Columbia Sportswear chairwoman Gert Boyle, in her own words
Tributes have been flowing in for Gert Boyle, long time chairman of Columbia Sportswear, who died Sunday, Nov. 3 at age 95.
For all her other roles — mother, daughter, friend — she remained a businesswoman well into her retirement years, continuing her work for Columbia from an apartment in the Mirabella on Portland's South Waterfront.
Boyle took over the financially struggling company after her husband's death in 1970 and ran the business with her son, Tim Boyle, who serves as CEO. Columbia, which has its world headquarters in Cedar Mill on Northwest Science Park Drive, has grown into a global sports apparel company, with more than $1 billion in sales each year. Boyle, herself, became an icon for many after a series of commercials for the company solidified her "tough gal" persona in the eyes of many Americans. A real-life burglary and attempted kidnapping Boyle thwarted in 2011 made national news.
In her 2005 autobiography, "One Tough Mother: Taking Charge in Life, Business, and Apple Pies," Boyle said It was difficult being the boss while juggling her duties as a mother, daughter and friend, but no challenge was insurmountable. She said her clothing company succeeded where others failed, simply because she refused to give up.
"There were countless times Tim and I were told that we needed to sell Columbia," she wrote. "Thank heavens that the one time we listened to their advice, the man buying the company turned out to be such a jerk that I eventually told him where he could go."
Boyle's autobiography included a lot about her philosophies when it came to running a business. Downsizing is OK, Boyle wrote, but only if it is strategic and you intend to come back bigger.
"Just because you can't give up doesn't mean you can't make a strategic retreat," she said. "There's a difference between throwing in the towel and turning the towel into a washcloth."
"Self-examination is better than self-defense ... Columbia began moving in the right direction when (Boyle's son Tim Boyle) and I started listening to the wisdom and experience of people who knew more than we did. We still do."
Boyle's father started what would become Columbia Sportswear after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The shop initially sold hats, and Boyle's husband Joseph Cornelius "Neal" Boyle took over the business in 1964, eventually changing the name. During his time with the company, Neal Boyle diversified her father's hat business into outerwear for fishermen and other outdoorsmen, which Gert Boyle wrote showed her husband's ability to listen to customers' needs. Boyle sewed the company's first fishing vest, which it sold in the 1960s.
"Give them what they want," wrote Boyle, who took over as president following Neal Boyle's death in 1970. "There might not be a Columbia Sportswear if Neal hadn't listened to our customers who demanded a better fishing vest."
But that passion should be tempered by practicality, Boyle wrote. Businesses should focus on what makes them unique.
"One of the best pieces of advice Tim and I received from our informal board of advisors was that Columbia made too many products that our competitors made just as well, and we should focus on the ones that were unique to us," she wrote.
For years, Boyle personally signed off on company expense accounts.
"Don't spend money you don't have, and be careful in spending the money you do," she said. "Walk before you run" and never allow growth to diminish the quality of your products.
Above all, she wrote, a business owner should be true to themselves and to their customers.
"Always tell the truth and you won't have to bother remembering the lies you told," she wrote. "Besides telling people who have never met me that I am really tall, thin and blonde, I can't recall ever lying in the course of business."
"Do your best every day, and if you don't do your best one day, do better tomorrow."
Boyle and her family — husband Neal, son Tim and daughters Sally and Kathy — moved to West Linn in the early 1950s, during a time when Neal was CEO of the sportswear company started by Gert's parents and she was a housewife.
"She was like June Cleaver," said Gert's son Tim Boyle, when asked what might surprise people about his mother. Many of his childhood buddies from West Linn have reached out to him since his mother's passing, he said.
"She was an amazing lady," recalls Kitzie Randall, a family friend since befriending Boyle's daughter Kathy in college. "She had a great sense of humor but you didn't want to cross her — and never wanted to forget your thank you notes."
It was Neal's untimely death in 1970 that catapulted Boyle into a business career that few women could surpass. "Our lives were upended," said Tim.
Although her parents had started the company that evolved into Columbia, Boyle had no business experience and she and Tim struggled for years to learn the ropes and build the company.
Tim Boyle describes his mother's story as the ultimate "immigrant's story," due to her Jewish family's flight from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and struggle to start a hat-making business in Portland after coming to the U.S.
Eventually Gert Boyle would become the face of the company, appearing in advertisements as the "one tough mother" (also the name of her 2005 autobiography) behind Columbia. Regarding Columbia's memorable advertisements featuring Gert and her son, then CEO of the company, Tim Boyle said his mother did have to be talked into a few of the ones she was less sure about but mostly she understood the point of the concept behind the ads. "There were very few women in business then. She recognized she had a pulpit and she used it."
As for running a company with your mother and letting her abuse you in comical company ads, Tim says it was "all for the good of the order. We both determined where our strengths were, separate from each other, and that made it easy to have a great relationship, both at work and as a family."
Tim said he expects his mother will still be present in Columbia's branding. "She's so iconic; she'll always be closely connected, regardless."
Boyle was showered with awards over the years, topping it off with induction into the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame, Global Business Hall of Fame and the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. She is also survived by five grandchildren.
Bart Eberwein, Executive Vice President at Hoffman Construction Company, which built OHSU's Center for Health & Healing South and North, knew Boyle from her involvement as a funder of the project. Eberwein said Boyle would use her sense of humor in business and when facing serious life events.
"As a cancer patient ... being treated at OHSU, I remember her humor and her humanity," Eberwein wrote in an email to Pamplin Media Group. "She stepped up big-time to the Knight Challenge around the time I was getting chemo-then-radiation treatments and the world seemed dark and cruel. My wife, Jill, and I walked down from Infusion on the seventh floor to some outdoor OHSU benefit where they were recognizing her gift. The tough-mother took on Jill as a goof. Something about that moment — Gert taking the world's problems seriously, but not so much herself — that stuck with me. Looking back, I remember it as giving me some pep in my step, something to hold on to, which I guess I have done."
Focusing on Boyle's business acumen, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden tweeted Sunday that Boyle was "one tough mother and one incredibly impressive and generous Oregonian who blazed major trails for our state's apparel industry and for businesswomen throughout our country."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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