This Grandma Wants To Keep The World Warm

They told Gertrude Boyle, 70, that she might not play well in Tokyo. The grandmother and businesswoman owns Columbia Sportswear Co., an outerwear company based in Portland, Ore. She's the star of Columbia's commercials, which depict her as a tough-talking matriarch who runs roughshod over her son, Tim, 45, the company's CEO. American audiences love the spots, which were crucial to turning Boyle's fledgling company into the world's largest manufacturer of outdoor apparel. But Columbia's Japanese distributor worried that shoppers would find "Mother Gert" offensive. Boyle persuaded them otherwise. Now, Columbia's jackets are best-sellers in Japan.

The global craze for the rugged look is driving sales at family-owned Columbia. The company has captured 30% of the outdoor apparel business in the U.S. and is trying to conquer new markets overseas, where sales have tripled to roughly $30 million in the past two years. Overall revenues are expected to jump 38% this year, to $265 million, and Boyle projects they'll hit $340 million in 1995. Columbia's sporty gear crosses demographic and party lines: Suburban preppies cherish Columbia's midpriced ski jackets, while inner-city African Americans prize its baggy raincoats. Presidents Bush and Carter both wear Columbia's multipocketed fishing vests.

SHANGHAI SHOP. Fueled by Boyle's tenacity, shrewd marketing gambits, and willingness to mock herself in ads, Columbia is trying to become to outdoor apparel what Nike is to sneakers: The most recognized brand in the world. To get there, Boyle has been speeding up the company's international push. Sales in France are expected to hit $2.5 million this year and double to $5 million in 1995, from nothing in 1993. Revenues in Japan, Australia, and Canada have doubled every two years. In the next few months, Columbia will open a shop in Shanghai. Boyle's "Tough Mother" image works almost everywhere, though the "Born to Nag" tattoo she sports in some ads proved impossible to translate. "I don't think women have to be bitches to get things accomplished," says Boyle. "But you also can't run scared."

Boyle knows plenty about running scared. She and her family fled Nazi Germany when she was 13 and emigrated to Oregon. There, her parents founded Columbia Hat Co. Boyle's husband, Neal, took the company over in 1964, while Gert stayed home to raise their three children. When her husband died in 1970, the bank called the company's loan. Desperate, Gert borrowed against her $50,000 life-insurance policy to stave off bankruptcy and went to work.

Her first year as CEO, Columbia's sales fell from $800,000 to $600,000. "We made mistakes like you wouldn't believe," she says. Boyle hired Tim, then 21, and fired some of her best employees because they wouldn't listen to her. "In those days, they thought women didn't know anything about running a business," says Boyle. The company chugged along, selling jackets and hats to hunters and fishermen. Sales hit $9.4 million in 1982. Then Columbia introduced a jacket with a zip-out lining that could be worn separately. Now known as the Bugaboo parka, it became a best-seller because of its warmth and $150 price tag--a bargain next to North Face and Patagonia jackets, which top $300.

BUGABOO BACKUP. But the real coup came in 1983. Columbia's ad agency, Borders, Perrin & Norrander Inc., based in Portland, persuaded the Boyles to launch a humorous campaign portraying Gert as a glowering battle-ax. Viewers loved the results. In one commercial, Gert forced Tim to walk through a car wash to demonstrate the jacket's waterproofing. In a new spot, Tim almost commits matricide by "accidentally" pushing Gert off a cliff. He rescues her by knotting together the shell and liner of his Bugaboo parka and pulling her up, testimony to the jacket's resilience. Columbia spent $6 million on TV and magazine ads this year.

Besides good ads, Columbia got a boost from the decision by rivals to remain niche players. While Patagonia and North Face position themselves as top-of-the-line outfitters for extreme conditions, the Boyles cheerfully admit that their gear uon't withstand Arctic temperatures--so it's cheaper. "If you went to the North Pole, you wouldn't take my stuff," says Gert. "Don't!" she warns. "Because you'll die."

In Portland, Gert and Tim strive to reach $1 billion in sales but have brushed aside offers to take Columbia public. Earnings run 15% of sales, roughly $35 million this year. For now, the Boyles see no reason to share the wealth. "Frankly, with employees and customers yelling at you, who needs stockholders yelling at you?," says Tim. Especially when your boss is already one tough mother.

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