Canzano: Celebrating one... tough... mother
Gert Boyle would have turned 99 this week.
Monday was Gert Boyle’s birthday. She would have turned 99. Boyle died a few years ago. Her son, Tim, told me on Tuesday morning: “Still miss her like crazy.”
Did you know Gert?
Do you know her story?
She built the billion-dollar empire that became Columbia Sportswear Company. I’d read all about it. I’d heard all about Gert’s heart, brains and grit from others. But I didn’t really know her genius until a couple of years ago when I asked her son what his mother was like.
Tim was in college when his father, Neal, died of a heart attack in Dec. 1970. Columbia was barely hanging on. The banks closed in. Gert — a middle-aged mother of three — took over operations and made a go of it.
“We had absolutely no clue what was going on,” she wrote in her memoir. “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.”
Over the years, I heard amazing stories about the woman who served as president and chairwoman of Columbia. She was just 13, for instance, when the Nazis seized power in Germany. Gert and her family, who were Jewish, fled to the United States and settled in Oregon. And she was an 86-year-old grandmother, living alone in the Portland suburbs, when she foiled a kidnapping attempt in 2010.
On that occasion, she arrived home to find a man dressed in black clothes standing in her driveway. He offered a fruit basket. She refused. Then, the stranger took out a copy of her book — One Tough Mother — and asked Boyle to sign it.
When she declined, he pulled a gun, pointed at the back of her neck and ordered the chairwoman of Columbia into her house. She was tied up. Her lip was bloodied. The criminal and two accomplices wanted ransom. But it turns out, the kidnappers should have probably read Gert’s book and saved themselves the trouble.
Even at 5-foot-3, she made a lousy mark. Boyle outsmarted the attackers, telling the lead kidnapper she needed to turn off her alarm system. Then, she pressed the silent panic button, alerting police. The trio of criminals were after a quick payday, but they got 14, nine and six years in prison instead.
The night of the kidnapping incident, the police chief stopped by the house to check on her. When he came through the door, the chief found Gert seated at the kitchen table winding down with a cocktail.
“How are you doing?” the chief asked her.
She shot back: “I was doing fine until you came in wearing a f***ing North Face jacket.”
That’s Gert, folks.
Brave and smart at 13. Same in her 80s. It’s the years in between I didn’t know much about. But her son told me a small part of the Columbia story last year. His mother had to be terrified in the early 1970s. Her husband was gone. The company was teetering. The business model was broken. The grieving wife and her children had maybe six months to fix it, lest Columbia cease operations.
One of the bankers suggested Gert talk with a fellow Oregon entrepreneur who was building a sneaker empire in Beaverton. Phil Knight and his team had figured out how to outsource production. Nike was knee-deep in Asia, sourcing materials and labor. In a twist of fate, one burgeoning billionaire helped grow another by explaining how he was doing business. That talk — and her guts and brains — helped save Columbia.
Gert died in 2019. She was 95. Tim is now the president and CEO. But his mother’s fingerprints are still all over the family business. Those old marketing campaigns were unforgettable, weren’t they? So, too, is the lesson that she left us with.
Gert Boyle adapted. She found a way. She fought for her family, raised her children, manufactured quality products, and employed tens of thousands of people over the years. Columbia reported a record $3.5 billion in sales in 2022. Gert didn’t just resurrect Columbia Sportswear, she became its brand.
Her son misses her. So do her other children and a line of grandchildren, close friends and loyal employees, I’m sure. The Pacific Northwest sure was lucky to have her around for so long.
Those glasses on the bridge of her nose.
Cigar burning in her hand.
Gert Boyle really was one… tough… mother.
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