One Tough MotherGert Boyle

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Born in Germany, Boyle’s father owned a textile company. But when Hitler came to power, the family fled, moving to Portland, Ore., where her father’s brother already lived. Her father bought a hat company, and thought it needed a modern name that reflected the area: and Columbia Hat Company, named for the Columbia River, was born. It was 1938. After college in Arizona, Gert returned to Portland with her husband, who eventually took over the company. In 1960 Gert designed a fishing vest for them, and the company was renamed to Columbia Sportswear. But in 1970, her husband died. It was their busy season, and shipments had to be made. The next day, Gert took over as Columbia’s president, asking her son Tim to drop out of college to help. “It was either lose everything or go to work, so I went to work,” she said in 2004. “I wasn’t thinking ‘Am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to survive?’ I had to survive.”

A mid-1980s example of the “One Tough Mother” campaign. “I don’t think there is a big difference between women and men in the workplace,” she said in 2008. “The focus should be on hard work and dedication regardless of your gender. I’ve always found that the colleagues that you want to spend your time with aren’t paying attention to your gender. They are paying attention to what you bring to the table.” (Photo: Columbia Sportswear)

The company was struggling: her husband had just taken out a loan before he died. Boyle turned it around: by 1975 Columbia introduced the first-ever Gore-Tex parka, and by 1980 the company was solidly profitable. By 1987 sales hit $18.8 million; sales in 2019 are expected to break $3 billion. As the face of the company, Gert made commercials for Columbia, in 1984 establishing her persona as “One Tough Mother”. “The One Tough Mother ads were designed to make you laugh,” she said in 2017. “Traditionally, the outdoor industry has always been very serious. Tim and I drew upon our real experiences and emotions, and that seemed to relate to people all over the world. I mean, who can’t relate to a nagging mother? We ruffled some feathers over the years, but I never worry about those sensitive types.” The slogan was used as the title of her autobiography, but it’s not just ad hype. “The background of the company is really in many ways based on her toughness in the very early days when my dad died and there weren’t a lot of good reasons to stay in business,” Tim said in 2017 — he was 67 years old at the time. “Her office is right by the door I use to leave, so if I head out of the office on a rare golf date in the afternoon, I get a nasty look or perhaps even a little lecture.”

Gert in 2018 on her 94th birthday, not looking quite so stern. (Photo: Columbia Sportswear)

What did Gert think of her success at the company that’s now worth billions? “It’s not the money,” she said in 2007. “Money doesn’t make you happy, it just allows you to suffer in comfort. It’s the recognition. There weren’t any women running sportswear companies when I started and it’s nice to be recognized for doing this.” Gert had stepped down as President and CEO in 1988, leaving Tim in charge — but she stayed on as Chairman of the Board until she died and, even when she moved to a retirement community in 2010, “She was the only person at the retirement home with a full-time job,” said state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who calls Boyle an “Oregon icon.” Gertrude “Gert” Lamfrom Boyle died November 3, at 95.

From This is True for 3 November 2019