The Incredible Story of Gert Boyle and Columbia Sportswear


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entrepreneur-gert-boyle

In 1972, Gert Boyle’s bankers came to see her. They told her the business was failing and she needed to find a buyer for it. She found an investor that was willing to buy the business for $1,400. She kicked the investor out of her office and yelled:

“I can run the shop into the ground myself for that money!”

A crazy thing happened. She succeeded.

Gert Boyle is now 94 years old and still Chairman of Columbia Sportswear, a $6 billion market cap outdoor apparel brand. She has been at the helm for over 40 years. The company had sales of $2.44 billion in 2017 and the stock made an all-time high. Her son Tim Boyle is the CEO. Gert and Tim own 48% of the company.

Gertrude Lamfrom was born in Augsburg, in southern Germany some 40 miles from Munich, in 1924. She was the middle sister of three, and her father Paul owned the largest shirt, sock, and underwear factory in the country. Her family lived the Bavarian good life, complete with maids.

The Lamfrom family was Jewish, and by the mid-1930s it was clear that the wind had begun to blow very chillingly the wrong way. Events in Nazi Germany soon went from very bad to even worse, and in 1937 Gert’s father decided to emigrate to America. His daughter Gertrude wouldn’t return to her homeland for sixty years.

“We were fortunate to be able to get out,” she says now. “We had to leave all our money behind. But we were allowed to bring goods with us, so my parents took my sisters and me to a shoe store and bought each of us 20 pairs of shoes, in different sizes!"

Her father worked for his cousin in Portland, OR to figure out how to do business in America. In 1938, he bought a wholesale hat company and changed the name to Columbia Hat Company after the Columbia River.

At 13 years old Gert couldn’t speak English, so she started in the first grade. She quickly learned the language and in two weeks was moved up to 7th grade. After Gert graduated High School she went to college at the University of Arizona, where she met her future husband Neal. They met “under the table at a frat party”.

After college Neal went to work for Gert’s father as a salesman. They didn’t have any money. To save money she cut the collars from her husband’s worn shirts, turned them around and sewed them on again. A year after they were married, Tim Boyle was born, and then they had two daughters, Kathy and Sally.

Having grown up around the clothing business, Gert had always had an interest in sewing. In 1955, Gert used her talents to make Columbia’s first fishing vest. Fisherman would give her input and she would add a pocket here and there. The vests sold and the business grew.

Gert’s father died in the early 1960’s, so Gert and Neal took over for her father and ran the small business which generated $800,000 in sales by 1970. That same year, Gert and Neal took out an SBA loan for $150,000 to expand the business. The loan was backed by all of the family’s assets including their house, Neil’s life insurance, and Gert’s mother’s house.

Three months later, the unthinkable happens.

“My chest hurts,” he says on this early December morning, 1970, and Gert can see there is something very wrong. She calls the doctor, then tells Neal “we’re going to the hospital.” She and Sally help him into the car. Gert jumps into the driver’s seat, and before they’ve gone five blocks it becomes clear to her that they aren’t going to make it. She turns for the neighborhood fire station, where there is a resuscitator. They race there, the firemen do their best, but it is too late.

Neal dies in the firehouse parking lot.

Gert was devastated. Neal always handled the business side of things. Gert’s mother worked at the company and so did her son Tim. By 1972, sales dropped from $800,000 to $600,000. The bank wasn’t going to lend her any more money, in fact they pushed her to sell the business. This is when the investor in the beginning of this article came to visit. In 1973, Columbia Sportswear had a negative net worth of -$300,000, but Gert was determined to make Columbia Sportswear a success.

Gert and her son Tim Boyle refocused the company on outdoor clothing and casual wear which was part of the trend away from formal work attire… They also stopped private labeling, and started working with large suppliers. They cut costs by getting rid of anyone that didn’t know how to work a sewing machine.

Gert would receive many phone calls like this:

“Hello, I’d like to speak to the president of the company.”
“Speaking.”
“But you’re a woman.”
“You know, I woke up this morning and noticed that.”

Gert and Tim continued to work hard taking turns running the night shift and basically living at the factory. By the late 1970’s the business was profitable again.

Then in 1982, they finally caught lightning in a bottle. They developed a hunting coat called the Quad Parka, a two in one camouflage jacket with a zip out inner liner for warmth. They then made a similar product for the Ski Industry. It was the product that put Columbia Sportwear on the map.

“When a business goes big,” Gert says, “I think it’s 85 percent hard work and 15 percent luck.”

The Quad parka was the hard work. The luck came when they hired a new ad agency (“a cheap one” Boyle says) that developed the now famous “Ma Boyle” ad campaign. Gert cast as the merciless, demanding mother requiring ultimate toughness from her products and unquestioning loyalty from her son; Tim cast as faithful lackey and long-suffering product-test dummy.

In 1987, Columbia had sales of $18.8 million. Gert stepped down as President in 1988, and her son Tim took over. By 1997 sales grew to $353 million, and the company went public in 1998. Columbia Sportswear (COLM) has done well for shareholders, rising over 1,000% since its IPO. Gert’s son Tim Boyle is now a billionaire.

When asked for her philosophy of life, Gert says “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.” When asked why she doesn’t have a private jet for her constant travels, Gert says “Who needs a jet? I’ve got a broom.” When asked why she doesn’t cook, she says “I did my share, I’m done.” When asked why she never re-married, she says “No one ever asked me again.”

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Sources:

How I Did It: Gert Boyle, chairman, Columbia Sportswear

About Columbia Sportswear

Inventing Ma


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