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 business woman 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 heaquarters 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 originally sold hats, and Boyle's husband Joseph Cornelius "Neal" Boyle took over the business in 19644, 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 customres.
"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."
Bart Eberwein, Executive Vice President at Hoffman Construction Company, 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 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 7th 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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