'Mother' Boyle builds global gear company

Posted: Friday, April 08, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Gert ''Mother'' Boyle has lived her life and built Columbia Sportswear into a billion-dollar global business guided by a few simple rules, rugged determination and a playful wit.

''Have I made enemies? I'm sure I have. Some of them I am related to,'' said the 81-year-old grandmother, interviewed in her suburban headquarters office.

For Boyle, it comes down to people.

''I always feel that I work with people, they don't work for me. They work with us. I couldn't do without any of them,'' she said, then smiled. ''Well, one or two of them I could do without.''

Since taking over the family business in 1970, she and son Tim have placed Columbia solidly among the world's top 10 makers of sporting ''soft goods,'' with a 2 percent share of the $44 billion global market and 3 percent share of the $18.2 billion U.S. market, said John Horan, publisher of the industry newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence.

Among makers of the outerwear and footwear in which Columbia specializes, it's ''the big one in the business right now,'' said Horan. ''They have done a very good job of putting out a good value, good quality product over the years.''

''It starts with leadership,'' said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. ''And it starts with the company defining its brand through its ownership. Gert has been synonymous with the identity that one equates with Columbia.''

Boyle is known in the industry for attending the twice yearly trade shows, sitting at the front of the Columbia booth, bantering with buyers and distributors.

And she has achieved a national profile through TV ads in which she appears to be mistreating her son, driving him through harrowing adventures to test Columbia's rugged gear.

''She is a wonderful, somewhat persnickety character,'' said James Glave, gear editor for Outside magazine. ''That is not just how they market her, that is the way she is.''

Mother and son unexpectedly took over the family business in 1970, when Neal Boyle died. Tim, 21, rushed back from the University of Oregon to help his mother run the family business.

In the first year, sales dropped from $800,000 to $600,000, and she prepared to sell out. In the final negotiations, however, the buyer told her that Columbia was worth next to nothing, she recounts in a newly published autobiography.

''I had learned a swear word or two during my life, and I used every one of them to tell him very graphically what I thought of him and just where he could put his offer,'' she writes in ''One Tough Mother: Success in Life, Business and Apple Pie.''

''For $1,400, I would just as soon run this business into the ground myself,'' she yelled.

The book, to be sold through Columbia's global distribution chain, recounts the flight of her family from Nazi Germany, where her father owned one of that country's largest shirt companies. As Jews, the family was not allowed to leave Germany with more than $20 in cash, plus some furniture and enough shoes in various sizes to fit young Gertrude and her two sisters for years.

Despite the family's wealth in Germany, she wrote, ''My mother never took money for granted,'' forcing the girls to wear sleeve protectors and aprons to save their clothes for the next in line. ''Much to the dismay of us three girls, who much preferred new clothes to hand-me-downs, the darn things worked.''

That thriftiness stood the family in good stead when they reached their new home in Portland, in 1937. Her father bought the Rosenfeld Hat Co., renaming it after the river that runs past the city.

Neal joined the family business and Gert became a housewife, raising Tim and his older sister, Kathy.

The lessons of frugality, listening to customers and teamwork are reflected in her management style, and in the homilies she offers throughout her book, and in an interview.

Among her favorites: ''If you always tell the truth, you don't have problems remembering the lies,'' and, ''Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise. I didn't make that up — but I heard it maybe 40 or 50 years ago, and I thought it was so funny.''

The company went public in the 1990s, she said, ''because of estate planning.''

The family retains 65 percent ownership, with Gert Boyle's stake estimated at $300 million, plus an annual salary of $715,850, according to information filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

''My theory has always been that money does not make you happy,'' she said. ''It just helps you to suffer in comfort.''

Industry analysts credit not only her people skills, but also shrewd decisions in building a global niche for Columbia.

The company moved production early to Asia, putting trusted quality control managers on the ground and shutting down domestic production. Columbia has stayed ahead of the curve in developing a sophisticated distribution network with a good track record in predicting customer tastes, analysts said.

In the 1990s, Columbia's main competitor, The North Face, ''more or less imploded,'' said Horan, of Sporting Goods Intelligence. With new ownership, North Face is back in the market, but Columbia meanwhile has expanded its markets in Europe, Asia, and even Africa.

Columbia distributes its products by performance ratings, with premium equipment going to mountaineering stores and less-rugged gear targeted for department stores for the estimated 80 percent of customers who wear it on the street rather than in the wild.

Recently, the company bought Mountain Hardware, a California-based company that makes tents and outerwear suitable for expeditions.

''I mean, if you wore Columbia into the Himalayas, I don't think you'd like that very much, because you'd really get cold,'' Boyle said.

And, no, she has never contemplated retirement.

''You know what happens to little old ladies that stay home and do housework? I never liked the housework anyway, and I don't cook,'' she says.

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