Columbia Sportswear chairman Gert Boyle, who was best known for her “One Tough Mother” marketing persona, died Sunday at age 95.
Executives at the company confirmed her death, noting that plans for a celebration of Boyle’s life will be revealed at a later time. Boyle’s son Tim, Columbia’s chief executive officer, said via e-mail Sunday, “Gert was a force to be reckoned with and a true American immigrant success story. We need more Tough Mothers.”
Never one to hold back, the fiesty but pragmatic Boyle featured in the 1984 “One Tough Mother” ad campaign that depicted her overcoming seemingly insurmountable situations. The no-nonsense Boyle landed in the male-dominated outdoor industry not entirely by plan. During her tenure, what started as her parents’ hat company morphed into a multi-brand company with nearly $3 billion in sales last year. In addition to the Columbia brand, Columbia Sportswear Co. also owns the Mountain Hardwear, SOREL and prAna labels, which are sold in nearly 90 countries.
Like Nike cofounder Phil Knight, Boyle was instrumental in solidifying Portland as an epicenter for the athletic industry. With 1,820 employees, Columbia is the second-largest local employer in the apparel and footwear industry behind Nike, which employs 12,000 in Oregon. Leading their respective companies, each executive was competitive about gaining market share. In recent years, Boyle helped Knight and his wife Penny make good on a $1 billion fundraising challenge by donating $100 million to help accelerate cancer research at Oregon Health and Science University.
Knight said via e-mail Monday, “Gert Boyle was one of a kind. She raised a family, saved a company, and then built it into a global brand. I had tremendous respect for her leadership and will forever appreciate her generous support of OHSU’s cancer research.”
Boyle’s resilience was engrained in her character at a young age. When she was 13 years old, she and her family fled Nazi Germany and moved to Portland, Ore. Her parents, Paul and Marie Lamfrom, started the Columbia Hat Company in 1938. After studying at the University of Arizona, she and her husband, Neal Boyle, returned to Oregon and joined the family business. After the death of her father in the early Sixties, her husband became president. Six years later, Neal Boyle died of a heart attack and Gert Boyle stepped up to take over the lead role at Columbia at the age of 47 in 1970. That was two years before the passage of both the Equal Rights Amendent and Title IX, the federal law that prohibited sexual discrimination in federally-funded education programs or sports.
The company touted Boyle’s multi-talented career, noting her roles as seamstress of the first fishing vest, president and advertising icon. Her tenacity and no-BS way of doing business helped to make the company the juggernaut that it is today. When she took over the top post, Columbia was a financially struggling company. At that time, her son Tim, who was still a college student, helped to run the business. A year later, bankers advised the pair to sell Columbia. But they declined the $1,400 offer.
For nearly 50 years, Boyle was unabashed about being the resounding voice of reason at the company. Boyle never tired of the office life, still trekking into Columbia’s headquarters on a daily basis. “I come in early and verbally abuse as many people as I can find.” Boyle reportedly once said.
In an interview with WWD a few years ago, Boyle said at that time that she had no plans to retire. “My birthday is in March so I’m sort of halfway from here to there. I’m absolutely still working. That’s where you got me. I am sitting here at my desk. I’m here every day. You know, it’s much better than staying home with a bunch of old people,” Boyle said.
When Zac Efron and his brother Dylan pitched in with a Columbia social media campaign, Boyle said of the “Baywatch” star, “He’s actually from California. From what I understand, he was born there. You know there’s actually a big gap between his age and mine so I didn’t really know too terribly much about him until he started to work here.”
Boyle’s tell-it-to-‘em-straight way of handling business may sound slightly reckless to the highly scripted ways that some ceo’s prefer to operate today. Boyle was so taken with the “One Tough Mother” slogan that she used it as the title of her 2009 biography, “One Tough Mother: Success, Life, Business and Apple Pies,” which featured a cover photo of a blasé-looking Boyle flexing her right bicep with a “BORN to NAG” temporary tattoo. She lived up to the moniker time and time again, including in 2010 when she outsmarted a would-be kidnapper in her Oregon home.
