One Tough Mother Crafts
Global Sportswear Success
By Fred Delkin
"Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise." -- GB
Can it be the water hereabouts that nurtures worldwide success in sportswear
creation and marketing? One might think so when you consider the impact
Oregon-grown products have had on our planet's athletic and recreatonal endeavors.
Nike burst onto the sportswear scene in 1970, at the same time that a lesser
Oregon-based firm was struggling to survive. It has, and Columbia Sportswear now
approaches $2 billion in net sales through 13,000 retailers in 72 nations on 6
continents. Columbia has over 2,700 folks on the corporate payroll, including
Columbia's meteoric rise can be ascribed to the reaction
of "one tough mother" (as the company's brilliant advertising
has christened Gert Boyle) to the sudden, unexpected death at
47 in 1970 of her husband Neal, who was running her parents'
modest company. Immigrants Paul and Marie Lamfrom left Nazi
Germany in 1937 with Gert, 13, and her two young sisters after
selling their small shirt manufacturing business. Paul started
a new business in Portland, naming it after the river
that flowed past the Rose City. The Columbia plant beneath
the St. John's bridge produced and sold hats, suspenders, caps
and socks, and when Gert's husband took over, began to supply
outerwear to skiers, fishermen and hunters ("the outdoor
person" as Gert describes the customer base).
Gert assumed control of Columbia and refused buyout offers, though the firm was
saddled with sizeable bank loans. She brought her college student son, Tim, into
the company and the rest is history, as the saying goes. Gert describes her
firm's success as "listening to our customers and making what they want."
Columbia sales were $3 million annually in 1984. Now the firm is the leading
skiwear producer in the USA and among the world leaders in sportswear sales.
A Family Image
Gert is a devotee of creating an advertising image as a backbone for customer
relations. She approved the launch of Columbia's current advertising approach
back in 1984, when Portland advertising agency, Borders, Perrin & Norander,
conceived communications that project Columbia as a family-run operation with
a mother and her son guaranteeing customer satisfaction. The first print ad
declared that a Columbia product "before it passes Mother Nature, it has to pass
Mother Boyle." While other sportswear companies concentrate on showing firm young
bodies in action, humor is the key ingredient for Columbia's efforts. A national
print ad for socks declares "Made from Virgin Wool, as compared to sheep that
(photo: Gert's son, Tim, loves his mom.)
All five foot, three inches of Gert projects the tough mother
image to guarantee Columbia product quality. Though the
family-run image dominates, Columbia is now listed on the
national stock market. Ma Boyle, 83, goes to work daily and
answers her own snail and e-mail.
Serious technology adds backbone to Columbia product success.
The firm has trademarked and registered manufacturing
techniques that include "Omnishade" clothing offering sun
protection in the warmest conditions, "Omni-dry" wicking
and sweat-evaporating clothing that keeps the wearer cool
and dry, "Omni-tech" that offers waterproof/breathable protection for varying
needs, "Techlite" lightweight cushioning for footwear and an "Interchange" system
that combines waterproof breathable shells with inner liners for warmth. This
technology was launched decades ago with the introduction of the Bugaboo ski jacket
with three layers, each removable and an all-time sales leader in its category.
Community involvement policy
Columbia supports organizations both worldwide and locally that provide community
goals. A "Rethreads" program provides garments that are returned or slightly
flawed but still wearable. The firm is a member of the Conservation Alliance
group of outdoor businesses supplying conservation and environmental funding.
Columbia sponsors winter sports athletes in the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan,
funding men and women competitors in downhill and Nordic skiing, snowboarding
Wholly-owned Columbia subsidiaries operate in Canada and Japan. Columbia family
brands include Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Pacific Trail and Sorel, in addition
to Columbia. Product diversifcation is now rampant, covering a complete array of
sportswear, camping equipment, belts, handbags, home furnishings, watches,
outdoor tools,sunglasses and footwear including waders, boots and sandals.
Columbia has followed Nike into Washington county with a headquarters campus
just off U.S. highway 26 near Sunset highschool.
It is interesting to note that this flagship of capitalist success moved from
its original quarters in St. John's to a suburban site after the Vera Katz Portland
city administration threw up ridiculous roadblocks to the Boyles' desire to develop
a headquarters campus on largely unused property adjacent to the Oregon Museum of
Science & Industry on the Willamette River bank (most of it still undeveloped a
Just another salient example of our local politicians' misunderstanding of what
drives economic development. Columbia does grace downtown Portland with a
flagship store on SW Broadway and has outlet stores in Sellwood and Lake
Oswego in the metro area.
© 2008 Oregon Magazine