Commentary

Gert Boyle, 'One Tough Mother' Who Led Columbia Sportswear, Dies At 95

Gert Boyle, who fled Nazi Germany with her family when she was 13 and turned  Columbia Sportswear Company into a thriving enterprise with ads that featured her as “one tough mother” after her husband died in 1970, passed away yesterday at 95.

“Her sharp wit and wisdom helped propel the company from near bankruptcy in the early ’70s to the global multi-brand company it is today, with annual net sales of almost $3 billion in 2018. Her pioneering role as a woman in what was then a male-dominated industry is a testament to her strength of character and ability to persevere through difficult situations,” the Portland, Oregon-based company states in the release announcing her death.

Boyle’s father, Paul Lamfrom, founded  Columbia Hat Co. in 1938; her husband, Neal Boyle, took over the renamed enterprise in 1964. 

“When he died, the business took many calls wondering if Columbia would close and the bank urged her to sell the company,” the AP reports. But Boyle, who was a 46-year-old housewife and mother of three with no real business experience, took the reins and “helped build the struggling company into a national brand and retailer.”

“At the time, bankers pressured Boyle to sell the company. But when she was only offered $1,400 for it, Boyle declined,” Clare Duffy writes for CNN Business.

“In my old age I had learned a few words,” Boyle said of the experience in 2003, Duffy relates. “I used every one of them on him. I said, 'See that door? For $1,400 I'm going to run the frickin' thing into the ground myself!’ That was the nice word. That's not really what I said. So he left.”

“Instead, Boyle kept Columbia and led it to become a leader in the outdoor footwear and apparel industry globally alongside her son and current CEO Tim Boyle," Duffy adds.

“Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise,” Boyle would often say.

In 1984, Borders Perrin Norrander, Columbia’s ad agency at the time, introduced an ad campaign featuring Boyle and her son, Tim, that lasted 24 years.

"In the ads, Ms. Boyle subjects her son to torture tests for products, in one spot shooting him in the neck with a dart gun while he leads a sales meeting, then piloting a helicopter to leave him on a mountain peak unconscious and wearing a Columbia jacket. In another, she straps him to the roof of a truck and speeds along mountain roads in severe weather, and in yet another sends him, standing unsteadily, through an automatic car wash,” Andrew Adam Newman recalled in a 2011 piece for The New York Times when Columbia was introducing a new campaign featuring Wim Hof as an “antispokesman” who is impervious to cold.

When the “tough mother” campaign was revived in 2015, the then 91-year-old Boyle cracked, “It was time for us to insert some sexiness back into our advertising,” Tanya Basu writes for Time.

"The iconic ads haven’t been on-air in a decade but the sportswear company is hoping to offer consumers a splash of nostalgia and take a bite of the current trend of hip senior ladies on the air -- Joan Didion appeared  earlier this year for Celine, and Iris Apfel worked with Kate Spade  and Alexis Bittar,” Basu adds.

“A resilient, demanding, charismatic woman in what was long an outdoorsman’s world, Boyle ran Columbia Sportswear from 1970 to 1988, firmly establishing the company’s brand,” writes  Steve Duin for The Oregonian/OregonLive.

“Boyle added to the legend at 87 when she foiled a dramatic 2010 invasion of her West Linn, [Oregon] home. When a bush-league kidnapper followed Boyle into her garage with a copy of her book and an impressive replica handgun, demanding money, Boyle had the presence of mind to insist she first needed to disable her home-security system,” Duin continues.

“Instead, she pressed the silent panic button, summoning police. Boyle ended up with bruises and a bloody lip, but when West Linn’s police chief swung by to ask how she was faring, Boyle said, ‘Everything was okay until you came in with that North Face jacket.’”

“You’re not going to get what you want in this world unless you tell somebody that that’s what you want,” Boyle tells  Jeff Sengstack of Portland’s KGW News’ in a 1988 interview that was part of a series about entrepreneurial women. “And, you know, if you come across as tough, then that’s just the way it is.”

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