NEW YORK — Gertrude “Gert” Boyle was an immigrant, a mother and, unexpectedly, a widow, and it was then that she faced her biggest test.
Thirty-five years later, the company she took over from her husband, Columbia Sportswear, has more than $1 billion in sales and is one of the world’s largest outdoor apparel companies. Boyle, 81, writes in her new autobiography “One Tough Mother” (West Winds Press, $19.95) that she was an untested businesswoman in an industry — then and now — dominated by men.
Boyle was in Manhattan from her hometown of Portland, Ore., last week to promote the book at BookExpo America and spoke with WWD about her unlikely rise to the top of the outdoor apparel and gear company.
“The nice thing about being an older person is that people allow you to speak your mind,” Boyle, who is known for her feistiness and humor, said during an interview at Columbia’s showroom at 485 Seventh Avenue here. “They let you get away with a lot more.”
The company, which went public in 1998, posted earnings last year of $138.6 million, and has licenses for products such as watches, socks, eyewear and most recently, bicycles. It also has made strategic acquisitions, including Sorel and Mountain Hardware, to expand its product offerings and broaden its portfolio.
In the book, Boyle recounts her early life and the circumstances that led to her leadership of the company. She also offers tips for running a successful business and home life, and even throws in her recipe for apple pie. “This book is just like me — short and to the point,” she writes in chapter one.
Boyle has been a pioneer in more ways than one. A a native of Augsburg, Germany, she left with her sisters and parents in 1937 to escape the Nazi purge of Jewish life. The family settled in Portland, where her father’s brother lived. Her father, who had owned a shirt factory in Germany, bought a hat store that turned to manufacturing outerwear and other products — eventually becoming Columbia Sportswear.
In the Forties, Boyle married her college sweetheart, Neal, whom she met while they were at the University of Arizona. In the book, she explained that the couple returned to Portland, and Neal began working in the business with Boyle’s father. After Neal’s death from a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 47, Boyle, who had been a homemaker and stay-at-home mother of a son and two daughters, took over the business with virtually no experience.
Some of her lessons were learned fast. For example, she had decided to sell Columbia soon after Neal’s death, but after carefully reviewing the contract realized the buyer was offering her well below what the company was worth, and that she would only make a total of $1,400 from the sale.
As she recounts in the book: “‘For $1,400, I would just as soon run this business into the ground myself!’ I yelled, before pointing to the door and telling him to leave.”
Boyle writes about her early days at the helm of Columbia. “It didn’t take me long to realize that my challenge was made more imposing by the fact that I was a woman in an industry dominated almost totally by male executives. Several bankers suggested that in order for Columbia to survive, I needed to put a man in charge. I had paid little attention to the women’s lib movement when I was a full-time housewife and mother, and while I wasn’t quite ready to burn my bra (which would have created a three-alarm fire), I did believe that an individual should be judged by their ability rather than gender.”
Under her direction as chief executive officer in the Seventies and Eighties, the company evolved from a small garment retail manufacturer to an outdoor apparel giant with global operations. The book recounts the ups and downs of what it was like to obtain financing and set up manufacturing in Asia, as well as the dynamics of working with her son Tim, who is president and chief executive officer.
Boyle, who at the interview was dressed stylishly in a brown top and pants from Chico’s and a yellow blazer, large gold earrings and a beaded African necklace, no longer oversees the day-to-day direction of the company. Nonetheless, she still drives herself to work every day and travels extensively on behalf of the company. In coming months, she has business trips planned to Geneva to see Columbia’s new offices there, and also to Shanghai.
“I really don’t want to retire,” she said. “What would I do with myself? I don’t like to clean that much. I don’t like to cook. I would have to spend time with other little old ladies.”
While many companies are family run, few are operated in the way Columbia is, with a mother as the chairman, and her son as ceo.
“When a man works with his son, people say; ‘Oh, how wonderful, how great,” Boyle said with a laugh. “But when a man works with his mother, everyone says ‘How can you stand it?’ The way we do it is that we let each other do our own thing. His office is at the other end of the hall and I really don’t know what he does all day.”
The relationship between Gert Boyle and Tim has gotten attention because of the company’s humorous advertisements, which portray her as a tough mother who won’t stand for lesser quality. This campaign, which started in 1984, is still going, and has been a big reason for the company’s success, Boyle said.
While the ads portray her as a hard-nosed mother, Boyle said she is not as tough as she is in her ads.
“What you are like at home, and what you are like at the office should be different,” Boyle said. “I am a nice grandmother. I spoil them. At the office, I am tough when I have to be. I am a penny pincher and I am careful about how we spend our money.”
Boyle said all the proceeds from her book will go to the Special Olympics and CASA, an advocate organization for abused children. The book was written with Kerry Tymchuk.
While she has no plans to fully retire, Boyle has interesting ideas for her future which are laid out in the book.
“When my time comes, I might just keep coming to work,” she writes. “Tim has long said that when I go, he’s going to have me stuffed and permanently placed in the entryway of our headquarters. That suits me just fine — as long as I’m dressed head to toe in Columbia products … Many of my friends urge me to take it easier, and to spend more time taking it easy. That’s just not the way I am wired.”