $2.47 billion. Gert’s shares in the company were worth nearly $900 million in 2018, making her one of the wealthiest people in Oregon.
But more importantly, she was an Oregon icon, and a quiet philanthropist who donated a great deal of her personal funds to help worthy causes. CASA (a Portland-based group that helps abused children), and the Special Olympics both benefited from her largess. In 2011, she anonymously donated $100 million to the Cancer Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University. Eventually, news of Gert’s donation leaked out, and they renamed a research center after her sister, biochemist Hildegard Lamfrom, who died of brain cancer.
Former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (2003-2011) says Oregon is poorer for Gert Boyle’s death. “She made our state and our citizens better: as a role model for overcoming adversity, for smart and fair business practices, and most important, for giving so generously to others. Gert always remembered who she was, and where she came from. She was one tough mother, but she always took careful note of the needs of others.”
“Gert Boyle turned a family loss into a thriving business, pioneering the way for Columbia Sportswear to thrive,” said Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI and U.S. Secretary of the Interior. “Gert showed all of us how to live life to the fullest, and not take ourselves too seriously. Her legacy will live on through the great brand she nurtured and the people she inspired.”
Gert Boyle is survived by her three children, Tim, who is president/CEO of Columbia, daughter Sally Bany, who owns Portland’s Moonstruck Chocolates, daughter Kathy Deggendorfer, an artist, and five grandchildren, as well as her younger sister, Eva Labby.