Tim Boyle Biz Influencer
The president of Columbia Sportswear has become increasingly outspoken in 2017, hitting out at President Trump's travel ban and the homeless people bothering staff at his Sorel store downtown.
Having morphed from a small family hat shop to a global apparel business with $2 billion in annual sales, Columbia Sportswear is a many-headed beast that the soft-spoken Boyle controls from his desk.
Ahead of his delivery of the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Address on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the Business Tribune asked his about his own power and influence, as a citizen and as a business leader. (His replies have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Business Tribune: How do you view President Trump's trip to Asia, to countries that are important to Columbia Sportswear?
Tim Boyle: Trump has typically not been a trader…I don't know what to expect. When you are doing business anywhere but especially internationally, a high value is placed on predictability. People are going to be investing. And it's one thing if it's next door, in the same town, but when it's in another city in a different part of the world, to make an investment you rely heavily on predictability. Our president is the antithesis of predictable.
BT: Nike is down, Adidas is up, Under Armour is very down…Do you follow Portland's apparel industry like a horse race?
TB: I think Portland has serendipitously become an apparel and footwear magnet. I
I grew up here, that's why the company is here. It's the same for Nike, and Adidas attracted a couple of people from Nike who weren't going to move… It's good and it's bad. It's good that you can attract someone from wherever in the world and they know if it doesn't work out, they can find another company (here) and build a life and have a family. It's bad in that if you try and attract talent, others try and poach them. It happens.
I don't follow it like a horse race. It's a cyclical business, driven by the creative ability the companies bring to it. Certain creations are going to be important, but these changes are glacial more than overnight changes.
Creatives...it is difficult to describe what they do, even more difficult to have them do it. It's about harnessing that ethereal activity, and trying to get them to be more creative and commercial at the same time."
BT: Do you have to calculate the effect of speaking out about politics or civic issues?
TB: Well, I'm not running for office! I'm actually shocked when people have any interest in what I have to say. I'm just one voice. I wrote that message to my staff. I wanted to say, we're all immigrants. My father's family came from a potato farm in Ireland, my grandparents were Jewish and came here when Europe wasn't a great place to be Jewish.
You're sensitive to activities that would be any form of bigotry or anti-immigrant activities. If I see that, I have to say something to our employees. I didn't write it to be in the paper.
BT: Business owners have complained that President Trumps threats to put tariffs on Chinese steel make it hard to plan deals several years out.
TB: Well, apparel and footwear are the most heavily taxed imports in the country. We pay a 60 percent duty, and we're the 49th largest duty payer in the U.S. The rule originated in the Harding administration, to protect local produces from imports (such as Italian shoes) Now there effectively is no textile or footwear production in this country.
BT: Do you calculate the effect on the Columbia bottom line before you speak out?
TB: No. If someone doesn't want to buy a product because of what I say…I don't think there'd be much impact on the company. I don't think I am putting the company at risk for stating what tenets we find critical. We're international, we stand for fair dealings and fair trade, and if that's a problem…Even restrictions on trade, once they're established, we can deal with them. But we're operating a business with 7,000 employees globally, some live in the US, some are from or travel through countries that some people in the government find repugnant. I don't like that someone has to go from Portland abroad to help in on an installation and might not be allowed back into the country where their family is. This is what we have to deal with when we have someone with such a capricious view of the world.
BT: How do you get things done in Portland?
TB: I can't believe people even listen to me. If there's a topic I find interesting, I would call an elected official and give them my opinion. We're involved with business groups, but someone who is elected is charged with the responsibility of at least listening to me.
At work, with a multi brand company and multiple categories of merchandise, and sources, it's a complex business. I have great people who know how to hand me each part of the job and make sure everything is going in the same direction. If I have an opinion on a product it's usually wrong. Being good is being in the market. I tell them, 'This is one person's opinion, I'd do this a different way but you're the experts.
From the 2017 Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Address
In his lecture last Tuesday night, Boyle laid out his thoughts clearly, saying America-first gratuitously undoes economic structures that were put in place over decades and leaves a void that allows other countries to take the lead. In a reassessment of the biggest business buzz word of the last five years, he called this "purposeful threats of disruption."
"America cannot be first if American abandons our tradition of global leadership. Indeed, millions of Oregonians who depend on global engagement will find that so-called 'America-first' policies will lead to 'America-last' results."
He talked high duty his company already pays on importing its goods from where they are manufactured. The threat of a Border Adjustment tax had caused him to delay investing in facilities at home and abroad, and spend time and money on lobbying and trips to Washington D.C.
"When we wade into a swamp it's usually to test our products," he joked.
Answering questions from Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk, Boyle said he was a big fan of Mayor Wheeler. Boyle had met with Wheeler since writing his op-ed about his regrets about moving the Sorel brand office downtown, where staff are constantly confronted by homeless people.
He said we need more police, and that there were less on the beat than when Bud Clark was mayor. "I promised the mayor I would make the issue top of mind," he said about homelessness and the linked need to invest in the police force.
So far, he said he was still waiting for return phone calls from Commissioners Fritz and Eudaly.
He had visited the unused former county jail Wapato that day. Having seen its kitchens and medical center, he called it "exactly what you'd build" to shelter people experiencing homelessness.
Further abroad, "America as a brand has been so strong," he said, pointing out all the T shirts in English that reference America he sees around the world. "Because we have so much freedom, to speak and to practice whatever religion."
He added that Columbia is the leading outdoor brand in Russia, and that the people he meets there want to talk business rather than politics. "That shows business can transcend the craziness of politics."
China is beginning to look good.
"There's more certainty in doing business with China now" than in America.
Was he worried about a backlash against his product by fans of Donald Trump for speaking out?
"Our business in the south is supported by our fishing apparel. But I can't let business impact the proper response to what's going on in Washington," he said, to applause from the crowd.
*This story was amended to correct the downtown location in question. It was the Sorel offices, not the Columbia Sportswear flagship store, where homeless people were bothering staff.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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