Gert Gets the Last Laugh

Ex-housewife Gert Boyle turned her late husband's indebted outerwear maker into a powerhouse

When Gertrude Boyle's husband died of a heart attack in 1970, he left behind three children, a growing but heavily indebted sportswear company, and a wife who knew nothing about managing the family business. Not surprisingly, banks and creditors were not keen on having a housewife run troubled Columbia Sportswear Co. (COLM ). They forced Mrs. Boyle to find a buyer. But when she sat down and learned that she would make only $1,400 off the sale, she told the potential buyer, "for that kind of money, I'll run the company into the ground myself."

That was 32 years ago, and in the intervening decades, plainspoken Gertrude Boyle, 78, known as "Gert," and her son, CEO Timothy Boyle, 52, have thrived. The two, who are featured in the company's humorous "Mother Boyle" ads, have made Columbia into one of the world's largest outdoor apparel manufacturers. This year, it ranks No. 15 on our Hot Growth list.

Columbia benefited from the rapid expansion of the outdoor-sportswear market. But the Boyles also managed the opportunity well, producing quality clothing at lower prices than competitors Patagonia and North Face. "Our garments are well manufactured and affordable," Mrs. Boyle says. And highly profitable. While Columbia's revenues grew an average 23% annually over the past three years, earnings have climbed even faster, rising 43% a year. Its shares, which went public at a split-adjusted $18 in 1998, now fetch about $37.

Gert Gets the Last Laugh

To get those results, Boyle, now chairman, has had to make a lot of tough choices. With son Tim, then only 21, as her business partner, Boyle's first step was to clean house. She fired nearly all of her roughly 55 employees. Gert and Tim focused on listening to customers and innovating. That came naturally to Gert, who as a young wife in 1955 had sewn the company's first fishing vest at her kitchen table after her husband's buddies asked for something with more pockets to store flies, pliers, and line. Says Tim: "Our research doesn't rely on a design ivory tower or lab. We talk to our customers about what they want to buy, and we make it."

The result was innovative designs such as their Quad jackets for hunters, which feature a weatherproof outershell and an insulating inner jacket that can be worn together or separately, and their similarly styled Bugaboo ski jacket, which has sold in the millions. Creative marketing includes the "Mother Boyle" ad campaign, which paints the chairman as a tyrant who makes sure the company's jackets and pants can stand up to her tough standards as well as Oregon's legendary bad weather. Gert's favorite line from the ads: "Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill." Since the campaign began in 1984, sales have grown from $3 million to $784.8 million in the most recent 12 months.

But the Boyle team is facing a new challenge. A warm winter and the U.S. recession have conspired to slow Columbia's red-hot growth rate to a cool 2% to 4% this year. "The chances for much upside this fall and winter are pretty slim," says Ragen MacKenzie analyst Laurie Breidenbach. To compensate, Columbia is trying to lessen its reliance on weather-related clothing, now nearly 52% of its business. Tim is aggressively pushing into footwear, sportswear, and overseas markets, including Europe. And Mother Boyle? Despite her age, the chairman says she has no intention of retiring. When an investor asked her son what will happen after Gert dies, Tim displayed his mother's spirit: "We'll just have her stuffed," he said.

By Stanley Holmes in Seattle

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