Columbia Sportwear owes its fame to a housewife who found herself in charge of a game of fate. She came from an immigrant family. They had fled Nazi Germany and opened a hat company.
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Her husband had taken over the company founded by his father because women were assigned to other duties at the time. He, with the sincere intention of making it grow, had taken out a mortgage guaranteeing: his own house, the holiday home and even his mother-in-law's house. But just two months after signing he died of a heart attack at just 47 years of age leaving her, who had never had anything to do with the business, only two options. Fail or create a billionaire empire. Guess what he chose?
Today we will meet the woman who managed to save the family business from debt and to become a small hat wholesaler in the world's largest outdoor clothing manufacturer.
Yes, the story I want to tell you today is proof that a housewife, mother of 3 children, without any previous experience in the business, can transform an unknown and bogged down company into debt, into a giant that this year will exceed 3 billion dollars .
Columbia Sportwear was founded in 1938 by Paul Lamform, the father of Gert "Gertrude". Paul and his family were immigrants. They had come to Oregon running away from Nazi Germany because Paul's wife was Jewish.
Arrived in America, they had taken over a resale of wholesale hats, Rosenfeld Hat Co. The company began to produce clothes for hunters, fishermen and skiers only after 1950, out of necessity, because hats were starting to go out of fashion .
Our protagonist, L'energica Gert (or Gertrude) was born in Germany, in Ausburg, in 1924 and arrived in the United States without even knowing the language. But with great determination he had no problem graduating in sociology at Arizona University. Knowing a good and nice Irishman there. He fell in love with him and as soon as possible he became his wife. So Gert met the love of his life, Mr. Neal Boyle, who started running the family business in 1964. Although she didn't like housework or cooking, Gert accepted what was thought to be right for a woman at the time: staying at home, taking care of her 3 children. Gert at the beginning had no formal role within the company apart from suggesting some improvements to the clothes that the company produced by adding pockets to a fisherman's jacket, but all this changed in a short time because in the business the showers luckily they are always around the corner.
Destiny changed his life.
Her husband Neal died suddenly of a heart attack at 47 leaving her alone with daughters and debts. It was December 1970 and Gert was facing a truly terrible moment. Just 2 months earlier, she and Neal had mortgaged their home, the beach house and the house where her mother lived, to secure a $ 150,000 loan that would help grow the company.
Now, without a husband to run the shack what could he have done?
For consultants and lawyers, Gert had no choice: he had to sell the company as soon as possible.
In reality it was not just a question of opportunity and financial convenience: no one wanted a woman in command of a company, it simply was not a thinkable way for the mentality of the time. So she was convinced and the lawyers began preparing the papers for the sale and finding a buyer.
Gert has confided several times that those months were the hardest of her life. Comparable to Hitchcock's The Birds, sales plummeted in those 12 months after her husband's death, water ran down her throat, and she had no other option but to sign the sale. But just when he was holding the pen and was about to sign the sales contract, the buyer tried to further lower the price to $ 1400. At this point, Gert's fortitude came forward: rather than selling it for this paltry amount, it would have led the company to bankruptcy itself. In fact, he didn't have much to lose. Thinking that she would become poor in one way or another, she decided not to give up and fight.
The lawyers and banks did not take the refusal to sell the company well and ordered Gert and his son Tim to repay the debt: they gave him just six months and they immediately looked to the future starting to do a little cleaning in the company: consultants and lawyers were thus fired on the spot, together with a good number of employees who had not shown themselves to be aligned with the changes that Gert wanted to bring, but cutting heads is always an easy thing.
It is replacing them that requires real talent.
Gert succeeded brilliantly by creating an informal board of new consultants who immediately advised the company to reduce the number of products, focusing only on the most promising. Columbia began operating as a contractor, producing for other outdoor brands in order to quickly increase turnover. There was a need to pay off the debts and it was decided to take all the ways that could improve the cash flow in the short term. Sometimes it is necessary to put aside pride and do what needs to be done even if it may seem to be taking steps backwards.
Everyone in the company had to make choices, sometimes easy, sometimes painful. And also Tim, Gert's son, had to do it: he gave up his career as a lawyer and his dream of writing as a journalist to follow the family business full-time. He was in charge of production and day-by-day, while Gert was in charge of full-time marketing. Gert and Tim were not only good (certainly they were) but also lucky. The outdoors in 1970 began to go out of style. Shortly thereafter, new lightweight, waterproof and breathable materials also came out (such as Gore-Tex which pushed outdoor enthusiasts into the shops to update their clothing.
Columbia Sportwear was the first company to marry Gore-Tex. And with the release of the innovative "Bogaboo" ski jacket, which in fact were three jackets in one, the brand entered the hearts of all fans. Every skier wanted a Bogabboo, sales soared and company accounts were finally secured.
With a positive cashflow, there was money to invest in advertising. And Gert, who was in charge of marketing, made his own an adage he had heard many years before and which he still remembered: "early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise".
At the beginning, the money was just enough to advertise on niche publications, less expensive than those for the general public, but things changed when Gert was offered to participate personally as the protagonist of a series of commercials. At the time, all competitors chose young and beautiful models to promote their clothes. Columbia decided to invest in its strongest asset: Gert Boyle was to become the protagonist of the campaigns.
The advertisement presented her as a "one tough mother" who made her son Tim test Columbia clothes under the worst weather conditions and beyond. The son was sometimes thrown into the weather, other times he was passed under the brushes of a car wash, others still thrown from a cliff, or tied to the roof of a car that crosses the Arctic tundra ... advertisements differentiated the company from the competitors, making it unique and memorable, as she herself says.
In the biography of Gert Boyle, entitled, obviously "One Tough mother" you can extract many teachings but what strikes me does not come from the books, but from his example: she is still there to work. He has no intention of retiring: Gert goes to the office every day and still checks every single expense of the company. "If the employee knows that his boss controls every business expense, the employee is more careful and takes more care of what he does." She is convinced of it and in numbers she is right.
How is Columbia Sportwear doing today?
Well, I would say very well, for 2019 the company has launched new products that are estimated to reach 3 billion euros. It remains the largest outdoor manufacturer in the world ... not bad for an inexperienced woman who should not have been involved in a "men's" business.
Columbia became a leader because it innovated and invested in research and development.
All innovative technologies, modern fabrics and interesting inventions that have made the brand important for all outdoor enthusiasts.
Now it is clear, then these inventions have also been able to communicate them. Because I have known companies that are not as good, companies that live in fear of being copied and that hide their innovations in the safe thinking that the customer appreciates and understands them "spontaneously" ... if ... the customer must be told the beautiful things that they do. Mica patents can be closed in the drawer pending their lapse ...