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Talking with One Tough Mother

Gertrude Boyle, affectionately known as "Gert," is not your typical entrepreneur -- let alone company chairman. She had no interest in business and was rather content raising her three children while her husband ran the family business -- a small outdoor-clothing concern for hunters, skiers, and fishermen called Columbia Sportswear (COLM), founded by her father in 1938. But her husband, Neil Boyle, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1970, leaving his wife and three children a growing enterprise saddled with debt.

Gert had earned a degree in sociology from the University of Arizona, but just about the only financial experience she had was her monthly ritual of throwing all the bills across the living room and paying the one that flew the farthest. But the spirited woman learned the ropes quickly. Her first big decision was to fire the bankers and advisers who urged her to sell the company. When she realized she would only make $1,400 off the sale, Gert told the prospective buyer, "for that kind of money, I'll run the company into the ground myself."

The rest, of course, is history. Since taking over in 1971, the now publicly traded company's sales have ballooned from $600,000 to $1 billion today. And the 81-year-old matriarch, who recently penned One Tough Mother: Success in Life, Business, and Apple Pies, is showing no sign of slowing down.

BusinessWeek correspondent Stanley Holmes recently caught up with Gert Boyle to take a look back at her experiences building Columbia from the ground up. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: Tragedy forced you to take over the company, almost overnight, with no experience. Why did you stick with it?

A: At age 47, my husband had a heart attack and died. We had borrowed $150,000 in September and my husband died in December. I said I didn't have the money, but I would work it off. We had pledged our house, our vacation house, my mother's house, and life insurance to prevent the SBA [Small Business Administration] from calling in the loan.

I figured I was going to be poor one way or the other, and I decided to fight for it. I was blessed with a big mouth. When my husband died, we had sales of $800,000, and after the first year, we had $600,000 in sales.

We fired the attorneys, accountants, and started all over again. You can't have a business without a team. It can't have an "I" in it. A team is a "We." My advisers then were more interested in what was good for them, not for me. They advised me to hire people to work for me that knew less than I did, which was nothing.

Q: What was the turning point at Columbia?

A: During the '70s, everyone started wearing outdoor and more relaxed clothing. Then we were the first people to do Gore-Tex, and people started to vacation more in the outdoors.

Our biggest break: We made a hunting coat called a Quad. We designed a coat that's two-in-one -- [you could] take off the inner liner. That was so successful that we did it for skiers and called it the Bugaboo and produced 7 million. It was priced very favorably. It was two jackets in one: a liner and a shell. That was in 1982, and it was retailing for about $60. It just flew out the door. That was our foot in the door. I believe they have one in the Smithsonian.

Q: Looking back, what kind of advice would you give people who want to start a business now?

A: You've got to go to work every day and listen to what your customers want and not what you want to do. At my age, I would want to make gray slacks and navy blue trousers, but that's not what people are wearing now. You have to listen to your customers. We involve our customers a lot in the design and manufacturing.

Q: What was it like as a woman working in what was then a male-dominated industry?

A: Well, it wasn't until later in the '80s that we discovered women and started designing outdoor clothing for them. That helped our business a lot. But in the early days, it was a different time. I remember once when I got a call from a male customer who said he wanted to speak to the president. I said, "Speaking," but he said, "You're a woman." I said "I know, I noticed that when I woke up this morning."

Q: What advice would you give young women entrepreneurs today?

A: Go for it! There are the good ol' boys who will let you play the game but won't tell you the rules. It's not nearly as tough as it used to be. I think it's tougher to work with women than it is men, because men are more willing to be mentors and a lot of women have fought so hard to get to the top of the ladder that they don't want to let anyone else in.

Q: How is Columbia doing today?

A: We passed a billion dollars in sales in 2004. We're in 61 international markets, and we have 2,000 people. The product today is our successful outerwear company, and we have Sorel shoes, we own Mountain Hardware -- that's a high-tech sleeping bag, tent, and clothing company. It's going great guns.

Q: Any parting words of wisdom for budding entrepreneurs?

A: You have to work at it every day -- it's a very dog-eat-dog world out there. And listen to the people getting you to the plate. Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.

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