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Homemaker to $1 billion CEO: Columbia Sportswear's Gert Boyle: 'One Tough Mother'.

What choices do you have when your spouse dies, the loan that finances your family business is secured by your home and your mother's home and your only management experience is heading a household with three children?


In Gert Boyle's case, the choice was clear as she summoned all her strengths and skills to prove to her suppliers, customers, employees and herself that she could run Columbia Sportswear Company.

It was a turbulent flight from homemaker to company chairman, a title she prefers over chairwoman. But Boyle, now 84, ultimately managed to build Columbia Sportswear into a $1 billion company and leader in skiwear sales.

Boyle learned early in life that the only way out of despair was to work hard and move forward. A Jewish refugee who fled Germany with her family in 1937, she grew up mindful of hard times and grateful for her parents' sacrifices to save the family. Her father, Paul Lamfrom, owned a shirt factory, which he abandoned when he brought his family to safety in the United States. The Lamfroms had two large containers of belongings and $20 for the voyage. Gert was just 13.

Upon settling in Portland, Ore., the Lamfroms got a loan and bought a small hat shop, which eventually grew into Columbia Sportswear Company. As a teen, Gert worked picking beans and strawberries. Through it all, she remembers how her parents never complained.

When her husband died in December 1970, Gert Boyle wasn't going to complain, either, as she acted to save her family's company. Three days after husband Neal's fatal heart attack, the widow and her 21-year-old son, Tim, were back at work. There was no time for grieving; Columbia Sportswear Company had a high debt load that couldn't sustain a temporary shutdown. Gert wasn't about to let her father's company crumble. "His work ethic would be the one that inspired me when I took the helm of Columbia Sportswear," she says, "and it's the one that still guides me to work, each day."

Boyle followed her father's advice to "devote myself to the future rather than looking back at the past." Gert and Tim gathered all 40 employees on the factory floor to let them know they would still have jobs, nothing was changing except new leadership and the duo needed each employee's help.

After completing her speech, Boyle thought the factory would be magically abuzz with the sounds of sewing machines stitching and paperwork being filed. But everyone turned toward her for directions because that had been her husband's management style--to give instructions to workers each day. "If ignorance was bliss, then Tim and I were the most blissful people on Earth those first few weeks," she says. "We had absolutely no clue what was going on."

Some employees came to the mother-and-son team's aid, giving suggestions about how day-today operations were normally handled. Others tried to profit from their inexperience and tragic predicament. One of Columbia Sportswear's bookkeepers offered to take charge of the year-end inventory--if she were given a 40 percent raise. Boyle gave her bookkeeper the extra cash, but fired the slick employee within a few months. If Columbia were going to stay afloat, disloyal employees would have to be thrown overboard.

Trust was an issue at all levels of Columbia's recovery. Suppliers had to trust that Columbia Sportswear would be able to pay its bills. Some suppliers cut credit lines, resulting in a reduction in sellable inventory. By the end of 1971, sales were down to $600,000 from $800,000 the previous year. Without a foreseeable way to return the company to profitable status, the Boyles faced selling.

After turning down an abysmal offer to buy a portion of the company assets for $1,400, the Boyles had to seek help to figure out what they were doing wrong. They created a volunteer advisory board of businessmen they respected. One was recommended by their banker, while others had known and respected Neal and volunteered to help the widow and son. The Boyles trusted the advisory board's suggestions to cut down on the number of different products produced and create apparel for wholesale to other outdoor wear companies.

Production improved so much that a double shift was added. Mother and son pitched in to lead by example, working even with the night crew. "I think that if you see the person who is at the head of the company come to work every day and work along with everyone else and setting an example, they feel more inspired," she says.


Columbia gradually developed new products, such as the Bugaboo multilayer jacket for skiers that could be adapted based on the weather. Named by Tim Boyle after the Bugaboos mountains in British Columbia, the jacket remains a top seller. The company also relied on a mass-market strategy that allowed for inexpensive pricing.

Gert Boyle dusted off her sociology degree and relied on her instincts to adapt product lines to changing lifestyles. When workplace attire became more casual, Columbia created clothing that could be worn at work or play. She also heeded customers' input in deciding to star in a series of ads--now running for more than two decades--with her playing the "tough mother" who demands quality in Columbia's products.

The former homemaker honed her skills, instincts and confidence. She sharpened her opinions, too. In the foreword to her book, One Tough Mother, the late U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield wrote. Whenever I wanted to know how a vote I cast or a statement I made was playing in Oregon, all I had to do was ask Gert."

But her success was a family project. Without the lesson of hard work taught by her parents she says, "I would probably be at home in a rocking chair." Tim's insight was invaluable because, "The type of business we are in requires input from those who are younger," she says. Her daughters, Kathy and Sally, chipped in by running the outlet stores in Central Oregon and retail operations respectively, before leaving the family business for pursuits including real estate, the arts, motherhood and founding Moonstruck Chocolate Company.

Nearly 38 years after her husband's death, Gert Boyle has yet to remarry or retire. She's invigorated by being around younger people, she says, and besides, "My coming to work every day sends a message that folks in their golden years can still make a contribution."


Gert Boyle's Tips

* "You never get yesterday back. So do better tomorrow and trust your instincts."

* "Self-examination is better than criticism, and the success of a business sometimes lies in the faults of the person who is running it."

* "Remember the employees and businesses that cut you some slack during rough patches. These relationships will be some of your best assets in the future."

* "You try to get advice from a person who thinks like you do and the person who has the most experience in the field that you are doing business in."

* "You have to realize that in some areas experience is a better teacher than instinct."

* On setting goals: "You always strive for the top, and your goals are to be the best."

* On the importance of doing charity work for organizations such as the Special Olympics: "I think it's very important because those athletes and those who are disadvantaged didn't ask to come into the world like that. It is very rewarding and lets you realize how minute your problems are compared to those that others have."
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Title Annotation:SUCCESS Stories
Author:Gobel, Reyna
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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