HOW I DID IT

How I Did It: Gert Boyle, chairman, Columbia Sportswear

Tougher than the rest.
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As told to Stephanie Clifford

Gert Boyle's family fled Nazi Germany when she was 13--reason enough for her to hope her path as an adult would be smooth. For a time it was: She raised her three children while her husband, Neal, ran Columbia Sportswear in Portland, Oregon. But when Neal died in 1970 at age 47, Gert had to take over. She knew nothing about business, and the records were in shambles. A calm life was not in the cards.

Gert took Neal's Columbia, whose core customers were serious outdoorspeople, and made it a company for anyone who fancies a fleece vest: students, suburbanites, babies. The message has been carried since 1984 by Columbia's "tough mother" advertising campaign, whose highlights have included Gert forcing her son Tim--now the company's CEO--through a car wash to test a parka. Her little family business is now a $1.2 billion public company.

My father had a wholesale shirt factory in Augsburg, Germany. I used to go there and play with little pieces of material. I was in middle school when Hitler gained power. It was a lot of mass hatred. We were Jewish--we are Jewish--and we weren't allowed to go to the regular store, not allowed to go swimming.

My father came over here on an exploratory trip in 1936, to visit his brother in Portland, and then came back to get us. As a 13-year-old, what an experience. Your parents say, you're gonna move to a new country. Good enough! I loved going.

My father, of course, didn't have a job here. He did work for his cousin for a while to find out how to do American business. In 1938, my father bought a wholesale hat company from these two old guys, the Rosenfeld brothers. He changed the name to the Columbia Hat Co., after the Columbia River. My parents were never ashamed to be Jewish, but they thought maybe they didn't have to wear the Star of David on their forehead, because they certainly scared the living daylights out of you in Germany.

I went to school at the University of Arizona. I met my husband, Neal, under a table at a fraternity party there. When you have a few drinks, it's a lot more comfortable to sit, and I guess there wasn't a chair. Somehow or other I ended up down there. So, always look under the table to see what's there. After graduation, Neal came to work for my dad.

I've always enjoyed sewing, and I'm the one that made Columbia's first fishing vest. We were making ski mittens, and in the off-season you need to have your machines busy. We came up with the idea that if you had a fishing vest with a whole bunch of little pockets, you wouldn't have to carry anything extra except your rod. A whole bunch of fishermen came to the house and said put a pocket here, do this, do that. So that's what I did.

Neal never talked about Columbia's financing until we took on a $150,000 SBA loan. It was no big deal, just going to the bank. We'll borrow that money, it's not the end of the world--but it was. As collateral, Neal had a $50,000 life insurance policy, we had a house, we had a beach house, then we pledged my mother's house.

I'd heard business talk all my life from my dad and didn't pay any attention 'cause you know it's just never gonna affect you and never gonna matter. And then one day it does. So I'll tell you what: Always listen.

Three months after we took out the loan, Neal died. Nobody thinks they're gonna die at 47. And how am I gonna say to my mother, "You know that house you've lived in for 40 years? Sorry." I had this SBA loan, so I had to work.

It was 1970. The business was terrible. We had sales of $800,000 a year--and after my first year, we had $600,000 in sales. We were making every mistake in the world.

One woman wanted more money to do inventory--I didn't know how to do it. She said she wouldn't come back to work unless I gave her $300 a month more or whatever. I shed a number of tears, and said okay, you can have it. She didn't realize women had memories. Three months after that I called her in and said, this is your last day. People can't do that to you. It was a pleasure.

Around 1972, the bankers said, you've gotta sell it, Gert. So I found this gentleman--I'm using the term very loosely. He said, okay, I'll buy the company. But I don't want the building, I don't want the whole inventory. It didn't take me but a few minutes to figure out I was gonna make about $1,400, and I still had the debt. So I told the gentleman where to put it and where to take it.

I had three union strikes, which also didn't help matters. I learned a few new words. As a matter of fact, a whole vocabulary. But I won. We, it's a nice word to say, terminated them. It's a reason we went overseas: We just couldn't afford to put up with the expense of fighting continually.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, we reinvented ourselves and said, this is what we are, and we do this well, and we don't do this well. You can't be all things to all people. We stopped private labeling, focused on typical outdoor clothing, and started to go to larger suppliers. The types of garments that people wore in the '70s were very favorable to what we were doing. People didn't wear suits anymore to work; they were wearing outdoor leisure clothing, which was directly in our line.

Then we designed a coat called the Quad parka. It was a hunting coat 'cause when you go hunting you start out early and it's cold. By the time 6 o'clock rolls around, you get hot. You can't take the shell off because of the camouflage; you have to take the inside off. So we removed the inside. That was so popular, we decided we'd use the same application for the ski industry, and we called it the Bugaboo coat. Today we've made over five million Bugaboo coats. That really put us on the map. It was about 1986.

We had a German salesman, Mr. Wasserman. 'No vone vould ever look at a voman telling you vhat to vear.' He got outvoted."

Before the tough-mother ads, I always thought our advertising was kind of weird, with the "engineered" and all that. Because the average person doesn't care anything about having something engineered. People care about having it fit well. I'm the kind of person who always wants to try something new, so we tried something new. We had a German salesman, Mr. Wasserman was his name. "No vone vould ever look at a voman telling you vhat to vear." He got outvoted.

I'm 82 years old, and I don't think I'm gonna last forever--or I'll fool 'em and I am gonna last forever--but my son Tim is very good at what he does, and there's such a thing as estate planning. That's one reason I stepped down as president in 1988.

We went public in 1998, again for estate planning. I still own, I don't know, maybe 15-some-odd percent; the family owns over 60-some-odd percent. Being public, it is so complicated. We had to hire dozens of new people to take care of governance.

I get up in the morning and go to water aerobics, then I come to work, then go around and verbally abuse as many people as I can. You know what I'd have to do otherwise? Stay home and do housework. That's not my bag. They asked my son, what are you gonna do when your mother dies? He said, we'll have her stuffed. In Columbia gear.

Last updated: Apr 1, 2006




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