Gert Boyle, 1924–2019
The ‘tough mother’ who led an outerwear giant
After her husband died of a heart attack in 1970, Gert Boyle suddenly found herself in charge of the family company, Columbia Sportswear. The stay-at-home mother of three had no business experience, and bankers were soon pushing her to offload the struggling outdoor-clothing firm. But when she discovered that she’d get a mere $1,400 for Columbia, Boyle declared that for that amount, “I’ll drive it into the ground myself!” Together with her college-age son, Tim, she repositioned the Oregon-based company as a maker of affordable ski jackets and waterproof garb, and became the face of Columbia. In ads, Boyle was portrayed as “One Tough Mother” who made sure her outerwear was always up to grade. In one TV commercial, she strapped Tim to the roof of a car and drove through mud and rain; in a print spot, she flexed a bicep with a tattoo that read “Born to Nag.” The absurdist ads made Boyle famous and helped turn Columbia from a regional player to a $3 billion colossus.
She was born in Augsburg, Germany, to a wealthy Jewish family that owned a shirt factory, said The Wall Street Journal. When she was 13, her family fled the Nazis and settled in Portland, Ore., where her father bought the Rosenfeld Hat Co. “Thinking Americans might dislike a foreign-sounding name, he searched the phone book for ideas” and picked Columbia. Boyle worked there as a youngster putting hat boxes together, and after graduating high school enrolled at the University of Arizona, where she met her future husband, Neal Boyle. He joined her family’s firm in the 1950s “and took over as president in 1964 when her father died,” said The New York Times. Following Neal’s death, sales plummeted, and Boyle and her son had to quickly rethink the business. They began outsourcing to Asia and started selling outdoor jackets for $100—a third of the typical price. By the early 1980s, “the numbers turned around.”
Boyle stepped down as president in 1988, “making way for her son,” said The Washington Post. But she remained active in business and philanthropy into her 90s, regularly visiting the Columbia office to sign company checks and donating $100 million for cancer research at Oregon Health & Science University. She refused to have a college building named after her. “If I’m going to have my name on any cement,” she said, “I’ll probably be under it.” ■