Gert Boyle, iconic Columbia chairwoman, dies at 95
The outdoor industry has lost "one tough mother." Gert Boyle has died at the age of 95. Daughter of Columbia's founder, the German-born American became the iconic figurehead of the brand, as well as of the whole outdoor sports sector. After a brush with bankruptcy at the beginning of the 70s, the executive got the company back on its feet, ultimately transforming it into a group of four brands (Columbia, Mountain Hardwear, PrAna and Sorel) that is now known throughout the world and which reported sales of close to $3 billion in 2018. And the company still has plenty of potential for growth: in the quarter ended September 30, 2019, its sales rose 14% to $906.8 million.
Boyle first became a household name in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s. At this time, the executive starred in a series of adverts for Columbia and quickly made an impression with her straight-talking attitude. The brand reworked the campaign in 2015 with an ad showing Boyle put her son, Columbia's CEO, and the brand's products to the test in a variety of extreme situations. But this formidable lady's personality wasn't just a marketing tool.
In 1937, at the age of 14, Gertrude Lamfrom and her family left Nazi Germany, the country where she had been born and where her parents owned a shirt factory. Her father decided to cross the Atlantic and settled in Portland, Oregon. In 1938 he acquired a hat factory on the banks of the Columbia river, a location which gave his company its new name: Columbia Hat Co. The family business diversified, notably expanding into fishing apparel. Following the elder Lamfrom's retirement, the company was taken over by Gert's husband, Neil Boyle, whom she met when she was studying at the University of Arizona. At the time, Gert Boyle was a housewife and dedicated her time to raising her three children.
"Neal never talked about Columbia's financing until we took on a $150,000 SBA loan. It was no big deal, just going to the bank. We'll borrow that money, it's not the end of the world – but it was," she recalled in an interview with Inc.com in 2006. "As collateral, Neal had a $50,000 life insurance policy, we had a house, we had a beach house, then we pledged my mother's house. [...] Three months after we took out the loan, Neal died. Nobody thinks they're gonna die at 47. And how am I gonna say to my mother, 'You know that house you've lived in for 40 years? Sorry.' I had this SBA loan, so I had to work."
This is how Gert came to take over the business. "It was 1970. The business was terrible. We had sales of $800,000 a year – and after my first year, we had $600,000 in sales. We were making every mistake in the world," she explained. The executive also had to deal with disgruntled employees and, following some initial trials and tribulations, learned to lead the company with a (much) firmer hand. Ultimately, she faced down both union strikes and the company's financial issues. "Around 1972, the bankers said, you've gotta sell it, Gert. So I found this gentleman – I'm using the term very loosely. He said, okay, I'll buy the company. But I don't want the building, I don't want the whole inventory. It didn't take me but a few minutes to figure out I was gonna make about $1,400, and I still had the debt. So I told the gentleman where to put it and where to take it," she recounted.
This straight-talking, no-nonsense character would become her trademark approach to business. She began by refocusing the business' operations on outdoor apparel. Later, following a series of strikes, during which she more than proved her mettle, she decided to take the company's manufacturing overseas in the early 80s. In 1988, she passed responsibility for Columbia's operational management to her son, but continued to play an active role at the company.
In an industry that is, to this day, dominated by male executives, Boyle was able to make herself both heard and respected, turning her image as a woman to be reckoned with to her advantage. Having had a hand in all the decisions being made at Columbia, she knew the business from the ground up.
Even when the group went public in 1998 and acquired Mountain Hardwear and Sorel in the 2000s, the executive was still chairwoman of the board and continued to accompany the company's day-to-day running. "You know what I'd have to do otherwise? Stay home and do housework. That's not my bag," she said. In this way, over almost 50 years, Gert Boyle was able to use her fighting spirit and her dedication to create one of the outdoor sector's biggest names.
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