Magazine article Success

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

Magazine article Success

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

Article excerpt

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?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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