Gert Boyle, a German-born businesswoman who built the billion-dollar Columbia Sportswear Co. and starred in its ads as “One Tough Mother,” died Sunday in Portland, Oregon. She was 95.
Her son, Timothy Boyle, confirmed the death, in an assisted living facility.
A charismatic figure known for her wry sense of humor, Boyle had taken over the company from her husband, Joseph Boyle, who was known as Neal, after he died of a heart attack in 1970. Columbia Sportswear was a small company in debt. Gert Boyle was 46 and had spent her life raising three children. But she decided to take the helm when her bank encouraged her to take an offer of only $1,400 for the company.
“For 1,400 dollars, I would just as soon as run this business into the ground myself,” she recalled saying to a local business executive in her 2005 memoir, “One Tough Mother: Taking Charge in Life, Business, and Apple Pies.”
Boyle, becoming president and chairwoman, soon repositioned the company as one that offered sportswear for everyone, not just experienced athletes. She knew that as a middle-aged woman she was an unusual president, so she made herself the face of Columbia, starring in a print and television ad campaign as the Tough Mother who stood stone-faced as she oversaw absurdist product tests on her son (dropping him out of a helicopter, strapping him to the roof of her car).
Columbia Sportswear flourished, becoming the largest outerwear brand and leading seller of ski wear in the United States. When Boyle took over the company, it was recording about $800,000 in sales a year (the equivalent of about $5.4 million today). Last year the company, which is now run by her son, Tim, and employs more than 7,800 people, earned $2.8 billion in revenue.
“If someone asked me to swim a mile, I would tell them I couldn’t,” Boyle wrote. “But if someone took me out on a boat and pushed me into the ocean a mile from shore, you better believe I would start swimming.”
Gertrude Lamfrom was born on March 6, 1924, in Augsburg, Germany, to Paul and Marie Lamfrom. Her father ran a shirt factory there. When she was 13, with the Nazis in power, she and her family, who were Jewish, fled Germany for the United States and settled in Portland.
Her father soon bought a small business there, the Rosenfeld Hat Co. Because he felt that the company’s Jewish-sounding name could pose a risk, he decided to change it. Opening the phone book, he noticed that a lot of businesses took their name from the river that runs through Portland. Following suit, he renamed the business the Columbia Hat Co.
Boyle and her two sisters would work there putting hat boxes together.
After graduating from high school, Boyle enrolled at the University of Arizona, where she studied sociology. She met her husband there at a fraternity party.
Back in Portland, hats were losing popularity, but her father could see that hunting, fishing and skiing were not. The company began manufacturing ski gloves and became Columbia Sportswear.
Boyle and her husband moved back to Oregon, and he began working for the company in the 1950s, taking over as president in 1964 when her father died. Gert Boyle worked in the home.
When she took over the company in 1970 after her husband’s death, Boyle brought along her young son to be her right-hand man.
“I was a housewife and a mother, and Tim was a 21-year-old college student, when fate put us at the helm of Columbia,” she wrote. “While we may not have had business experience, we did have tenacity.”
She had to quickly piece together how the business was run.
“We had absolutely no clue what was going on,” she wrote. “We searched Neal’s desk, hoping to find a document that would provide some guidance on the day-to-day operations of the business, but only found a few notes that made no sense.”
Some people around her doubted that a woman could run a company. Many suggested that she bring on a male executive. She wrote: “I could still hear the businessman who, upon learning that I was president of the company, proclaimed, ‘But you’re a woman.’ My response to him? ‘You know, I noticed that when I got up this morning.’”
After her first year in charge, sales were continuing to fall and Boyle had to lay people off. She began manufacturing products for other brands. She outsourced to Asia. While other outdoors jackets were selling for $300, Columbia aimed for $100.
“Our competitors were selling their products only to stores specializing in hunting or skiing products and patronized by committed outdoors enthusiasts,” she wrote. “They considered it beneath them to have their products seen in large department stores such as J.C. Penney’s or Sears. We had no such qualms.”
The numbers turned around.
And then, in 1984, came the ad campaign that would make her famous as the Tough Mother who stamped products with the label “Tested Tough.”
There she was in a magazine ad standing, arms akimbo, glasses on, lips pursed. There was a parka next to her. The ad copy read: “Protective, but not overly warm. Just like the parka.”
In another ad, the tagline was “When you are as old as the hills, you tend to know what to wear in them.” In yet another, Boyle, all of 5 feet 3 inches tall, stood at a bar next to some tough-looking customers. She was flexing her right bicep to show off a tattoo that read, “Born to Nag.”
For their first national TV ad in 1990, she put her son through a carwash to prove the durability of their outwear. In another, she shot him with a blow dart. The gist: Here was an exacting mother testing the company gear.
In announcing the opening of a flagship retail store, a print advertisement used just a picture of Boyle’s face — her glasses down the bridge of her nose, a cigar burning in one hand, as she stared straight at the camera, unimpressed.
“The tall, thin and blond models in our competitors’ ads may be easier on the eyes,” she wrote, “but they don’t care about you like good old Mother Boyle.”
Her tenacity extended to her personal life. Kerry Tymchuk, the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, recalled the day a home invader tried to rob Boyle, and she managed to press a silent panic button to alert the police. She survived the assault with bruises and a bloody lip.
When the police chief of her town, West Linn, a Portland suburb, came by to see how she was holding up, Boyle told him, “I was doing just fine until you came in with that North Face jacket on.”
Her wit was on display in a series of business mottos — Gert-isms, as they were known — among them “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise” and “Go fast and the wrinkles don’t show.”
As her wealth increased, she began giving money away. In 2015 she made her largest gift: $100 million to the Knight Cancer Institute, a Portland-based research institute that is part of Oregon Health & Science University.
“Gert wanted to be anonymous about that gift, and a number of us urged her to be public, to demonstrate that here’s this successful, powerful woman who has the capacity to participate at that level of philanthropy,” recalled Betsy Johnson, an Oregon state senator and a longtime friend.
“All the stories were true — the North Face, the philanthropy, the humor — the public Gert and the private Gert were exactly the same person,” Johnson said. “Self-effacing, acerbic, encouraging, cajoling.”
In addition to her son, Boyle is survived by two daughters, Kathy Deggendorfer, an artist and real estate investor, and Sally Bany, a co-owner of Moonstruck Chocolates, an artisanal chocolate producer based in Portland; and five grandchildren.
Boyle, who did not remarry, kept going to the office even as she grew older and moved into a retirement community.
“I have always believed that experience is an asset, and that older workers are of great value to a business,” she wrote. “Perhaps my presence in the office offers a message that managers who like to put older workers out to pasture are out to lunch.”
She added: “And when my time comes, I might just keep coming to work. Tim has long said that when I go, he’s going to have me stuffed and permanently placed in the entryway of our headquarters. That suits me just fine — as long as I’m dressed head to toe in Columbia products.”