By now the mere sight of a company CEO making like a pitchman no longer startles. There’s Lee lacocca touting Chrysler cars, Frank Perdue hawking his chickens, Victor Kiam standing stalwart behind Remington shavers. But then there is also Mother Gert, and she still can serve up an attention-getting surprise or two. With her signature half-glasses propped on her nose, she glowers from the advertising pages of some of America’s glossiest magazines. “One minute she’s calm; next minute she’s raging,” says one of her ads. “She’s good at edicts,” says another. Mother Gert, the message seems to be, may be cantankerous and contentious, but she is also a straight-talking matriarch who overflows with integrity.
In real life she is Gert Boyle, the 65-year-old board chairman of the Columbia Sportswear Co. in Portland, Ore. And truth to tell, her public persona is not entirely tongue-in-cheek. “Gert likes to consider herself the toughest lady in the Western hemisphere,” says her son, Tim Boyle, 40. “But she’s a pretty soft touch.” And Tim should know: He is Columbia Sportswear’s president and his mother’s good-natured foil in ad campaigns.
The company makes a full line of outdoor apparel—serious, rugged stuff like parkas and gloves for fishermen, hunters and skiers, and starting this fall, outfits for windsurfers and joggers. So on items such as fishing vests, the company’s premier product, Mother Gert may very well know best. Proof? First Fisherman George Bush (who redeemed his reputation by finally catching something on the very last day of his vacation) has worn one of Mother’s vests in the past, a gift from a friend. Specifically, his was($56). And this isn’t the first time that Gert has hooked a President. Former First Fisherman Jimmy Carter started wearing a Columbia vest 10 years ago.
Such high-level endorsements are thoroughly pleasing to Mother Gert, whose company expects to ring up $78 million in sales this year. And the wide acceptance of the company’s products is all the more remarkable because the firm’s chief spokeswoman doesn’t fish, hunt, windsurf or jog. But then, until the sudden death of her husband in 1970, she had never managed a business either.
Gert Boyle, though, is nothing if not tenacious. Her father, Paul Lamfrom, owned a large shirt factory in Augsburg, Germany. But with the rise of the Nazis, Lamfrom, his wife, Marie, and their three daughters, Gertrude, Eva and Hildegard, fled their homeland in 1937. They resettled in Portland, where Lamfrom bought a wholesale hat-and-sock company. For fear of potential prejudice, he renamed it Columbia to mask its Jewish ownership.
Gert was 13 at the time and spoke not a word of English. So she was enrolled in the first grade at school, though she was at least a head taller than any of her classmates. “There are few things so humiliating as having a teacher tell a 13-year-old girl when it’s time to go to the bathroom,” she remembers. Halting English and all, Gert soon managed to have herself jumped to the seventh grade.
She eventually entered the University of Arizona. There, at a fraternity party in 1946, sheen-countered Neal Boyle, who was quaffing a beer under a table. Despite the unpropitious introduction and the difference in their faiths—he was a Roman Catholic—they married two years later. After graduation they returned to Portland, where Neal went to work for his father-in-law. The couple started a family: Tim; Kathy, now 38; and Sally, 29. All three children were sent to Catholic schools. “They should have called me Mother Shapiro,” Gert says jokingly, “because I was the schools’ only Jewish mother.”
Neal Boyle was an avid fisherman, and through his encouragement, Gert designed the company’s first vest in 1960. (“It had 2 million pockets,” she exaggerates. “You could go shoplifting in it.”) Neal also became the head of the company after his father-in-law’s death in 1963. But one morning in 1970 Neal, then 47, woke up with chest pains. He died in the car as Gert drove frantically to a hospital.
She was now in charge of a family business she knew little about. “Of course I wasn’t qualified,” recalls Gert, who asked Tim to come home from the University of Oregon on weekends to help. Together they nearly ran Columbia into the ground. Sales dropped from $1 million a year to half that. “We made every mistake in the books, fired everyone who knew anything about the business,” Tim says. “The good went out with the bad.”
Once, when Gert Boyle was eager to impress a banker to get a loan, she went to his office with a freshly cleaned coat draped over her arm. Only after she returned home did she notice five sets of nylon underwear clinging to the coat, attached by static electricity. But the banker was a gentleman. When she later called him, he chuckled and approved her loan.
Gradually the Boyles brought Columbia back to solvency, then to prosperity. They were pioneers in the use of the high-tech fabric Gore-Tex in hunting jackets. And sales took off in 1982 when Columbia introduced its Interchange System, in which the outer garment and removable liner may be worn together or separately. In 1968 the company sold 3,000 jackets of all types; this year it expects to sell 2 million. Columbia should also command 60 percent of the U.S. fishing-vest market.
Last year Mother Gert officially turned over the presidency of Columbia Sportswear to Tim. But as the major stockholder, she still reigns over the board, counts the money and signs every paycheck for her company’s 408 employees. She could retire quite comfortably and spend her time tooling about town in her bright-red BMW convertible, but she sees no reason to take it easy. “Oh, God, I’d just stay home and eat, and who needs that?” she says in mock despair of her tendency to put on weight. “Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning,” she adds, and in her life as in her business Gert Boyle still has other fish to fry.
—Harriet Shapiro, Diane S. Lund in Portland