In the interview with WWD, Boyle was asked if she still ran the show. “I’d like to think I did, but there are a lot of people here who think they do. But you know how it goes. The thing is, if you yell loud enough, they’ll finally hear you,” she said.
At that time, Boyle was also loud and clear about encouraging others to keep on working. “Absolutely — you just wait until you get to be 93 and someone says, ‘Hey, you know you’ve done this stuff and you have all this knowledge and we don’t need you anymore.’ Well, that’s a bunch of hogwash. You can learn something from everybody. And besides that, I have the advantage of part ownership.”
Boyle’s philanthropy was vast, as evidenced by the $100 million donation that she made in 2014 to benefit the Oregon Health & Science University’s cancer research. Boyle initially made the donation anonymously and it wasn’t until local media unearthed her generosity that it became public. Her contribution went even further since it was earmarked for the Knight Cancer Challenge, an initiative started by Nike cofounder Phil Knight and his wife that pledged a $500 million matching donation if $500 million was raised. The 320,000-square-foot Knight Cancer Research Building now houses some of the world’s leading cancer researchers.
While many C-suite executives would like nothing better than to have their philanthropy publicized, Boyle was of another ilk. Speaking of the Portland, Ore.-based Willamette Week’s sleuthing that revealed she was the donor, Boyle told WWD in 2014, “They couldn’t spell ‘anonymous’ so they found out my name. They are snoopers and they’re good at it.”
As a sign of thanks for Gert Boyle’s generosity, KCI director Brian Druker, M.D. asked to name a building in her honor, but she said she declined. “If I’m going to have my name on any cement, I’ll probably be under it,” Boyle said, adding that she made a different request. Instead, one of OHSU’s buildings will be named after her sister Hildegard Lamfrom, a notable molecular biologist, who died in 1984. Lamfrom worked with some of the biggest names in science including Linus Pauling, Richard Feynman, James Watson, Francis Crick and six of their fellow Nobel laureates.
Boyle said she hoped her efforts will motivate others. “I sort of think that some of these guys should step up to the plate. If a little old lady can, they can too,” she said. “The only advantage to being 90 years old is you can say what you want to. People just think, ‘Oh, she’s old — she doesn’t know any better.’”
Boyle, of course, most certainly did. In addition to her normal work routine, just this fall she co-produced the off-Broadway play “Good Morning Miss America” by Phyllis Yes.
Columbia’s former director of public relations John Fread traveled the world with Boyle, but it was a trip to New York City that they laughed about for years. In search of a cab late one afternoon when taxi drivers are switching shifts, Boyle bailed at the suggestion of the subway, which would ensure that she would arrive at the dinner in her honor on time. Fread recalled Sunday, “So she stepped out right in front of a cab. The cabbie said ‘No way’ to a trip uptown. She pulled me into it any way and promptly asked him if he would ever throw his grandmother out onto the street. It was the fastest ride uptown ever, complete with our heads hitting the ceiling every time the driver flew over potholes and bumps on Ninth Avenue.”
Fread recalled how Boyle wanted to celebrate her birthday a couple of years ago with lunch and a movie. The risqué “Fifty Shades of Grey” was her choice, Fread said. “I was mortified, but she said to relax because she’d be incognito. When I picked her up at home, she came out to the car wearing a neon pink Columbia jacket, matching track suit, pink sneakers and a baseball hat with rhinestone embellishments. We slipped into the theater with a few stares. As the movie started, she leaned over and said, ‘Hey, if I die during the movie, please drag me out to the lobby so nobody will know which movie I was seeing.’”
Fread added, “I will miss her laughter and zest for life. The two combined were her true fountain of youth.”
In lieu of flowers, wellwishers were asked to consider support for the Oregon Health and Sciences Knight Cancer Institute. As for the plans for a celebration of Boyle’s life, a company statement noted, “There is much to be celebrated.”