Columbia Sportswear chairwoman Gert Boyle, in her own words
Tributes have been flowing in for Gert Boyle, longtime chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear, who died Sunday, Nov. 3, at age 95.
For all her other roles — mother, grandmother, 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 chief executive officer.
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 attempted kidnapping Boyle thwarted at her West Linn home in 2010 made national news.
Approached by the thief as she was entering her home, Boyle was forced inside, threatened with a gun and eventually tied up. Quick-witted Boyle told the perpetrator she needed to disable the home alarm system but instead triggered a silent alert that summoned police. The criminal jumped off a second-story deck to flee police, and was later apprehended, leaving Boyle shaken — but calm enough to quip to a West Linn officer that the worst part of the episode was when another officer entered her home wearing a jacket made by a competing sportswear company.
Boyle later moved to an assisted living community in Portland, where she lived up until her death. She is survived by her son, Tim, and daughters Sally and Kathy, as well as five grandchildren.
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," she added. "Columbia began moving in the right direction when (Tim) and I started listening to the wisdom and experience of people who knew more than we did. We still do."
Boyle's father, Paul Lamfrom, started what would become Columbia Sportswear after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The shop originally sold hats, but it began to branch out in the 1950s and '60s, changing its name from the Columbia Hat Co. to Columbia Sportswear. Boyle's husband, Joseph Cornelius "Neal" Boyle, took over the business in 1964.
The Boyles moved to West Linn in the early 1950s, during a time when Neal Boyle was chief executive officer of the sportswear company and Gert Boyle 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."
During his time with the company, Neal Boyle diversified Lamfrom's hat business into outerwear for fishermen and other outdoorsmen, which Gert Boyle wrote showed her husband's ability to listen to customers' needs. Gert Boyle sewed the company's first fishing vest.
It was her husband's untimely death in 1970 that catapulted Gert Boyle into a business career that few women could surpass.
"Our lives were upended," said Tim Boyle, her son.
Gert and Tim Boyle had no real business experience after Neal Boyle's death, and they struggled for years to learn the ropes and build the company. Eventually, though, they seized on a business philosophy that guides Columbia Sportswear to this day.
"Give them what they want," wrote Gert Boyle in her autobiography, years later. "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 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.
Bart Eberwein, executive vice president at Hoffman Construction Co., which built OHSU's Center for Health & Healing in 2006, 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 recalled in an email. "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."
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," he noted. "She recognized she had a pulpit and she used it."
As for running a company with his mother and letting her abuse him in comical company ads, Tim Boyle said it was "all for the good of the order."
He explained, "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."
Boyle said he expects his mother will still be present in Columbia's branding.
"She's so iconic," he said. "She'll always be closely connected, regardless."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with more quotes and details on Gert Boyle's life and career, as well as to correct an erroneous date reference. The kidnapping attempt was in 2010. Jim Redden contributed to this report.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)